Nose Bleed

by Stanley W. Baxton profile

2022

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Oh hey! A metaphor I think I got! One I could apply to life, too!, January 22, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Nose Bleed was my clear favorite of the Texture games I played in IFComp, and I feel it is likely very worth the relatively little time to play through it. The bits that necessitate the content warning are not just there for street cred, too--they provide the right sort of discomfort, not "look how I can gross people out" but more "yeah, I've been there, even if I couldn't have admitted it before I started." The metaphor for the gore is pretty clear. Or, well, the main one I saw.

NB starts off as a "my lousy job" entry (an upper-class one, perhaps, but still lousy) which quickly aims for meaningful absurdism which, from my perspective, hits the mark. There are graphics at the right places, with some sort of vector-ish effect. Given the game's title, it's not too much of a spoiler to mention there are small blood splashes and lines of blood running down. Gritty realism in the blood trails is absent but unnecessary: the trailing line is straight, and the splashes are perfect circles.

This all leads to a puzzle at the end which may feel old hat or a cop-out once Texture is more mature, perhaps the Twine version of "pick the right link in a whoe maze of them." However, since I haven't played many Texture games, it's extremely effective, and if it does become a cliche, I'm glad it wasn't when I played NB. You feel as though you're fumbling in the dark for an escape, and it's the reason a walkthrough is included in the game. Even if you know what to do at the end, you don't quite know what to do.

This makes NB as much more than a "my lousy job" or "I hate my co-workers" fly-by. Details are left out on purpose. You have spontaneous nosebleeds. You try to ignore them. You fail. They stop, soon enough, but the damage is done. Someone notices. They pin you down a bit. They may be a competitor, or a supervisor. There's a flashback. Expensive fabrics are involved. No matter what you do, it feels like you did the wrong thing. You'd like to run away or explain yourself or feel too cool to, but "you are too cowardly to be cowardly."

I've had few nosebleeds in real life, but I've picked a zit at the wrong time and not noticed I'd cut myself shaving until I got to work. Okay, I noticed before, but I thought I'd stopped the blood. But of course the blood in NB isn't just blood. I think we all have that area where we feel completely socially incapable, and we can't shake it, and the narrator does, too. There's that awful secret we don't want revealed, but if we take deliberate steps to cover it, someone could play detective and eventually figure what we were trying to cover. We worry we might be embarrassing others. Or ourselves. And yet, the people most likely to mention we are embarrassing them, well, they seem to be embarrassing us back, right? For me the story built to a very plausible "embarrass or be embarrassed" scenario. It brought to mind a lot of people who could on the one hand say "this hurts me more than it hurts you" and "you're embarrassing yourself more than you're embarrassing me, but it's still too much."

The ending may be open to interpretation, and perhaps it's the sort of surprise twist that isn't a surprise if you've read or played enough, but one part is very clear: the final person berating you spontaneously gets nosebleeds, too. This reminded me of people who said "Oh, X who is mocking you has their problems, too, you know, so don't judge them too harshly." It isn't clear how harshly we should judge X. But certainly there's latitude for saying, enough, already. Some people can't, or they can't point out others' obvious flaws, or don't want to, or it isn't in good taste. Or perhaps X had seemed to learn to deal with their own phobias, with jokes. Or perhaps X was someone on an Internet forum or twitter or wherever who was up front about their social anxiety, so up front they'd note other people didn't have nearly the barriers they did, so you all really need to stop whining for your own good. In any case, the big reveal allowed me to dislike my antagonist without judgment. On replay, I realized that was the sort of person I'd like to be indifferent to, and I've gotten better over the years.

These are my somewhat filtered-for-review thoughts. Nose Bleed's crisp presentation brought moments of where adults may even have told me "X has problems too!" I felt guilty wanting to call these people out and failing, mean at how I wanted to lash out, and cowardly because I didn't. The author isn't explicit about their sympathies, though I suspect they lean towards the player. You do have to note people like your assailant have their own problems, but they also have to fix them, and if they assert power over you, why should you help them?

Given all this, NB was much better than someone very, very well-meaning saying "oh you know bullies are empty inside" or "they only pick on you out of insecurity" or even "I understand, but don't let it get you down!" And I realized something else: it doesn't resort to ALL CAPS, which is such a temptation when discussing social anxiety and, I'd guess, a metaphoric nosebleed on its own.

I had several short reflections mid-game of saying oh geez yes it can be horrible like this. But then I had a much quicker bounce-back than I might have had ten years ago. There were people from my past the antagonist reminded me of. I didn't have things like NB to help me take a step back and see through their charades. It's too late to push back at them, but at least NB helps me push them further out of my mind. Looking back on the blurb, it's hard not to laugh at the experience of playing NB and, yes, at some people who said something similar years ago.