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A compelling but not fully successful portrait of mourning, December 9, 2021
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
This one lived up to its name for me, for a couple reasons that are more idiosyncratic and one about the way it’s written. I’m definitely glad I played it, but didn’t find it as emotionally resonant as I wanted it to be, despite how well-observed and grounded it is.
Starting on the idiosyncratic side: it was uncanny to realize this was a companion game to The Dead Account, which I’d played much earlier in the Comp – the main cast of Weird Grief are the friend and family group of the holder of the eponymous dead account in the previous game. I suspect this is the reverse of the ideal order, since Weird Grief is first in time and it also fleshes out the characters who show up only as screen-names in The Dead Account. Oddly, Weird Grief doesn’t go into as much detail on what exactly happened to Mike, the dead person, withholding information in a way that didn’t have much payoff for me. I suspect linking the games more explicitly, either by suggesting an intended order, integrating them into the same file, or shifting the way information is presented to provide analogous exposition no matter which is done first (though of course that would be hard!), might have been a good choice.
The other idiosyncracy in my response is that I’m unfamiliar with the subculture that takes center stage here – the protagonist is a furry who’s in a polyamorous relationship with the dead man and his widower – which is fine, but I sometimes felt at sea when trying to understand the norms around the relationship. Juniper, the main character, lives in a different city from Mike and Roger (the widower), and an invitation to move in is treated as a big deal, making it seem like the connection was relatively new or less formal. But she’s also specifically called out as their “third” at the funeral, putting her on a different level from another character who’s also present and had been a sexual partner for the couple.
My confusion about Juniper’s role and expectations tied in with the way she’s written. I didn’t find that she had a lot of interiority, or had a lot of direct feelings about Mike’s death (beyond a single admittedly-heartwarming anecdote that’s told a couple different times, and several reminiscences about sex). Partially this is the nature of protagonists in choice-based games, where room is generally made for the player to put their own stamp on the character. But here, this meant Juniper felt primarily like a lens for Roger’s grief.
This focus extends to the sex scenes – as the blurb warns, they’re here and they’re quite explicit. This sort of thing isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and I have to say that when I’ve experienced deep, soul-crushing grief, sex has been pretty far from my mind so there wasn’t much personal resonance. But I can see how for these folks, sex would be a source of comfort and bonding in a hard time, and definitely understand the artistic imperative not to draw a curtain over what goes on between the three character. Anyway putting all that aside, I felt like Juniper was sidelined in favor of Roger in these sequences too: in the first one, I don’t think she has an orgasm, and in the second, she’s more viewer than participant as the other two characters have sex. I assume this is intentional, and meant to reflect something about Juniper’s relationship with Roger, but once again my takeaway was that Juniper’s subjective experience was secondary to the piece, which feels like a missed opportunity given that she’s our viewpoint character.
The writing is strong throughout – the dialogue rings true, and I liked the focus on the logistics of the grieving period, albeit these folks ate too much fast food (there are lots of typos though, including one “double click passage to edit” error and an awkwardly double-nested parenthetical). And while there are few choices, they feel reasonably impactful. So the supporting pieces are all strong enough – I just wanted Juniper, structurally the center of the piece, to loom a little larger in the story.
Highlight: The characters are all winning, with Tammy, Mike’s sister, especially came through as a positive presence.
Lowlight: once again I played this choice-based game with Henry napping on me, but due to text size and other formatting issues it required a lot of scrolling when reading in portrait mode (I was going to say it’s hard to play one-handed, but that could be misinterpreted!)
How I failed the author: As I said above, this milieu is pretty foreign to my experience so I worry I’m missing, or misinterpreted, many of the social cues or other indications of relationship dynamics.