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About the Story
The clock is ticking... Alfie is running out of time...
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
|Average Rating: |
Number of Reviews: 3
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This is a long Twine game about a young woman who's had a very difficult life finding her younger brother being sucked into a mysterious portal by a dark creature.
Following her brother, she enters a mysterious world filled with destruction and many malevolent entities. Her brother's life is at stake, and there's not much time left.
As the author puts it, this is a narrative-focused game and eschews large-scale branching, but manages to find numerous ways to test the player.
Puzzles come in two varieties: riddles, which are either type-in or choice-based from a huge list of options; and using a color-based system where some colors in the game always signify the same thing (kind of like (Spoiler - click to show)circles in Sorcery 2).
Overall, the writing is earnest and deals with a lot of childhood trauma. Emotions are plainly spelled out, and overall it reminds me a bit of Steven Universe (crying breakfast friends) or She-ra in terms of the emotional notes it reaches for. The emotions didn't land quite as effectively for me as in those two examples, though.
There were some unusual word choices in the game that were jarring, like using the phrase 'he was made into a room' instead of 'he went into a room'. It could be cleaned up a little bit grammar-wise; I would give it 4 stars if that happened.
Overall, I felt like it was a worthwhile investment of time, and I was glad to play it. I've enjoyed the author's other games and hope that they continue the trend of releasing fun and meaningful games.
A couple of years ago I read this incredibly long analysis of the Mass Effect trilogy (ah, the things I had time for before I was a parent!) which sketched out a distinction between fiction that’s detail-first and fiction that’s drama-first. The idea is that detail-first fiction, especially in the genre space, is all about worldbuilding, consistency, and verisimilitude, even at the expense of a good story; drama-first works can have a complex setting, but the rules are much less important than serving the emotional beats of the story and making sure that there’s always something exciting happening and the stakes just keep going up and up. This isn’t a framework I find myself thinking about all that much – most things are somewhere in the middle, of course – but I think it’s really helpful for conceptualizing my response to Half-Alive, which I enjoyed even though the twists and turns of its plot had the detail-first part of my brain blowing a gasket.
What we’ve got here is a teenaged riff on the Underworld narrative, with Inferno-y bits – there are layers! There’s a guide! – and an Orpheus-y motivation – reclaim the missing part of your brother’s soul from the demon-thing that snatched it. The protagonist is Kendall, a 17-year-old girl with awful, broken-up parents who shoulders more responsibility than she should have to, and her interplay with her brother and Wyatt, the guide character, is enjoyable to read because she comes off as a classic hero. Indeed, Half-Alive does a good job of deploying the iconic elements of the journey, down to her weapon of choice – an ax – becoming a heroic attribute.
There’s enough that’s distinctive to keep it from feeling like a retread, though. This particular layer of the underworld is mostly populated by children, for one thing – some are ambivalent characters, but many are so-called “ringleaders”, who direct the weaker-willed kids and are bent on stealing the name and vitality from these living visitors to win the chance to return to the world above, but play fair if bested in a game of riddles.
The stories of many of these kids, including Wyatt, are counterposed with Kenny’s journey, and it’s here that I most struggled with the game. The characters you encounter are drawn from different times and places – though I believe they’re all American – and even allowing for their modern locution as a forgivable concession for both reader and author, the vignettes are full of anachronisms and wild plot twists. There’s a pair of twins who were born in the 18th century; their backstory is that they were abandoned in a dumpster, then fell in with a traveling circus that toured the country complete with an elephant. Another character’s story is a riff on the child-gang bits of Oliver Twist, except he always wears a burlap sack for a mask – after he tries to betray the gang’s Fagin figure, the crime boss travels all the way to the west coast to make him sleep with the fishes, but is still nice enough to put up a gravestone with the kid’s name on it back home in New Jersey. The plan also hinges on a pocket recording device, despite the character having been born in the Great Depression.
This all makes for emotionally-charged, dramatic reading, but at the same time there’s a cost to playing so fast and loose with plausibility. The trend isn’t restricted just to the flashbacks, either, with details changing or going unmentioned until just before they can land with the most impact: Kenny’s ax doesn’t work against the demon until suddenly it does; the demon has a staff that allows it to travel between worlds, but as soon as Kenny gets her hands on it we’re told it’s almost drained of its limited number of charges.
The prose is similarly highly emotional, but often a bit slippery on details. The town where the game starts is alternately called Millflower and Mayflower, and it changes its mind on whether Kenny’s brother was attacked by the demon minutes or hours after school ended. There’s a regular drifting of tenses from present to past and back. Sometimes these infelicities undermine the impact of the story:
"In a fit, Dad flips our living room couch to which my mom slaps him. Yelling vulgar insults at each other, he stuffs his hands in his jeans and then storms out."
More often, though, the exuberance of the writing was enough to carry me along. Here’s a bit that’s definitely overheated, but works much better:
"The chill would make you feel as if you landed in Antarctica and the dirty fog that invaded your lungs was so thick and heavy that you could barely breathe or see.
"On the wind, miscellaneous whispers and wails were being carried, filling their confused bodies with fear. Not to mention the overbearing smell of the area which stank of decaying flesh."
And like I said, despite noticing these weaknesses, I wasn’t too bothered by them once I tried to enter into the spirit of how Half-Alive was telling its story. It also really helps that the game side of things is well-designed and player-friendly. The opening About text nicely explains the length and overall structure of the piece, which is a helpful convenience in a longer game like this. While the focus is very much on the narrative, there are some significant choices to be made in navigating the afterlife, including the aforementioned riddles and also some timed challenges. Nothing’s especially hard, and you can easily rewind even if you do make a mistake, but the gameplay is all engaging enough, and works well as a pacing element to break up the talkier bits.
Playing Half-Alive can feel like being on a roller coaster curated for maximum thrills – if you’re worried about the plausibility of each swerve and scare, or annoyed because you could see the final twist coming a mile away, you’re missing the point. I wouldn’t want every game to be this way, of course, since pure emotion can get exhausting and I typically prefer a story with careful intellectual scaffolding supporting the drama. But for this game and this author, it works, and despite my caviling Half-Alive pulled me through with its energetic, iconic storytelling.
This is the first game like this I've played all the way through. The story was a little confusing at times, like the memories section, but overall I loved playing it and felt immersed in the world. I wished it was longer cause I felt it was rushed at the end. But, again, good game with few grammatical errors.
|Beautiful Dreamer, by S. Woodson|
Average member rating: (26 ratings)
"Outside, the chill wind wails and tears the leaves from their branches. Gusts of wind scour the muddy sidewalks; gusts of wind roar through the alleys between buildings. Before one gust can fade, another swells behind it, and another...