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An Exercise in Misdirection, February 17, 2014
The Matter of the Great Red Dragon presents itself as a very conventional fantasy story – There is a dragon to slay and you must prepare. It turns into something significantly weirder, and so gradually that I didn't really pay attention until very late in the story.
The game is spent not so much slaying the titular dragon but rather engaging in the protagonist's quest to become a hero, so that they can then go on to slay the dragon. This takes place in a series of largely disconnected, surreal vignettes; most of the interaction is by exploring those landscapes and making choices which influence what kind of hero the protagonist becomes; true to RPG tropes, you are allowed to choose between ‘classes’ and so on.
There are a lot of significant caveats about this piece, and in particular, it's hard to discuss this without entering into spoiler territory. The long and short of it is that I recommend this piece for people who are interested in the medium itself and want to see new things, and I don't recommend it for people looking for an enjoyable or interesting story that they can get invested in.
I should note that those are impressions from a single playthrough, and it may be that there are different paths or endings which may have resulted in a different impression. The author's afterword asks the reader to experience the game without lawnmowering, however; that's fair enough, and I've respected that wish.
First, the narrative structure is mostly made out of unconnected vignettes that get increasingly surreal as the game goes on; the overall impression is that of a hallucinatory vision quest. Said vignettes, however, lack any connecting emotional or plot through-line. It is, essentially, wading through a stream of weirdness to get to the end. Better-written dream and hallucination sequences, in interactive fiction and elsewhere, have generally involved recurring elements, thematic resonance to the story at hand, and a fine understanding of dream logic. If this was present here, I wasn't on the right wavelength to perceive it. The overall effect, at the end, is jumbled rather than memorable.
The second problem with this structure is that, as the passages in the game get weirder, they also get more opaque. The relationship between the choices you make in the narrative and how they impact the player character become more obtuse until they finally appear essentially unknowable in one of the final sequences.
Ending spoilers: (Spoiler - click to show)In the end, it turns out that those choices don't really seem to matter; all throughout the game, you're led to believe that you're preparing for a climactic battle with the dragon – the interface itself suggests this, helpfully listing your powers and traits in the left hand menu as you acquire them, including blank spaces for ones you haven't gotten to yet. As it turns out, all your fellow heroes have quit heroism to become waiters, consultants or hedge-fund managers; evil has become totally banal, and the dragon, as well as heroes like yourself, is just a relic of a more innocent time. The story ends in total anticlimax, turning the heroic-fantasy conceit on its head for a cheap polemic about subjectivity and postmodernity. More troubling is the fact that this ending seems to imply, in rough terms, that fairytale black-and-white morality is what stands between us and fascism. I can't say I appreciated the disregard for reader expectations in order to make a tired point; in many ways I felt like the experience of 90% of the story had been devalued by throwing its mechanisms and tropes away just before the ending.
Overall: I can't recommend this without reservations. It's an interesting piece, but of the sort that perhaps deserves to be dissected more than enjoyed. It does interesting things with form, at times, and the premise of it is wonderful, if only it wasn't so thoroughly wasted on the ending.