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About the Story
A lesson on finding one's path through the trees.
42nd Place - 25th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2019)
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Number of Reviews: 2
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Hmmm.... this game hit home in several areas. You play as a young man entering graduate school to satisfy his father's wishes. You reflect on your past life scouting as you deal with the drudgery of graduate school.
It wasn't my parents who pushed me, but I did graduate school and also had been a scout. Both parts rang true: boys discussing the forbidden parts of life in tents on trips, graduate school largely consisting of a series of failures aggregating very slowly into a dissertation.
The problem is, and this comes up in so many games: can a simulation of a boring event be fun? And my answer is no. Sure, Farmville and Universal Paperclips simulated boring things, and yet were popular. But they added a social aspect and/or increasing complexity. Just showing the drudgery of graduate school is accurate, but it's just not fun to me.
In fact, the overall structure of the game is pretty dull. Flashbacks are linear, with scattered 'expand' links that sometimes give extra text in-line and sometimes link to another page.
So why do I give it 4 stars? Well, it was just all so relatable. The prose didn't jump out and bite me, but it wormed its way inside of me. The narrator feels like a real person, even though this is a work of fiction. There's just a kind of raw honesty to it all that appeals to my sense of self and my own history.
Roads not Taken was the first game I played of my fellow competitors' in IFComp 2019. I sort of hedged things--I'd reviewed hardly any, so I wanted to pick something that would likely match up well with me. Maybe this isn't a perfect strategy, but it's helped me when I've been in a reviewing rut. And RnT turned out to be something good, at the right time.
Overviews suggested I had a lot in common with the somewhat autobiographical narrator, and I did, although I didn't do quite as much. I lived in the Chicago area from 12 to 18. The narrator got to Eagle Scout, and I only got to Life Scout, because I found other things more useful and fun to me. They got to graduate school, and I never tried. So this was about my own roads not taken, in a way. Yes, that's corny, but I remember not doing certain things and hearing "Well, you'll regret this." RnT managed to help push back against against some of the more overbearing advice that had lingered over the years, and I'm grateful for that. RnT not one of those works that say to give up and go pound sand, and it's not bragging, either. That can be tough to balance. I think it can be classified as an act of leadership, because it did help me brush aside horrid memories of people slightly senior to me talking down to me about all they'd done and how I'd better be grateful for the chances I have and not mess them up. It reminded me of things I wanted to do and things I felt guilty not wanting to do more. And at the end, it helped me do a few things I'd meant to do for a while.
The first bit, about scouts, tells of the narrator making it to their review board for Second Class (3rd of seven Scout ranks--they get progressively tougher) and saying he never really thought about doing more. I felt that way, too, and I think I really did eventually place both my ceiling and floor at Life Scout. I remember being able to calculate I could get to Life Scout just by showing up, but some of the merit badges with physical requirements seemed too much, as did the service project you needed. I wasn't on any athletic teams, and I didn't seem shouty enough for leadership, or what I thought was leadership. I remember feeling pushed around and manipulated by troop members two years younger than me. Once I got to Life Scout I remember finding other things to do and not wanting to spend my weekends on camping trips, and I also remember the scoutmasters (who were younger now than I currently am) had things they meant to get through to me. One wrote me a letter whe I quit the troop. Some details were personal, and some I forgot, but I remember there were some things that couldn't be said directly. I've learned them. Looking back now I think he was confident I would understand things that were confusing and frustrating me, I think he understood some of the questions I was too scared to ask and didn't ever talk down to me.
I think a reader will be able to relate to the narrator even if they weren't in Scouts. Having a goal outside of classes and trying to execute it, whether you succeed or fail, is an important adventure. I was lucky to find a couple I enjoyed more than scouts, even though they were less presitigous. And I certainly couldn't relate to applying to grad school, as I never thought I could.
I remember dreading the prospect of college interviews, not realizing that I had a right to make my own opinions about my interviewers–which you do, in this game, visiting potential graduate advisors. This seems obvious now, but there's an important coming of age there where you've realized adults aren't perfect, but you suddenly see none are close to perfect, even the smart ones who get a Ph.D. And I also thought to the times we had current or future graduate students as interns where I worked, and part of me was impressed by them going there, and I felt grateful they looked up to me even though I hadn't gone to graduate school. They helped me feel as though I'd learned more than book knowledge. I needed a break before and after the grad-school bit, not because I got bored or frustrated, but because I had enough to think about.
I';m generally not a fan of linear works, but I think it worked well here. As much as I hate the word “relatable,” I can see how it applies here–this work showed me a different angle on Boy Scouts or grad school than I saw. I don't think it's one I could have accepted at 25 or even 30. Looking back on Scouts and graduate school, it always seemed like the sort of thing I'd been guilt-tripped into, and it's good to see someone who also had those should'ves and who was able to see it more positively. And I also found that, even though I knew I could force the game to win, I remembered how there were classes I felt like I should get an A in them, but so what? It didn't feel like it really counted if I wasn't interested.
And I like how it is very personal without being in-your-face or needing silly HTML special effects. I think on the Internet, people overvalue attention-grabbing over letting the reader sit back and decide what is most important to them. Or maybe I just have more personal space as a reader than most, or less tolerance or need for excitement. It sounds like a backhand compliment to say "It wasn't exciting, but it worked for me," but I also think that a lack of excitement can help the reader focus longer. And it takes an important kind of confidence and skill to hold the reader's attention without the usual tricks to be exciting or to do anything dramatic. RnT reminded me of the times I hoped I was learning from my failures, or I was trying to convince myself that my decision to do my own thing was really my own and not lashing out against what was expected.
I wasn't looking to Sort Things Out when I played RnT, but that's what happened. I felt like I had a lot more to think about before I wanted to succeed in graduate school--I didn't want to "just win." And RnT talks about things like leadership, which is hard. One unwritten rule of good leadership is that you can mess it up by saying "Look! I'm showing leadership, here!" And over the years I've found acts of leadership in unexpected places, from people in positions of formal authority or not. It helps bring ideas out from people who forgot they had them, or it helps people want to be more, or it gives people better reason for doing things or wanting to do things.
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