The Counsel in The Cave

by Josh


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Number of Reviews: 5
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Check Out My Screenplay?, December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

I can’t tell if I was surprised by the unusual script formatting, or surprised that I don't encounter it more often. The script format is a super interesting choice, it immediately suggests a whole bunch of things: formal structure, a level of artificiality, a level of performance, but also audience intimacy and to some extent a level of heightened drama. It has a lot of opportunity, but also presents some challenges and potential pitfalls and I’m chomping at the bit to JUST TALK ABOUT ALL OF IT!!

But let me first demonstrate that I am in fact an adult, fully in charge of my passions and capable of delaying gratification when warranted. Thankfully, my wife’s laughter cannot transmit through this medium. Before I get consumed in a sugar-rush of form, let’s talk about function, about the plot of this thing. It is structured in three acts, loosely (Spoiler - click to show)two friends discussing imminent life change; one friend’s tangential, psychedelic journey; two friends making life decisions. No reason not to call those Acts1-3, since the work itself explicitly does.

In Act 1 two friends are discussing the incoming rush of entering college. They unsurprisingly do this at least initially in the setting of their childhood school. I appreciated the specificity of the Eastern Pennsylvania setting. I have to assume readers unfamiliar with the area would experience a more generic “childhood school setting” than I did. I assume this, because the nature of their conversation while specific in details was pretty generic “I don’t know if I’m ready” “Really? I can’t wait…” kind of stuff. The interactivity in this act were mostly choices between “Do I focus on the past or the future?” It didn’t feel like these choices had plot impact per se, but definitely allowed you to collaborate on developing the two characters.

There’s gotta be a word for “near universal experiences that have zero shelf life.” First love, birth of first child, wedding, retirement, or as here, Graduation. The art that you encounter when you are at the cusp of those experiences are going to be vibrant and vital and moving because they speak directly. Doesn’t matter if its been done before and since, doesn’t even matter much how adept it is past a certain threshold. The Graduate, American Graffitti, St Elmo’s Fire, these all spoke to the same cresting young adulthood fear, regret and promise as Act 1 did. For the generations that consumed them at the critical time, these were definitive markers in their journeys. For the rest of their lives, other works covering the same ground are not as compelling. I guess what I’m saying is, Act 1 didn’t really bring anything new to the table here, but arguably the others didn’t either. It's universal. What Act 1 DID do was backdrop the drama with a very ambiguous, weird world of supernatural? extraterrestrial? multi-dimensional? wonders. I literally was slouching in my chair to snap upright at points “wait, what are they talking about?” For me, I ended Act 1 trying to look past the protagonists to all that stuff behind them. It reminded me of nothing so much as Tales from the Loop.

Holy crap, two paragraphs on Act1? I better not run out of room to talk about stagecraft.

Act 2 has one of the characters go on a journey through this backdrop. (Spoiler - click to show)There’s the Layers, and between them and our world, the Layer’s Edge. Except not exactly a journey, more like a prelude to a journey. Really, it is a discussion about maybe going on a journey. This kind of had a similar vibe for me as Act 1 - it was spending a lot of time talking around the wonders, but not really experiencing them. It’s a curious choice that seems to give away a lot of potential (but is highly consistent with its 'staging' conceit), but it is subtly having you do one thing: lay groundwork for the character in choices about what she focuses on and prioritizes.

Act 3 the two friends reconvene in the Layer’s Edge and plot their paths forward. If I’m honest, the first two Acts kept me at a remove. I wasn’t really synching with the protagonists. Each was a two-person dialogue that felt shopworn in Act 1 and unfocused in Act 2, and the most interesting thing, the Layers, were kept background and abstract. But Act 3 is where the choices made during those Acts seemed to crest into very interesting options. Depending on how the player has characterized the two character’s responses you seem to have fairly broad authority to shape the ending. Is the voyager now the counsel to an insecure friend, reversing roles from Act 1? Is embracing adulthood the correct path or not? Continuing on a journey of exploration? Do they share a destiny, or diverge with each other’s blessing? It’s kind of a genius Act 3 actually. In the various permutations I explored every path was the ‘right’ answer, because it was right for the characters as defined by the current playthrough. A completely different endstate was right because completely different character decisions that led to it MADE it right for that end state. If this trick has been used before, I haven’t had the privilege and it really worked like gangbusters on me. You’re not ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ you are tailoring a reasonably satisfying dramatic resolution to the characters you built along the way, with a lot of latitude to do it differently. This realization came too late to push past Sparks of Joy, but talk about finishing strong.

Yeah, so I don’t have time to talk about stagecraft. @#%^@#$% delayed gratification. Speed round:
Stage Artificiality - bad fit for story, cross-dimensional Layers an ill fit for stage presentation, even with the decision to background the most outre’ aspects of it
Stage Performance - mixed. starts not great due to well-worn premise, but if there’s anything more stage performative than two actors talking, I don’t know what it is.
Audience Intimacy - feels like it didn’t work until suddenly BAM it did
Heightened Drama - see Stage Performance, above
Formal Structure - just crushed it. Like out of the ballpark. Turns out, the player was never either protagonist. I wasn’t synching with the protagonists because (Spoiler - click to show)I WAS THE PLAYWRIGHT ALL ALONG!!

Now that’s a third act twist!

Played: 11/9/22
Playtime: 1hr, 4 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? I actually might, to see if I can break the ending! I am a damaged person.

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless