18 Cadence

by Aaron A. Reed profile

Historical
2013

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
There Are People Going Lonely, April 8, 2013
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)

18 Cadence is a story about an American house built at the beginning and destroyed at the end of the twentieth century, and the families that live in it.

It's interactive fiction in the weak sense: interactivity here provides different ways to view the same events, rather than giving you any power to affect them. In this kind of IF, presentation is hugely important, because the player's involvement is all about manipulating presentation. Without presentation, they're mere hypertext novels, a bunch of static text that you might encounter in a somewhat different order. Cadence does a rather lovely job in this respect: the visual metaphor is of a cutting-board on which you arrange scraps of paper, each describing someone's perspective of an event or some aspect thereof. It's a very tactile, hands-on kind of process; what control you're granted is very immediate, and much more fine-grained than is usual in weakly interactive formats.

A few specific kinds of scraps can be combined into one another. Scenery objects can be combined into single-paragraph descriptions akin to a generated IF room description. Specific information - the date, age of the character in focus, the location - can be added to individual fragments. You can also click on scraps to change the way they're structured, or compress them into a summary. All this is useful, but doesn't do a great deal to change or recontextualise scraps: the important thing is positioning different scraps relative to one another.

The player's involvement isn't a process like being an actor or a co-author, a director, a stage manager: you're an editor. Someone else has already shot all the footage, and it's your job to choose which material to use, and where. The cutting-board is far, far too small to hold everyone's story at once: if you use it to keep track of key events as you go through the full century, it'll quickly overflow. You have to decide whose stories, which elements of those stories, to focus on. Montage is a powerful storytelling tool when put in the hands of the audience, as with vidding, or the endgame mechanic of the RPG Fiasco. But remixing requires familiarity with the stuff you're working with, so Cadence play is sort of divided into two stages: lawnmowering through all the material, which is rather like reading a fragmentary novel, and then selecting and arranging content.

The story has its own foci, though, apart from any manipulations you exercise on it. It's in large part a conversation about what families are and aren't; while being very clear about the importance of family in general, it shows actual families as being based on the best you can do with what you have available, rather than reflections of some platonic ideal; both happy and unhappy families are all different. Even where traditional family households exist and function well, society doesn't flinch from sacrificing them to economic or military ends.

As far as its genre touchstones go, 18 Cadence is a sort of historical dynastic tale, a tale of changing eras, in the same category as Woolf's Orlando, Forrest Gump, even Little, Big; the usual pattern there is to follow a family, or an individual, through decades of change. (It seems to take care to avoid trying to cleave too closely to a high-school-history kind of summary: we're not Forrest Gump, coincidentally central to every event of canonical modern history.) It's not unusual for a home to play a big role in this sort of story, but in 18 Cadence, a little unusually, it's not a home that remains in the same family for generations, but one that gets resold or repurposed many times over the course of the century. So whereas in dynastic, tale-of-our-times stories the house tends to emphasize continuity, in 18 Cadence it foregrounds discontinuity much more. People break apart more than they hold together. Houses are not things that remain in the family by default, but rather to be rented, mortgaged and remortgaged, repossessed. A family home is not a source of constant stability, but a tenuous moment, striven for and then lost, not to be recaptured. Thus also romance, parenthood, family. The rapid, gap-filled pace of the story, a handful of fragments for an entire year, makes for a world where entropy is king, where old age and death come too quickly.

So the mood of Cadence is strongly downbeat. You are forever losing people, and people are forever losing homes. The fragmentary nature of the narrative paints a picture of a world full of gaps: gaps between people and their loved ones, between hopes and realities, between the glimpses you're afforded of people and the full story of their lives.