IF Comp 2012: Living Will (Mark Marino)

Living Will is a browser-based story game built on the Undum system: an epistolary Choose Your Own Adventure with interactive text.  Everything in that sentence appeals to me, so I went in positively disposed towards the game.  It’s short, easy (if such a rating even applies to a story game), and very straightforward.

Living Will is narrated by a telecommunications magnate dividing up his fortune, accrued from bloody dealings in Congo conflict minerals.  The shadow of mercantile imperialism hangs over the game as a result: not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly a more relevant and uncomfortable subject than most touched upon in IF.  But this does mean that all of the developer’s narrative choices in the game echo in a broader social context than the game’s own storytelling; it raises the stakes a bit.  It’s a risky choice.  I’m not the best qualified to judge whether it did its subject matter justice, either, but I’ll examine it a little further after the jump.  Warning for references to sexual violence.

General: Living Will is a story game with a living text where, from the perspective of one of E.R. Millhouse’s four heirs (his son Nigel, his daughter Salomee, his errand boy Kip, and his gardener Gerard) the player guides themselves through the disposition of his will, unravels the story behind the Millhouse family and the company Droxol Vox, and determines by the end how much of a share in the will the POV character takes and whether or not they attempt to save dying Millhouse’s life.  The game is played, as with the other Undum games I’ve experienced, by clicking on hypertext keywords and phrases.  The hypertext advances the story, sometimes by adding more information that Millhouse narrates to the chosen heirs and sometimes by progressing to the next stage of the will.  Living Will is designed to be replayed and explored from the perspectives of all four heirs: it’s impossible to uncover all the backstory from just one or two play-throughs and the outcomes of both Millhouse’s and the heir’s lives differ depending on the choices you make as a player, including whether you choose to seize the other heirs’ shares in the final allotment.  It is, to say the least, novel.

Writing: This game reads like a brilliant concept executed by a novice writer.  With a story game such as Living Will (or Emily Short’s similar but longer First Draft of the Revolution, or some of Adam Cadre‘s more dissimilar works of story-based interactive fiction like Shrapnel or Photopia) the writing’s even more paramount than it would be in a more puzzle-based game.  The writing’s always paramount, of course, but when the game is less a game and more an interactive short story, the quality of the story is central and the mechanics exist simply to display that story without hindering it.  So it’s fortunate that Living Will has an interesting plot.  It’s also unfortunate that it’s so floridly written.  In an epistolary format especially character voice is front-and-central: if you’re experiencing the whole story through the direct narration of one character, as you are reading the will and narrative tangents of E.R. Millhouse, it’s very damaging if the voice isn’t entirely convincing.  As it is, Millhouse isn’t entirely convincing.  His text is loaded down with grandiose language and metaphor: it actually took me by surprise to learn after a few clicks that this game was set in relatively modern times, because with openers like “On the eve of my death or, to be more precise, the functional equivalence, I lift pen to lips, pen to tongue, pen to parchment… to choose the words that will relinquish my worldly possessions and estate to you, who have picked up this text with anxious grasping fingers” I was expecting some sort of faux-Victoriana or -Edwardiana.  The game would’ve been improved immensely both by less awkward language and by a more distinctive character voice for Millhouse himself: he comes off as rambling, neutral, occasionally wistful but not really opinionated — not the sort of fire and bitterness I might want to see from a dying tycoon who’s littered his life with personal and moral mistakes.

Even aside from the awkward writing, though, the game really could have done with more development.  It’s short.  I like short games, particularly when attempting to play through the IF Competition, and I enjoyed the optional nature of most of Living Will‘s content: the majority of it is discovered though replay, which means the game can really be as short or as long as you want it to be.  I’d like it if it could be longer.  It tackles some serious and messy subject matter that, given now brief it is, seems troublingly underdeveloped; Millhouse’s daughter Salomee, for instance, is stated to suffer from mental illness and addiction, presumably bipolar disorder.  This is an interesting choice but the game only has room to develop her as the guilty, liberal child in this family, of a sensitive and artistic temperament that seems to correlate with her illness: a bit of a bothersomely one-dimensional depiction of a manic-depressive character, particularly as Salomee is the only female heir.  In general the game’s harmed by how dissonantly casual its treatment of its subject matter is: at one point speaking to Kip (if I recall correctly), his Congolese ward, Millhouse casually references Kip’s mother’s rape and murder by militia.  Even aside from the almost always unwise decision to have a female character raped and murdered offscreen in a story not focused on female characters, the way Millhouse narrates this is exceptionally jarring; nothing about Millhouse’s character (if it can even be definitively discerned from his narration) would indicate that he’s the sort of person who would casually refer to such an event in such terms, when forever dancing around the subject with terms like “what happened to your mother” and “before your mother was–” could’ve seemed much more in-character and disturbing.  In general we’re to believe that Living Will is the narrative of a repressed and regretful British-Congolese man, but his storytelling is jarring and frank and simple to a degree that doesn’t do the tragedy and horror of the story justice.

Ultimately I think that’s the greatest failing of Living Will: it aims to tell a story not often told in IF, of guilt and complicity in conflict mining, but it doesn’t have the depth and subtlety of characterization necessary to handle its subject in a thoughtful way.  The story aims to be sympathetic to Kip, but without more focus and development on its Congolese characters they still uncomfortably seem to exist to prop up Millhouse; none of the characters or their background are given enough time or expansion to transcend stereotype in the first place, which is a shame in most IF and an especially troublesome shame here.  I love the concept of Living Will, but it doesn’t feel authentic, and I found myself often jarred and taken out of the story.

Design: The design of this game is, for the most part, clean, serviceable, and clever.  I love the layout: it’s so distinctive and attractive that I just enjoyed looking at it every time I replayed.  As I’ve stated, I really enjoy hypertext games, so watching text disappear and appear and be replaced was purely fun for me as usual.  My main quibbles with game design are two: (1) I don’t understand the purpose of the stat-tracking bar on the right side of the screen, nor of the save function, in such a short and arbitrary story-based game.  Nothing you do has a linear or predictable correlation to the outcome, and there is no seemingly most objectively desirable outcome for any of the characters, so I feel presenting it as anything other than a fairly short and arbitrary CYOA is misleading.  (2) I wish the will allotment function at the end were a little less straightforward, actually.  I was surprised to find that the player could just allocate themselves as much of the will as they liked, including stealing everything easily out from under the other heirs: while I realize these moral decisions have a bearing on the outcome of the story, it took me out of the story as I didn’t find it realistic that everyone from Salomee to Kip would readily succeed at this.  I’d much prefer it if you had the option to try to (presumably) convince Millhouse into leaving more to you, but these options succeeded or failed depending on what character you were helming and possibly what narrative choices you’d made beforehand.   It would be more complicated to code, certainly, but it would be worth it and wouldn’t have broken my immersion so much as Millhouse’s evidently super-flexible will.

Overall I wanted to like Living Will a lot, and to an extent I did, really: I could go on about my writing critiques of it and how I feel it could be improved on that front for a bit longer, which should say something about its replayability.  It’s very replayable, it’s an interesting concept, and I would link it to anyone.  It falls down in execution, though, and I hope to see the author’s future efforts in CYOA IF: he clearly has an imagination for it and with a bit more skill and time investment I think Living Will really could have been the game it aspired to be.  As it stands, it’s a simple game about complex things, and that’s a pity.

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About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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2 Responses to IF Comp 2012: Living Will (Mark Marino)

  1. Sam Kabo Ashwell says:

    Hmm. I noticed a lot of the same problems that you did, but I think I attributed them differently; mostly, I located its failings in the narrator rather than the author.

    Millhouse is overly florid, yes. He’s the sort of guy who can’t avoid preening, even when writing about terrible things he’s done, and can’t avoid sneering even when trying to express sentiments about his children from his deathbed. The story’s glib about atrocity because Millhouse is glib about atrocity; his is a studied, affected, off-hand kind of faux-amorality, Oscar Wilde at his most flamboyantly callous. His career is one that requires some sort of glib amorality, some concerted tactic of ethical avoidance, and that reflex has consumed him. That’s how he’s able to talk about the brutal rape and murder of a woman (who, it’s implied, he had strong feelings for, whose family he is intimately connected with) in such an off-hand manner.

    So, basically, one of the central questions of atrocity literature is “how can a normal human being, someone who is not a psychopath or delusional, allow themselves to be complicit in something this terrible?” The central point of Living Will, I think, is to show one style of one answer to that question.

    And if it touches lightly on things — it’s really very much a piece that demands that you go and contextualise it. It fails to provide its own context so aggressively that you’re pretty much obliged to go and look things up.

    I don’t think it walked this tightrope perfectly, by any means; it succumbed quite a lot of the time to an urge for over-the-top (sometimes comic) spectacle in its particulars, which suggests that the flamboyance is not entirely Millhouse’s. (I could chalk this up to magical-realism chiaroscuro blah blah blah, but I don’t know that it feels quite authentic enough to pull that excuse off.)

    • I can see how Millhouse had the potential to be that character — and I really wish he had been, honestly, I’ve a great enjoyment for blustering cynics who can’t really muster enough hot air and braggadocio to misdirect from their own misery — but it didn’t come through strongly enough for me. The game was so brief, so underdeveloped, that Millhouse’s feelings seemed shakily done; he wasn’t quite cruel enough to be cruel, apathetic enough to be apathetic, cynical enough to be cynical, or anything else. Again, I attribute a lot of this to its failure to establish a convincing character voice for him. I could detect a degree of deliberate grandiosity in his speaking, but it didn’t ring true for a man of his background and station, so I couldn’t get a realistic bead on what it meant for his personality.

      I did pick up on the implication he had strong feelings for Kip’s mother, but the matter of Kip’s mother was underexplored, period, and when you choose that kind of backstory you take on a narrative responsibility to execute it at least thoughtfully and thoroughly, if not well. In general I agree with your assessment of atrocity literature — I have an interest in it for that reason, too. But I think atrocity literature has much more of a duty to be, well, good compared to lighter fare; one makes the conscious choice to write about conflict minerals and not comic book conventions, after all, and shallowness and lack of attention to tone and characterization come through all the more harshly when the subject demands such careful treatment of morality and human weakness.

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