A short review post! Sub-Q is a really interesting venue that I haven’t been keeping up with nearly as much as I should be. I’ve really enjoyed some of their reprints, like Lime Ergot (which I also never got around to playing the first time around!) and The Space Under the Window (which I did, but still relished the chance to replay). I did, however, play two of their more recent horror games–Natalia Theodoridou’s The Tunnel and Hannah Powell-Smith’s Teeth and Ice.
They’re both short pieces, in Sub-Q style; they’re both hyperlink-based, more or less; they’re both creepy and suspenseful, though in very different settings and with very different overall vibes; and they both deal with a central relationship which the horror sort of crystallizes around. Beyond that there’s not too much comparison–they’re very different games, and good examples of the different things that can be done with small-scale interactive fiction.
The Tunnel: The Tunnel is a game about the breakdown of a marriage backgrounded by a European passenger train that enters a very long tunnel. This is kind of a classic thriller setup–the claustrophobic setting, the differing motives of the passengers–but the end result is a bit more bleak and depressing and, in fact, creepy than it is thrilling. I don’t mean that negatively. The horror in The Tunnel is translucent metaphor: being trapped within an endless tunnel (which is not much of a spoiler), while indeed claustrophobic in a literal sense, also involves the claustrophobia of Katrina and Gregory’s relationship, and even more so, of being in Katrina’s head, the suffocating limitations of perspective.
She observes him as he converts the seats into beds and spreads the worn sheets. Suddenly he seems old, his back bent in a tired curve she’s never seen on him before. Something viscous and thick churns in her belly. Either pity or a special kind of loving aversion, but she doesn’t know which.
Overall the execution, particularly paired with the multimedia effects, of The Tunnel is very solid. Upon reaching an ending the text along with the entire user interface fades slowly into transparency, which is very unsettling in context. The claustrophobia works–I found myself well aware of where the story was going and grimacing as it slowly but surely ended up there, which is a position I shared with Katrina, I believe. If I had to name a weakness of the game, it might be archetypal predictability: there’s the kind of grinding inevitability I just named, which is a strength of the story, but there’s also the slightly wearying inevitability of meeting a couple on board a train trip and already knowing what kinds of litfic-esque problems they’re going to have. It’s a good, unnerving little story, though.
Teeth and Ice: Teeth and Ice is perhaps the only selkie story I’ve ever read that takes an entirely unfamiliar shape, which is very refreshing. It’s a very short action-suspense-horror game about reclaiming your skin from the house of your captor before he (or He) gets home. This all becomes quickly apparent in the course of a few “turns” of the game, but the real suspense and tension of the game is in scrabbling past your obstacles while the inevitable creeps ever closer. The stakes are extremely high and your desperation is palpable. The prose is short, direct, and effective under the circumstances.
I would be bold. I would be bold, and reclaim what had been mine since I was born, had been taken from me by this thing that could not be called a person. My movements were sure. Smooth. Fast, as if sliding swiftly through kelp.
Teeth and Ice makes excellent use of identification with its protagonist: they’re a selkie, they need their skin, they’re terrified of their keeper, and with that you’re already invested. It doesn’t tell you much about the situation–you’re not in a very reflective frame of mind–so it spares you the object psychometry or chronic remembrances of many IF games. The Raconteur framework might be a little overcomplicated for the game: it allows for the tracking of your few resources, but given that there are so few of them, I think it might have been more immersive to leave them to the player to remember. Overall, though, I was very impressed with Teeth and Ice in concept and execution, which is maybe why I don’t have that much to say about it–it’s a game about imprisonment and abuse and terror, but more pressingly, it’s a game about surviving. You have an incentive to try to win, more than once if you have to.