I’ll start this postmortem by shamelessly promoting the post-competition release of Babyface. It addresses what some reviewers thought were the weakest elements of the story: the protagonist’s motivations in the final act of the piece, and the story’s resolution. This release also features a few more surprises…
But back to the postmortem. I often describe Babyface as a Southern Gothic creepypasta story. For this postmortem, I’m going to take this description at face value, but in reverse order:
I’ve written elsewhere about how I think of Babyface not as a choice-based game, but as a hypertext. It’s decidedly not a game, or at least not a game where your choices matter. In the war between player agency and narrative drive, Babyface comes down pretty hard on narrative drive. There’s just one story, and that’s the story I wanted to tell. There is some exploration (revisiting each photograph reveals a bit more of the narrative, for example) but even so, the end result is a jigsaw puzzle. No matter how you put together the pieces, it will always form the same picture.
The term “creepypasta” is a bit confusing. Are we talking about a genre of fiction? An internet phenomenon? A website? Generally, I think of creepypasta as a genre, which Babyface does indeed share a family resemblance to. As I see it, two key features of creepypasta are (1) irrational events disrupt the everyday world; and (2) there’s a blurring between the inside and outside of the story, raising the specter that the story really happened. Both features are at work in Babyface. An old man with the head of a baby? Preposterous! Absolutely irrational! As is the protagonist’s father’s belief that his wife isn’t dead, but somehow still held hostage by Babyface. And the blurring between the inside and outside of the story? The opening sound check is an example of that. Technically, it addresses the need for a user to interact with a web page before the browser allows audio to play. Narratively, it’s the same audio that appears near the end of the game, suggesting a flash forward: at the beginning of the story you’ve come upon the protagonist while she’s in the very act of defiance that occurs at the end of the game. And of course, for blurring the inside and outside of the game, there’s the fly. Reviewers have referred to the fly as a jumpscare, but I think of it more as metalepsis, which is the fancy rhetorical term for ambiguity between the inside and outside of a text. If you thought, even for a second, there was a real fly on your screen, then that’s metalepsis at work. Technical side note: my first iterations of the fly had the audio clip of buzzing stop as soon as the fly left the screen. There was something jarring about that, and it broke the immersive spell. But as soon as I let the buzzing continue, fading off into the distance, even after the fly left the screen,–wow, what a difference that made. In effect, it created off-screen space that made fly part of the story, but also, part of you-the-reader’s world.
There are countless academic treatises about “Gothic” literature. Babyface taps into this long literary history. Some of the key innovations of Gothic literature that Babyface hits are:
- crumbling buildings or ruins
- exterior features (the weather, the landscape, etc.) that represent internal mental or moral states
- there’s been some sort of moral transgression
- and that transgression has been kept hidden or repressed
- and the transgression has been slowly corrupting others and is ultimately revealed
Combining the Gothic with creepypasta is interesting because the norms of creepypasta dictate that the moral transgression–whatever it is–will never truly be known. There will always be some doubt about who did what to whom. In the case of Babyface, this narrative ambiguity is at the heart of the story. It’s not that I don’t know what happened. I do. But there are enough gaps that a reader could reasonably entertain a variety of other interpretations of the events depicted in the story. One of my inspirations for the narrative ambiguity (and an inspiration for the Southern Gothic feeling as well) was Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” Which to this day fans still debate what actually happened in the song. In hindsight, I think the competition version of Babyface played its cards too close to its chest (can a story play cards?). It was too vague, unless you’re a really, really close reader. The post-competition release is slightly more explicit at a few key moments (explicit in the sense of narrative directness, not in terms of graphical content).
One of my playtesters described Babyface to me as a meditation about the charnel house that is 2020. Yes. That’s true. But it’s also, very much, about the South. I was working with a concrete geography in Babyface. The old brick house is based on a real house in my small North Carolina college town. I could walk there right now in about 20 minutes, all on pleasant neighborhood streets. Less than five minutes by car. A recluse lived there, and the house, as in the story, is down the street from the local elementary school. The recluse died a few years ago, and it was some time before anybody even knew. Somebody eventually bought the property, tore down the old brick house, and put up a gaudy McMansion. One detail I had wanted to include in the game but decided against, because it would have seemed too unbelievable: between the old house and the elementary school there’s a cemetery. I had considered incorporating the cemetery into the story as the narrator runs away from the house, but it just seemed too forced. One of those instances where real life out-narrativizes fiction, and in order to make the fiction more palatable, you have to dial back the realism.
To be sure, the Southern backdrop is understated. I hope I dropped in enough clues that some readers might realize the centrality of the South in the game. There’s the drawl of the police officer. The kudzu. It might help to know that I listened to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” countless times while writing the game, and you’ll find her lyrics sprinkled throughout the story. The Latin phrases too, if you Google them, aren’t just flavor text, at least not all of them.
There’s a lot of history in Babyface. Southern history. American history. I think back to the godfather of Southern Gothic literature, William Faulkner. The past isn’t dead, says Faulkner. It’s not even past.