Creatures Such as We

Creatures Such as We

Lynnea Glasser


[spoiler]Curses! I would love to have loved Creatures Such as We. In so many ways it is just the ticket: the setting (a tourist moonbase) is novel — and it’s not only novel but it’s been carefully thought through and researched, so that it feels really credible; the principal narrative topic (romance) is not very common, obviously difficult to do well, again carefully thought through; the secondary narrative topic (a game-within-a-game) is an interesting conceit; and I suppose that having written several thousand words of reviews I ought to be up for a game whose serious intent is to enable me to consider questions of narrative and art in game design. What is more, when I have written so frequently cavilling with the craftsmanship of games, I should be all over something so beautifully put together: so much text, so few typos (I only spotted two, in a very wordy game), so very smooth and slick. Other reviewers whose judgment I respect have loved it.

But I didn’t.

Why not?

One issue I had was with the choices I was given, which frequently showed one of two problems. Consider this:

This feels like trying to use a multiple choice question for a philosophy exam. Even if the question were not gauche, the answers are. This is not the sort of question that has, even approximately, four possible answers. I’d like to know what you mean by “your own message” (is something solipsistic a “message” at all?). I want to know what on earth you mean by “real art”, and what sort of art is art but not “real” art. I want to know how on earth the last answer (which seems trivially true) is even an answer to the question(s) posed. I want to know what significance is attached to an “intended” message, and whose or what sort of intention you mean here: the actual subjectively experienced intention of the artist? Or some sort of constructed intention, the intention of the work? I want to know what you even mean by a “message”, what makes an act of communication a “message” at all. In short, I want to refuse to answer a question that does not seem to be framed in a context that I am willing to answer.

You may say: “Well, it’s rather too much to rip apart a few choicescript questions as if it were an undergraduate essay!” And so, in a sense it is. But if a game has set itself up as offering, in some way, a genuine and serious attempt to grapple with difficult issues, it seems a fair criticism that it actually tackles them in a rather superficial and questionable way.

There’s quite a bit of this. The other, opposite, problem, is question such as this:

Well, really, how should I know and why should I care? Whatever selection I make seems likely to be more or less random. Me, I have no “preferred combat style”, and as for my character, I have no idea at all. Again, there seem to be many questions like this — presenting me with a range of choices where my reaction was that I neither knew nor cared the answer. You ask me whether I should recommend fish gnocchi or some other equally revolting delicacy. What’s the point?

The second problem I had was with the writing. It’s not that Lynnea Glasser can’t write: on the contrary she can write terribly well. This, for instance, seems brilliant:

But, to my ear at least, her facility for dialogue is not nearly as sure-footed. I know that dialogue is never quite “like real life”. But there comes a point where it is so far divorced from how actual people speak that it seems plastic, and in a game with a lot of dialogue this becomes a real problem. Consider this, which is supposed to be overheard towards the end of a fractious meeting about a possible merger:

Now I have in my day job been to lots of meetings, and I come from a profession where we do actually write “namely”, sometimes. But I don’t think I have ever, especially where feelings a running high, heard someone talk like this. This is, in some nightmare world, perhaps how people write; but it is not at all how they speak. I realise this is difficult: to reproduce the absurd, ungrammatical and half-thought-through nonsense we actually say to each other is not on. But this reads like some sort of role-playing dialogue from a text-book on management, or a language text book.

Then, and most critically, I had issues with characterisation. As the author’s fascinating notes record, she was keen to allow a wide range of different choices about, for instance, ethnicity and gender, and to allow an implicit choice of sexuality. I have, elsewhere, expressed reservations about these techniques. In principle, they seem to me to give rise to two problems.

The first is this. If I am presented with a strongly written PC, perhaps quite unlike me, my likely task is clear: to think myself into the PC’s mind. To imagine, so far as I am able and willing to do so, what it’s like to be — say — a straight black woman. In such a position, I am not troubled to find that the game assumes I will make choices as the PC that I would not myself make. I understand that the author is the primary creator of this PC, and that my role (though creative, and reactive) is secondary. If a gap opens up between what the PC seems to be and what I imagined her to be, the solution is simple: I close the gap.

But as soon as you start telling me that I am responsible for selecting, even consciously, the PC’s most fundamental character traits, I begin to become more restive when you then insist in taking him or her in a direction that I don’t like. Why am I allowed to decide who the PC finds attractive, or what their name is, but apparently stuck with the fact that they like to relax by playing a video game, rather than reading a novel?

But there’s a bigger problem, which is how the game actually reacts to my choices. It would be a really hard thing to offer a deep exploration of the difference between romance between, say, two gay men and romance between a straight couple. And it’s not surprising, therefore, that the game doesn’t do that. It makes, so far as I can see, rather superficial adjustments. It basically assumes, in other words, that sexual attraction “feels” the same way for us all.

I question that assumption. I realise that I can never actually know how different genders and sexual orientations experience romance, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that there is not much in common and certainly equal value. But let us avoid stereotypes, and just focus on some practicalities. If a straight man is attracted to a woman I have always assumed that he will normally assume, as a reasonable working assumption, that she is probably attracted to men (if not to him). But the first thing a gay man who encounters an attractive man will do — and here at least I can speak from experience — is try to work out if the man in question is gay, knowing that (a) he probably isn’t and (b) it’s more or less a complete deal breaker. So to that extent, the experience of a gay man upon encountering another man in a “neutral” setting is, I think, quite different from that of a straight man, right from the get-go. Quite how I go about reaching that assessment is rather hard to say; but I’m pretty certain it’s an assessment that I make pretty frequently, and that I suspect most straight men make pretty infrequently.

And of course the experience of, say, a gay transgender man, or of a straight transgender woman would be different again.

I highly doubt that it’s possible to do justice to this, perhaps ever, and certainly in a fiction such as this. I can only report that the romantic experience that the game wanted to give me was so far removed from my own sexual and emotional feelings that I could not recognise them. “You squirm with delight remembering the hug.” Nope. That’s certainly not something I would do. Nor would I blush with physical contact. Nor do I think that a bit of hugging followed by some internet gameplay would be the likely trajectory of a relationship between two unattached gay men on the moon; but let us draw a discreet veil over that . . . For my own part, I found it very hard to make sense of the game unless I made the protagonist a straight woman. Perhaps it was me, but that’s how she felt. And that’s not a problem at all. I’m really delighted to play a game in that role; but the promise that I can choose not to seemed to me not to be made good, and I think it’s a questionable promise, even when it’s made from entirely laudable motives.

This has been a very long review, and I realise it’s rather negative. As the man in the meeting says, let’s not lose sight of the positives too. Here is a highly accomplished work by a hugely talented author. It deserves to finish high, and I expect it will. I will be giving it a high mark myself, because nothing less would do it objective justice. But I’m afraid that, for me, it just did not gel.[/spoiler]