Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes write-up

Thanks to Jason McIntosh for your capable organizing, to the other authors for all your great stuff, to the reviewers for your thoughtful remarks* and to the judges for your consideration. I had no expectations going in, and all this certainly exceeded that!

There was no trick. Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes didn’t make sense and wasn’t meant to. Most reviewers seemed to come to that conclusion, rather than suspecting that some unifying structure lay beneath the weirdness. On that count at least, I’m relieved; the game succeeded. There’s little I loathe more than art where some Grand Idea is buried ten layers deep under symbolism and misdirection.** Given all the goofiness going on in the game, (plus the natural instinct to seek meaning in everything,) I was really very worried that it would be mistaken for one of those.

I wanted to make something that could be enjoyed as just words with links, (no story, puzzle, message,) and I also wanted to “purge sea water’s fretful salt away,” i.e. run my pains through the wringer. While there’s plenty that I think worked, I still failed on both counts.

TL;DR: The absence of sense is a mighty big hole to fill and I was not equal to the task.

Players don’t have to be completely at home in a game, (“immersion” is not a universal good,) but they can’t just be left out in the cold. They need something to grab a hold of – not because it’s a nice thing to do or because it will entice them to keep playing, but because the game needs to grab a hold of something too, some pre-existing thought or feeling in the players’ heads. If the game can’t connect to some prior notion/emotion, even an experience that’s vibrant in the moment will soon fade, possibly before the player has even finished.

Emily Short’s comments on “amnesiacs in dream-prison” are right on target here, even – especially – for a game that has no interest in building “narrative stakes.” A narrative, even a sketchy narrative, is a tremendous handhold for the reader, one you’d have to be seriously foolish to forgo. Well, I am a fool many times over. (Even so, INCL does suggest a story: the PC arrives, undergoes a test/examination/interview and meets some end. I treated that more as scaffolding than as story, though.)

If the structural unity of a narrative or a puzzle are out of the question, what does that leave for the player to latch onto? In this case, a general vibe and specific riffs: the ground and its figures. On the one hand there’s – call it atmosphere, mood, tone, whatever – a feeling that insinuates itself. I kept it fairly consistent across INCL: vague menace, vexing gloom. I think that’s more due to not having enough room to screw it up than to delicate orchestration. On the other hand, there’s the little flourishes, the oddities and jokes that added heat if not light to the mix. I’m fond of many of them; even so, I appreciate that you can’t just keep piling them on and expect to arrive at any serious enjoyment. They don’t really add up to anything.

But wait, wasn’t “not adding up to anything” the whole point? Surely once you’ve ruled out having a story or a message, there’s no good way for a game to hang together so as to draw the player in and start making connections. I confess to despairing some while writing INCL. All the same, I refuse to believe that it is impossible in principle. Difficult beyond my present grasp, certainly, but not impossible. For all I know, it’s already been done: my familiarity with the vast bulk of IF is woefully limited. I welcome any and all reading recs, (IF and otherwise.)

There are at least two ways of going about it: a game that encourages any number of mutually incompatible interpretations, (arguably all good art does this to some extent,) or a game that discourages any definite interpretation at all, yet still remains compelling and self-assured. I was aiming for #2; I did all right on the first half, not so much on the second. What did I miss, what was the special ingredient? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’ll dawn on me with the next go-around.

So much for enjoyment. How’d the desalination of my love/grief go? The “nice” thing here is that I already felt I was setting myself up to fail. To boil down my take on Donne’s “The Triple Fool”: there is no good way to write grief. It will always exceed the bounds you set, always evade the snares you lay; it will always outmatch you. The instant you set pen to paper you have already lost. (Surrendering to grief is no help either: in so doing you’ve only set up some small Grief to accept your defeat.) Yet we don’t, (and we shouldn’t,) stop trying to do better. Note that I don’t see my approach as a better way of going about it; it’s just something I wanted to try.

Much of my grief comes from-- it’s not so much being misunderstood as it is being shut out from even starting to become understood. The words and the concepts framing the debate over my life, over my right to respect: they are not there to further or engender discussion but to shut it down. Or, at the very least, to exhaust all participants so we have no choice but to stumble onto some cold middle ground and collapse. After enough blank stares, I thought maybe I ought to try and stop making sense.

You might say that it’s a mite contradictory first to say I explored non-sense for its own sake, and then to say I pursued it in order to re-approach my grief from another angle. I could try and tease apart why I thought them to be compatible, or why each half encourages the contradiction. Right now I’m more inclined to throw up my hands and say, “Very well, then I contradict myself.” This write-up has already grown much longer than I’d hoped, and I haven’t even said anything I wanted to say about the specifics of the damn game. That would be helpful for myself at least, so I’ll try and follow up on that.

Thanks for reading all this! Hopefully it satisfied at least as much as the game itself.

  • The game received many more thoughtful responses than I’d expected, since its unruliness all but dares you to toss it aside. I was tempted to do just that myself rather than doing a write-up. But since you gave so much careful commentary it feels only fair to respond in kind.

** The first two paragraphs of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans are relevant here:

I found it enjoyable as words with links, and I really liked the atmosphere, which for me felt like curdled promise, like something should happen, was about to happen, but then it didn’t, like it was almost a “game” which could be won. The story is a fine metaphor for one of those things that if you could write it down in a sentence, then you wouldn’t need to write anything longer about it.

Hmmm…even though that was your intent as the author, sense is created by the reader. Your intent means little to me. Your comments regarding narrative stakes, and reader handholds are apt, I think, however, the lack of these connections are a narrative device in and of itself. The act of creation is begun by the reader before the first word is read.

Ade McT

@McTavish: Oh, I agree: authorial intent is mostly irrelevant. I’d find Paradise Lost unbearable if its sense was limited to Milton’s original vision. I mentioned mine only to assess how well I approximated it, not to assert fiat.

Edit: To elaborate, I did not mean “the game didn’t make sense” in the sense of “it didn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t make any sense at all to anyone.” Nothing is immune to interpretation. I meant that more as 1) the observation that many people felt disinclined to offer a definite interpretation and 2) my own take (not vested with ultimate authority) that the game is laid out so as to discourage such interpretations.

I thought this write-up was wonderful; thank you.