INK, by Sangita V Nuli
In one or another of my reviews, I think I’ve said that what I’m generally trying to do here is look at what a game seems to be saying, then engage with that somehow; depending on the work, that might mean analyzing whether or how the game meets that goal, or talking about my personal response to the questions it raises, or whatever seems most interesting or productive to talk about. But that’s the starting point: what is the author and/or game getting at?
Where things get difficult for me is when I finish a game and I’m not sure how to answer that question. Sometimes the general gist is clear, but there’s something about the implementation that muddies things up, so that’s a reasonable jumping off point. And sometimes what’s being communicated is mostly just: this is a game, have fun with it. That’s fine too! But INK represents the most challenging category; I get the themes the author is working with, and some of how the game folds, spindles, and mutilates them through its interactivity makes sense to me. But the different pieces are stubbornly failing to come into focus for me, and I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a reflection on the work, or on the reviewer (who, having just had a flu shot, is maybe having a hard time getting anything to come into focus right now). I suppose there’s nothing for it but to jump in and describe how I experienced the game, but apologies if this review winds up even less edifying than is typical.
Starting with the basics, INK is the author’s second entry in the Comp, after U.S. Route 160 – props for industriousness! – but the focus on loss (EDIT: I previously also said they both used Texture, but my memory was playing tricks and U.S. Route 160 is actually a Twine game. Thanks @mathbrush!), the two strike me as fairly different. For one think, INK invokes poetry more than prose in how it presents its words. For the most part there are complete sentences, and only a few rhymes, but line breaks make the reader pause and engage with the writing in a slower way:
Everyone talks about starting over
but it’s all fluff and no detail
nothing about the process of
rewiring your brain
As this excerpt indicates, the story is all about a protagonist coming to grips with the death of a loved one – I believe it’s a romantic partner, but I could be misremembering whether the possibility of a family member or friend is left open. In fact the game is short on specifics – who the protagonist is, where the action is taking place, even what happened to the dead woman – which usually I dislike, but wasn’t as much of a barrier as usual for me here. That’s because while the narrative may be vague, the mental and emotional contours of the protagonist’s grief are drawn with firm assurance. The above-quoted bit rings extremely true to me, and there’s a later scene where you attend a support group that also hits hard:
You don’t look anyone in the eyes
It’s easier to pretend there’s no one listening
But the words are scraped out
And suddenly you can’t stop
You’re telling every anecdote you can find
About the wildflowers she’d find
The little flecks of green in her eyes
How she was the purest kind of kind
She lives again in the pauses between breath
The game’s inciting incident is also strong, and similarly seems to me to say something true about the experience of losing someone. The protagonist is haunted by a letter that she thinks her dead loved one wrote to her before she died; she catches glimpses of it, finally finds it at a park bench that was special to the two of them, then brings it back to her home and gives it pride of place on the mantle while deciding whether or not to read it. It’s a potent image for what we carry of those who’ve passed on before us – in the author’s notes for my last game, I talked about the joys and sorrows of having a mental model of one’s predecessors still rattling around one’s brain – and also resonates with the more concrete hope that there’s something, anything left of your dead loved one that can still speak to you, share a new word, so that the relationship isn’t completely and eternally finished.
The envelope isn’t just an envelope, though. It’s printed with a dark, menacing ink that bleeds through the paper and infects the protagonist’s thoughts, before eventually becoming concrete in a distorted image of the dead woman who takes up residence with the protagonist. This fantastical twist provides the spur for interactivity, as there are quite a lot of choices and quite a lot of branching. You can accept help or wallow in self-pity, you can resign yourself to your new living situation or try to reject the inky double.
And I confess, here’s where the game lost me, because I started to lose track of the metaphor. Is this about having one’s life taken over by the memory of your loved one, so you can’t move forward and engage with those who are still living? If that’s the case, wouldn’t the double have positive qualities that lure you away from the present, instead of the twisted parody that’s actually presented? And the endings also diverge, from resigning yourself to the horrible situation, to trying but failing to escape it, to become an ink creature yourself; again, I had trouble unpacking how to relate the incidents of the plot to the emotional core that gave the first half of the game its power.
I repeat, this could just be me being dull and suffering from flu-shot side effects – so I’m underconfident offering an assessment or any feedback on how the game could have worked better for me. I will tentatively say that I think there might have been a bit too much choice, and a bit too much openness to the narrative. There’s a thin line between an allegory that’s too obvious and one that’s too diffuse, but when you’re tapping into something as elemental as INK is I think there’s more upside to marshalling one’s powers and pushing for the catharsis or resolution that seems most fitting, rather than frittering away momentum on too many different dendrites of story. Again, though, this could be wrong and if I’d played the game in other circumstances I might have thought it held together beautifully. At any rate, while it didn’t completely land for me, the well-observed depiction of mourning and evocative central image mean that I still found INK a rewarding experience.