January, by litrouke
Can y’all just pretend you didn’t read my Long Way to the Nearest Star review? Thanks, I’m about to reuse a bit.
January a postapocalyptic story that puts no interesting spin or distinctive worldbuilding on its hoary premise. The player has absolutely no agency, and the only interactive element is that you can sometimes make the unmotivated choice to read the passages in random rather than chronological order (an option that readers of regular books also have, though understandably they don’t exercise it that often). There’s only one character, outside of the beginning and ending the plot is pretty much just a grab-bag of stuff that happens, and the illustrations that conclude each segment are often a bit amateurish. And speaking of art, the cover, as well as the title and blurb, are at best unexciting and at worst actively off-putting.
It got me more excited than anything I’ve played yet in the Comp; it’s comfortably my favorite game so far.
This is another review that’s going to spoil things pretty thoroughly, and there’s at least one thing the game does that I think I would have been upset to know about going in, so I’m once again going to recommend you play January first, then come back here. I found it took a little while for me to settle into it, so even if your first impression isn’t great, give it a half hour to see if you’re able to get on its wavelength – if you can, I think you’ll be glad of it.
Okay, I’ll give one more teaser before getting into the review proper. Here’s a passage from fairly late in the story, when the protagonist, realizing that he doesn’t know what most plants are actually called, decides to just pick the ones that seem to fit:
He found a sprig of stubby flowers bowered beneath a tree. They huddled together in an unfriendly way, white-petaled, small-eyed, so he called them elderflowers. On the side of the road, fuzzy yellow things sprouted from the earth like uncombed licks of hair. He knew that daisies were yellow, and so daisies they became, and the cat entertained itself by weaving through them, its feathery tail flicking among the flowerheads like it might convince them it belonged.
Coral tree-buds became peonies; umbrella-wide blooms, dahlias; a weeping of top-heavy bells, willowseeds.
(Spoilers from this point on. But you can now probably guess why I like January. That prose!)
January plays its cards a little close to the chest at first, but seeing the “end of the world” tag in the blurb and the lone shovel in the cover illustration gave me some suspicions. When the first couple of scenes involved a nameless man scavenging through an eerie, lifeless environment with no other living souls around, those suspicions deepened, though I held out hope that this was like a nuclear winter scenario or something (there’s snow on the cover image too!) But no, my fears were proved right soon thereafter when the first zombie reared its ugly, decaying head.
I just don’t get on with zombie stories. Fast, slow, allegorical, supernatural, intimate, blockbuster, it really doesn’t matter – I am down with a comedy zombie, but outside of that very specific special case, if something has zombies in it that’s an instant turn-off. I find gore unpleasant, for one thing, and zombie stuff almost always involves a very blunt form of body horror that I find disgusting but not especially scary. As mindless, relentless antagonists, I feel like they don’t add much narrative interest. And 99 times out of 100, wittingly or not the politics seem to me dumbed-down and retrograde, vindicating the society-shunning “self-reliance” of survivalists, who use violence to reinscribe fear-based patriarchy across the ruins of a failed cosmopolitan society – grosser than any tub of entrails. There are far-distant riffs on zombie stories that I do enjoy, admittedly (like, squint at Battlestar Galactica and you can see the zombie DNA in it, at least for the first season or two), but the original recipe doesn’t appeal.
So getting to that plot point, and realizing I still had another hour and a half of this game left, made my heart sink a little, since I thought I could see exactly where January was headed – a dark, nihilistic slog that would end either with an unsatisfying surrender to the inevitable (my worries on this score deepened substantially once the cat entered the picture), or an implausible, unsatisfying last-minute turn towards optimism. Still, I stuck with it, largely on the strength of the writing. While the opening is quite episodic and not especially creative in terms of the scenarios it presents, January doesn’t waste much time before laying down some well-crafted imagery. Here’s an abandoned train, turned into a shelter by some other survivors:
The train unfurled from the tunnel like a tongue. The front engine had come to rest half a mile from the mouth of the tunnel, and behind it a long procession of tattered boxcars faded into the dark, their orange paint dulled to sepia and their wheels spiked with weeds. A single oil tanker, bulbous and pale as the head of a cyst, interrupted the straight line of boxcars.
Those details are chosen with care, adjectives sparingly used to pick out what’s important like flecks of white directing the eye in an oil painting. The author uses this literary style to good effect when laying out the various landscapes the protagonist traverses, allowing the reader to glimpse the eerie beauty of the world that comes after this one, but it also is deployed to darker effect, making the zombies’ decaying bodies into aesthetic objects of fascination and revulsion:
A smaller girl shadowed the window’s bottom panel. The blood hadn’t dripped that far yet; he could see her raw, macilent hands as she dragged herself across the carpet to the window. One of her legs must have sloughed off, or both. She drew close enough to mush her face to the glass, and toothlessly she jawed at it, docked tongue quivering in a cockroach mouth.
This is deeply unpleasant, but it’s a novel way of approaching the subject – the prose holds the zombies at a distance so the reader can contemplate them without the blurring abstraction imposed by adrenaline. Indeed, the protagonist is generally well-armed and competent, and the zombies, while sometimes aggressive, often are portrayed as pathos-inducing and pathetic, almost becoming an especially atmospheric part of the landscape rather than immediate threats:
And a head, visible now as he approached the window and cut out the sun’s glare. The dead body nuzzled the liquor store window, its hands plastered to the glass, fingers curling at the bottom edge of BEER. With no mandible to contain it, the body’s tongue lolled caninely from its drooping mouth. Harmless. Most of them had forgotten doors.
The style also supports the game’s structure, which is a series of loosely-connected tone poems arranged in a calendar. This is the one place where the player has some say in the text the game provides; at any point in time, you’ll typically have two or three unread days marked on the calendar interface, and you can choose which to turn to next, though as I said above, I’m not sure what reading them out of order would do except needlessly confuse you. There are usually two weeks or so between vignettes, and they often start just as an incident is kicking off, and end before it’s wrapped up, with enough left blurry that attempting to construct the full narrative thread that connects all the dots is a fool’s errand (sometimes reading a later day will open up a new, final page or two in a previously-visited day, which adds more context but typically doesn’t radically revise the player’s understanding of events).
There is one major point of continuity between these sequences, though, and that’s the cat. Early in the game, the protagonist picks up a cat as a companion, and begins to look out for it by getting it food and shelter, and being looked out for by the animal in its turn, as its sensitive hearing and unease around zombies serves as something of an early warning system. Much like the rest of the story, the relationship between the two is predictable in its outlines – we learn from the opening line that the protagonist is fleeing some sort of tragedy, though since this is a zombie story a) we already knew that, and b) we’re also pretty sure what the tragedy was, so it’s through caring for the cat that the protagonist learns to be vulnerable and care for others again. But it’s still very finely drawn, with a light touch that lets the player fill in the blanks, and once I’d realized that this internal dynamic was what January was interested in, rather than positing its zombies as metaphors for capitalism or wanting to comment on the decadence of society or anything like that, I finally relaxed, looking forward to some lovely writing on the way to the clearly-telegraphed end.
And then at the 80% mark, January does something unexpected. All at once, the previously third-person narration switches over to first person, and the flowery prose shifts to a far more grounded style – and this doesn’t just apply prospectively, all the previous entries are rewritten, with a new perspective and new details revealed. This is a jarring change that risks alienating the player, especially so because it’s really the prose that’s the highlight of the first part of the game, so radically altering the writing style risks undercutting the thing that’s drawing the player along, far more so than the comparatively-thin plot and even-thinner interactivity.
Fortunately, the new mode of writing is also very well done, though clearly distinct from what’s come before – it’s comparatively plain in terms of word choice and sentence structure, but the ideas and imagery are still very rewarding:
I let Cat drink from the cap of my bottle, and watching him lap up the clear water, I thought it was funny how water doesn’t turn blue until there’s enough of it. That it has to grow into itself, like a newborn kitten crawling around blind til it gets the strength to open its eyes.
This just might be a metaphor for how the protagonist sees himself as the story is wrapping up – and the late-in-the-game invocations of Aeneas and Dido also clearly bear some relation to his perception of his role in the originating tragedy. Similarly, there are varying interpretations you can put on the language shift, but one of the simplest is surely just that it reflects the end of a distancing, depersonalized shield the protagonist had erected – and again, despite its slight reticence towards the start, January isn’t trying to be needlessly obscure. But secrecy and concealment aren’t the only route to literary power.
January isn’t faultless. Besides the issues I’ve raised above about genre and interactivity that might prove off-putting to some players, and the art that’s so much less evocative and polished than the prose, it’s also the case that very occasionally the writing gets over its skis – when the protagonist says of a pair of metal scissors that’s grown hot under direct sunlight that “they burned against his ear like a slow-motion boxing, the handle as hot and hard as any father’s hand”, my eyes rolled. But for how many big, big swings the author takes, it’s astonishing how few misses like this there are. It was also astonishing to me that for all the typical aspects of IF that January eschews, I missed basically none of them – this isn’t the sort of game that would be measurably improved by a hunger meter or premature bad endings. If you come to IF largely focused on the interactivity, this one might not be for you, but if the fiction side looms larger for you, there might not be a better game in the Comp.