Blood Island, by Billy Krolick
We are all, every one of us, unique perfect miracles, with thoughts, experiences, beliefs, feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears, (and bodies) that combine in unrepeated and unrepeatable ways to make us the individuals we are. But simultaneously, sometimes demography is destiny, and am I am betting that like 99% of the people who share my particular niche – early 40s bookishly-nerdy guy – also like House of Leaves. For those of y’all who haven’t read it, it’s an early-aughts pomo horror story that centers on a documentary made by a man whose family house is being overwritten by – or perhaps always connected to – an infinite, empty labyrinth. But the story of the documentary is surrounded by several other layers of narrative and commentary, including a film scholar who deconstructs the story as fast as the documentarian constructs it, which are set off through various cool typographical and word-art flourishes.
This is maybe an odd way to start a review of Blood Island, a choice-based reality show/slasher flick mash-up, but in some ways they’re doing a lot that’s similar. Blood Island’s engagingly-written narrative also centers on a horror movie (the slasher stuff pre-empts the reality TV, obviously enough), and also includes a bunch of media criticism intended to prod the audience the think about the tropes that it’s deploying. But unlike House of Leaves, it mashes all the different things it’s doing into a single narrative thread rather than imposing any kind of structure, and it neglects the emotional core of the characters at the heart of its story. It’s also way too excited about the media studies stuff, leaving the whole package unbalanced, as though the Camille Paglia chapter of House of Leaves took over half the book. When Blood Island is doing the thing that it’s trying to do, it works pretty well – but it spends way too much time talking about the thing rather than doing it.
So what is the thing? Well, as the genre mash-up indicates, it’s looking at the commonalities between slasher flicks and reality shows about dating – and spoiler alert, many of these are about gender. Thus the setup: you play a new contestant on a reality show where you’re isolated in a lovely beachy paradise with a bunch of other hot singles, and if you’re ever not coupled up, you’re at risk of getting sent home. But the previous season of the show was interrupted when a masked maniac stuck a cake knife into the back of one of the cast members, so as you’re gearing up to find love (or lust) you also need to worry about whether the killer’s also returned.
It’s no spoiler to confirm that yes, they have. As a result, there’s an engaging split in gameplay, because even as you’re picking which of the various bachelors and bachelorettes you want to get to know better (you can choose any gender identity and sexual orientation for your character you like; the game doesn’t care a jot, which is an enlightened attitude though does make scenes like the one where the other contestants are staring at your wet-tee-shirt-clad, heaving chest land a little a differently when you’ve decided your character is a middle-aged dude in mediocre shape) you’re also getting glimpses of the killer and deciding how to evade or confront them. It doesn’t take long for things to escalate drastically, with set-piece dates – a romantic scuba-dive! – turning into set-piece murder attempts – uh oh, there’s chum in the water!
Anyone who’s heard the phrase “Final Girl” will get why these two genres are being smashed together. The producers of these entertainments have a clear view of the mix of voyeurism and sexual moralizing that they expect their audiences to bring to the table, for one thing, and the process of winnowing a diverse cast down until there’s just an attractive white girl standing I’d assume plays out similarly in both.
Unfortunately, rather than juxtaposing these elements and creating space for the player to tease out the parallels, the game wants to like engage you in continued Socratic dialogue about this stuff to make sure you aren’t missing anything. Very frequently, the action will screech to a halt so one character or another can ask you why you think people like horror movies, of whether you think the killer is going to intentionally target people who drink and have sex, or what the formula to a successful reality TV show is. In a few places, this is OK – it makes sense for the contestants on one of these shows to reflect on how they work – but when these conversations are happening when you’re still bleeding from barely fending off an attack it feels deeply artificial. Beyond this being a suicidally bad idea from a strategic point of view, there’s no diegetic reason connecting the killer’s behavior to movies – it’s like spending your time unpacking the storytelling tropes in the Godfather trilogy when the real-life mob has put out a hit on you.
It could be the case that this is intentional, that the author is trying to undermine the emotional engagement of the various scenarios the game creates. Some late-game plot elements maybe reinforce this idea: so first, the character you’ve spent the most time with gets brutally murdered ¾ of the way through the game, which tanked my emotional engagement because I didn’t care about any of the rest of them, and knew that I’d survive to the end. And second, if most people in my specific demographic know House of Leaves, just about everybody in my age group knows Scream, and are probably going to think about it when an early sequence involves identifying the “rules” of horror movies – so having the twist here be exactly the same as the twist in Scream seems like a really questionable choice if you wanted to maintain tension. But I don’t understand why that would be the case! Indeed, when the Postmodern Studies 101 stuff recedes, some of the dating pieces can be cutely fun, and the killer’s various stratagems for getting at you often exhibit the mix of viciousness and humor you see in good slasher movies (or so I’ve heard; I’ve actually seen very few, I must confess). As a result, I can’t help wondering what a version of this story where the media crit stuff was separated out would look like – dare I say that the “Stateful Narration” approach @anon27656743 has taken in his recent games might be an interesting fit? – not only would that make the narrative aspects more compelling, I suspect they’d also prompt the player to engage more with the bigger questions the author is trying to frame, since they’d no longer be at war with the story.
Before closing, I have one more critique of one detail of Blood Island’s implementation, but it risks ruining the game – I wish I didn’t know it – so I’m going to spoiler-block it. Read at your peril. So in my playthrough, I chose to romance/make friends with Mona, who’s described as a jaded cynic – I am not a reality TV person so focusing on someone who was also not in the tank for this stuff seemed appealing, plus she’s Middle Eastern like my wife is, I dunno maybe I have a type. Anyway! I was surprised to find that despite her initially-crusty demeanor, she very quickly seemed to click with me and starting talking about e.g. how romantic the starlit night. On a hunch, I tried starting over and dragging the bookish, 20-something ingenue on dates, and sure enough, but for a very, very few bits of introductory writing, everything down to the specific dialogue appears to be the same regardless of who you pick. This even extends to changing the identity of the killer, so that the story plays out in exactly the same way, with almost exactly the same way, each time. I’m not one to harp on authors for not spending time writing a bunch of words no-one will ever see – I loved the completely-linear January, for example – but if the game is asking the player to engage with its characters and framing the choice of which one to build a relationship with as significant, having their personalities be completely interchangeable feels like a dirty trick indeed, a betrayal of players who approach the premise sincerely.