(One amazing IF-piece! By the otherwise unknown author Keanhid Connor… Cannery Vale - Details (ifdb.org))
The Ferris Wheel goes Round and Round…
A XYZZY award for Best Setting and several nominations in other categories for an author otherwise unheard of? Intriguing, but in no way unique. Still, worth a bit of sleuthing…
Keanhid Connor… It does have a familiar ring to it, no? Juggling the letters around gives us, among a list of other rather amusing possibilities, none other than Hanon Ondricek! A quick click of the author’s name in the end credits confirms this by unscrambling the letters.
- Structure and relations:
Cannery Vale is an interactive experience consisting of multiple layers of reality. While I was sitting in front of my computer screen actively playing, I was deeply engaged with the twisting and turning story, clicking links and options to see what would be the result.
Most of my time away from the game however was spent thinking about how this thing actually fit together. I found myself analyzing the ins and outs, the different levels of agency, the way the influences of the various real and imaginary characters intersected and clicked into each other. Allow me a moment to try and untangle my thoughts.
-Our clever sleuthing has uncovered that Hanon Ondricek wrote Cannery Vale under the pseudonym of Keanhid Connor. A first obvious, albeit mostly inconsequential, layer of fictionalisation and obfuscation.
-Keanhid Connor (let us assume the reality of this personage, if only for entertainment value) has written the game software. It defines the outer limits of the work. All the different story elements and how they affect each other, the characters, the plot-twists, the overarching structure. The entire collection of potential events lies in wait in this piece of software.
-Inside the IF-piece, we come upon a layer of “Real”: A writer (let’s call him Inkhorn O.D. Cane) has secluded himself from all distractions in a hotel room. This, he hopes, will help him in finally finishing his novel. This fictional writer introduces characters and landmarks, writes and deletes events, activates possibilities and enforces boundaries for the protagonist to act upon. In general, Inkhorn O.D. Cane tweaks the setting in the hopes of finding a breakthrough to bring his novel to a satisfactory ending.
-Underneath this, we encounter a layer of “Fictional”: The novel’s main character (One Nick Hardon, if you will) is set loose in the setting created during the most recent writing session, free to poke and flail around. He is not under the conscious control of the writer, who experiences these sequences only through dreams while napping. Often One Nick Hardon escapes or derails the forward progression of the plot to get lost in pointless activities or hurl himself into unforeseen deathtraps. These pointless exploratory shenanigans and dead-ends are necessary feedback for the writer to get a grasp of behaviour and mutual influence of setting and protagonist.
-Finally, of course, we come full circle back to our out-of-game reality: The player (S. Von Rasor, in this instance) sits in front of his computer screen and interacts with the IF-piece. He engages with the game at multiple levels:
a) During the writing stage, he steers Inkhorn O.D. Cane in creating the setting, opening and closing options and pathways to take advantage of inside the world of the novel.
b) During the novel stage, he inhabits One Nick Hardon while exploring the most recent iteration of the setting in detail, looking for ways to get further in the narrative. Much like the protagonist himself, the player is flying blind here, especially for the first half of the game.
Ultimately, the player is looking for a Win-condition.
S. Von Rasor does this by taking control of both the writer’s conscious decisions about setting and plot and the subconscious investigation of the consequences of the writer’s choices as the protagonist in the dream-sequences. The fact that the two sets of circumstances do not easily flow into one another is exemplified in Inkhorn O.D. Cane’s frequent complaints about One Nick Hardon’s taking the narrative into his own hands (and dying for the twelfth time…)
When disregarding the story content and looking at the form of the game, Cannery Vale very much resembles an elaborate puzzlebox where actions on one end have causally related consequences on the other end, sometimes predictable, sometimes unexpected. In fact, I was often reminded of games like Chasm, Archipelago, or Myst. Pulling a lever, pressing a button, entering a combination makes something happen in a distant location, and it’s necessary to investigate the game-world to find out exactly what has changed.
Here, the writing stage consists of flipping switches, quite randomly at first, to make things happen in the novel-world. Investigating these changes requires slipping into the novel’s protagonist and descending into Inkhorn O.D. Cane’s imagination through his dreams.
Interestingly, and in keeping with the writing process, One Nick Hardon’s actions in the novel feed back into the conscious mind of the writer, resulting in more switches to flip to tweak the setting in subsequent iterations of the loop.
This last observation is related to another characteristic of the game. It has a similarity to that genre of games where the player controls doppelgänger PCs, or parallel-universe twins, where the actions of one in their domain/time help the other progress. On various levels of reality in Cannery Vale, characters have the power to cooperate with (or work against) eachother/themselves.
-Above, I have described the mutual feedback loop between Inkhorn O.D. Cane and One Nick Hardon, wherein writer and protagonist work together towards further understanding and exploration of the novel’s narrative. From another viewpoint one could say that the writer does a bunch of preparation and then trusts his subconscious to bring the story to life and feel out the details, meaning that the writer is cooperating with himself.
-One Nick Hardon works together with other iterations of himself. Some objects or pathways are only accessible with certain narrative passages turned on or off, while later in the story those same passages need to be the other way around. Therefore, the protagonist must explore the world in one loop to acquire a cetain objective, which then is remembered and passed on to his next incarnation in the following loop, even though the passage which made that objective possible has now been closed off.
-S. Von Rasor, too, is cooperating with himself. Through the actions of both incarnations he controls in both layers of the game-reality, and the repetition with variations throughout the writing loop, he aligns Inkhorn O.D. Cane’s and One Nick Hardon’s choices with his goal: getting further in the game, seeing more of the story, approacing closer and closer to the Win-condition.
-(And let’s not forget to tip our hat to Keanhid Connor, who made this all possible with his creation of the universe.)
Despite my abstract comparison to mechanical puzzleboxes, Cannery Vale offers a deeply meaningful narrative experience once you drop down into its world and become involved in the story.
An unnamed man suffering from adventure-induced amnesia (a fact humorously lampshaded by the writer), regains consciousness on a deserted beach. His search for himself leads him to the end of the road, the top of the island. On his way, he must overcome obstacles, convince others to help him, escape dangers. Pretty archetypal, right? Maybe even a bit (IF-)cliché?
Well that’s the point. Here lies the brilliance of the layers, the writer/novel framework. The player engages with both the writer-persona and the novel-protagonist to shape this archetypal narrative template into an interesting story full of discrete, personal events.
Once the form of this story starts to come forward, within the boundaries set by Keanhid Connor, it’s an exciting, surprising, sometimes scary mystery. Threatening atmosphere lightened by funny and romantic moments, detailed conversations with believable characters, a bunch of rather explicit sex-stuff, a naturally flowing progression of events to their inevitable conclusion.
I have to admit, I don’t know. It felt like it when I finished, an organic whole with a natural flow.
As I only played through once, though, there are certainly many secrets and pathways I did not see, corners and roads I did not fully explore. That probably means there are many more endings, and certainly more ways to reach an ending, than I experienced.
The ending I did experience was fulfilling, sad, enlightening, thought-provoking. Much like the feedback-centered mechanics of the game, the story twisted back onto itself, spitting me out where I started. Not in any way does this take away from the insight I gained along the way though.
I felt emotionally drained and refilled, newly aware of the circle of losing and loving, having and giving.
(Naked I. Chronon / Don Kain N. Ochre / Anni Horned Cok / Nanoroid Neck)