Review: Social Lycanthropy Disorder

Below is my review of Social Lycanthropy Disorder, winner of Le Grand Guignol. It contains a few spoilers:

Social Lycanthropy Disorder Review

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Social Anxiety Disorder was simply called “shyness”. It was considered less a disorder than an indelible character trait. The conversation usually ran like this: “What’s wrong with X?” “Oh, nothing, he’s just shy.”

The turning point for me came in 1991, when I was at a wrap party for a student film we’d made starring Craig Charles of Red Dwarf. We’d been working with him for a week. Clearly I’d been hanging around the fringes of the party, because Mr Charles approached me and said he’d noticed I wasn’t joining in. He then gave me a pep talk, and I remember the advice he gave me to this day. He said “just say any old shite that comes into your head. That’s what I do. What’s the worst that can happen?” If the advice had come from anyone other than a famous TV star, I doubt it would have made the same impact, but I was touched that he’d noticed how uncomfortable I was and that he’d taken the time to offer his help. I took his advice to heart, and over time I went from being the kind of person who doesn’t say boo to a goose to the sort of person who turns up to the party in the most outrageous costume and relishes the attention. I’m still quiet, but if you asked any of my friends if I was shy they’d probably laugh out loud.

For me, then, playing Social Lycanthropy Disorder was an uncomfortable reminder of just how far I’ve come. The player character is painfully shy, and the first time I played I struggled with the fact that few of the choices I was presented with matched what I would have done in real life. Pretty much everything I tried increased the “Discomfort” statistic. I found it quite hard to choose the more conservative options, since they went completely against my nature, but this is a game that is best appreciated by exploring all the options. There are eight achievements, five bad endings and two “less bad” endings. At least one of the “less bad” endings is actually really, really good, but the description “less bad” is fair considering that the PC is something of a glass-half-empty person. It is definitely worth taking the time to unlock all the different options and achievements, and you get to play a funny bonus story when you do.

An interesting cultural difference is in the way alcohol is depicted in the game. In Britain it’s valued as a social lubricant. In moderate doses it releases inhibitions and helps us to relax, which, after all, is the whole reason people drink it at parties. Yes, it can be a problem if you become reliant on it, but if you’re chronically shy it can be a real help. From what I can tell, America takes a rather more puritanical view of alcohol, and this is reflected in the game. The PC in Social Lycanthropy Disorder wants to avoid drinking, in case they reveal their big secret. Even sampling the punch leads immediately to a “bad” ending in which the PC blurts everything out to someone they hardly know. It’s a bit all-or-nothing, and I’d have preferred a more nuanced depiction of my favourite vice.

The big secret the PC is trying to conceal is that they are a werewolf. The title of the game implies that lycanthropy is a metaphor for Social Anxiety Disorder itself, but this isn’t really the case. Being shy isn’t something you can keep a secret. The lycanthropy is instead the reason the PC gives themselves for having the disorder. It could be a metaphor for sexual orientation, or for something like body dysmorphia. I was a very skinny youth, and I often attributed my shyness to self-consciousness about my physique. But here’s the thing about secrets - a friend is someone you feel comfortable revealing your secrets to. One of the bad endings has the PC revealing theirs to the character Morgan. She immediately demonstrates her intolerance and forces the PC to leave the party. The PC reveals it by accident rather than by design, but I thought it was sad that “opening up” leads to disaster, and that there was no ending where “being yourself” leads to a positive outcome.

The NPCs in the game are a mixed bag. Some of them are very pleasant. Some are vacuous and a bit full of themselves and not really worth the bother of getting to know. One of the worst things about having low self esteem is needing everybody to like you. The more confident you are, the less of a people-pleaser you become. Just because not everyone likes you doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. The PC in this game has yet to learn that valuable lesson, and this is reflected in some of the “bad” endings. Coming across a bit “too weird” to people you barely know is not something to agnonise about, it’s something to laugh about, and then quickly forget about. Worrying too much about what others think of us stems from the fear that we may be left without friends or intimacy, but that simply isn’t true. Seeking the approval of others often comes at the expense of your own individuality, and the people you really want to surround yourself with are those like you for who you are.

As a depiction of what it’s like to be young, awkward and shy, Social Lycanthropy Disorder works very well indeed. I felt strongly for the PC. I hope it works out with Rachel, and I hope that they won’t leave it too late to open up to her about their lycanthropy. Then, maybe, one day, they’ll be able to feel comfortable in their own, hairy skin.

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Thanks for the review! I’m glad you liked the game overall.

There actually is a middle ground on the alcohol, if you either insist on the gin and tonic or let George make you a cocktail without telling him to make it really strong. It’s not meant to be anti-drinking, just anti-trying to overcome your nerves by deliberately drinking more than you can handle and then oversharing in a way that you’re embarrassed by the next day. Which is, ahem, definitely not something I ever did when I was the PC’s age. I could probably have done more to emphasize that the PC is a lightweight and while she does want to get drunk, to take the options that are very high in alcohol content is to deliberately go past where she knows her limits are. (It would also probably be more realistic if this involved having multiple drinks, but it was easier for gameplay purposes to make this a single event.)

I hear you about the protagonist not actually being able to open up to anyone; I did notice the unfortunate implications of that while writing, but that is, I guess, the eternal problem with using supernatural or superpowered entities as a metaphor for anything in the real world. Far better writers than I have stumbled into situations that either make sense according to the internal logic of the fictional world but have unfortunate implications when you apply the metaphor, or make sense for the real-world subject of the metaphor but don’t actually make sense in-universe. Being at a party when you’re about to turn into a werewolf any minute really is a bad idea, which is not so much true of any of the real-life things that that could stand in for.

It’s definitely true that the Discomfort levels and the “badness” of some of the endings are more based on the protagonist’s perception of how big of a deal this is rather than it actually being a big deal, and the protagonist also makes a lot of assumptions about what people are thinking or what their reactions mean that aren’t really accurate. I could probably have done more to make it clear that her perceptions are skewed and I’m not endorsing them (although I did hope the absurdity of being more worried about leaving the party early than about turning into a werewolf would do some of the heavy lifting there), but I guess I was more trying to portray what this kind of situation is like than to make a statement about it.

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From what I’ve seen about this game so far, that’s actually the point, isn’t it?

I have read the review and the discussion about this game with growing interest. It seems like it will be quite recognizable (well, not the part about growing claws and backhair, I hope…).

It’s definitely on my to play-list.

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It is! I just wonder whether I should have made it a little more obvious that the PC is not entirely a reliable narrator.

Anyway, glad the game has piqued your interest, and I hope you enjoy it!

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