The Play – a LimboInteractive Game Review
I went to New York City to direct a play, and all I got was this lousy review.
tl;dr Version: It’s not for everyone, but it really ought to be.
‘Splain, Lucy Version: My dear friend, Deirdra Kiai, is always looking for new interactive storytelling challenges, and in particular, new ways to communicate her views on alienation, stereotypes, and racial and gender equality. With ‘The Play’, her new Undum-based IF-comp piece, she hits a really nice balance between gender theory discussion and light-hearted entertainment. The meaty stuff is there if you have educated sensibilities, but it’s not obvious in its challenge to your worldview if you don’t. Perhaps not as overt in delivering its message, but I suspect that ‘The Play’ is all the more seductive for its fairly subtle approach to addressing the issue. And it’s a fun story, too.
Boring Version: I’m writing this in anticipation of the impending ‘release’ of ‘The Play’. Deirdra has been making games for about a decade or so now, since she was a teenager, and has always done it her own special way, which I think is refreshing and important these days. As well, with each new outing, her authorial voice and grasp of crafting conceptual statements grows stronger and more refined. The Play is a fine example of both these traits. Also, she has deftly avoided the issue that has often proved both an asset and a liability in her previous works, in that she favours a highly personalized art style for her games, often drawn by herself in a slightly naive cartoon style that has been known to polarize critics of her work. This time around, she makes very good use of the new storytelling system, Undum, which is a context-sensitive, hyperlink-based ‘Choose Your Own Story’-type Interactive Fiction engine. As the game is essentially text-based, fans of her games can once more enjoy her work, while her more artistically-challenged critics are silenced. I wouldn’t want her to abandon graphical stories entirely, but it’s a nice way for her to prove some of her gaming theories whilst thumbing her nose at her detractors.
Full disclosure time: Back around 2007 or thereabouts, I started collaborating with Deirdra on a new game idea we hashed out together, called ‘Stage!’. It was going to be a fun little exploration of theatrical idiosyncrasies and gender politics, co-written and drawn by both of us. I drew inspiration from the American-made, star-studded movie adaptation of the farcical English stage play by Michael Frayn, Noises Off, one of my all-time favourite films*. Deirdra ended up renting a copy and was soon entranced as well. As a fitting homage, I even bestowed our director with the name of the director from the film, Lloyd Fellowes.
The thing is, The Play is NOT Stage!. It’s not about the art (that I didn’t finish drawing). It’s not about most of the cast having been changed. It’s especially not because I wasn’t involved in the rewrites. Or maybe it is. See, the thing is, Deirdra is a hell of a lot smarter and more accomplished than I am. She’s also capable of spotting patterns, tropes and institutionalised prejudices that I often overlook. If I had been involved in rewriting Stage! into The Play, it almost certainly wouldn’t be as smart or as meaningful.
I suspect the kernel for the sexual harassment thread that Deirdra explores in some versions of the branching plot may have been born from the ashes of an offhanded joke I wrote into Stage! that we immediately decided needed to skewered for its inappropriateness. I don’t lay claim to any part of what she actually did with the idea; Deirdra has been a staunch feminist for longer than I’ve known her, and really, she probably would have written it the way she did even if Stage! had never (almost) been.
As it is, I suspect that firing me is the best thing that ever happened to Stage!. I may yet finish drawing the original script some day, but in truth, I’m not sure there’s much point; The Play is so much better.
Now, the thing is, I haven’t played The Play enough times to know all of its ins and outs. In fact, some of what I know about the game comes from what I subsequently learned from reading the comments of fellow beta testers, as well as a really sweet review written by Emily Short, who is also much smarter than me, and knows far, far more about interactive storytelling than I ever will. I would task myself the challenge of uncovering every conceivable alternate path in The Play, but the sad truth is, I would never be sure I’d figured it all out without reading the script, which I don’t have and won’t ask for because it’s none of my damned business now, and I believe it’s better for all concerned if it stays that way. As well, I’m supposed to be working on other stuff right now. I’m not working on what I’m supposed to at the moment, but at least I’m writing, which makes this a good work day in any case.
So I henceforth challenge you, my-loyal-reader-who-is-NOT-Deirdra, to go forth and play The Play, and then tell her what you thought of it. It’s more fun than sitting around here waiting for me to update, I’m quite sure.
* ‘esteemed’ movie critics of the time panned it for what it wasn’t; the stage play. I think it’s brilliant for what it actually is, though I’m hesitant to try to define it. I’ve often felt professional movie critics aren’t worth spit, and wouldn’t mind seeing them loaded up in the proverbial bus with those lawyers you may have heard about. Anyway, Rotten Tomatoes records it as having a 57% freshness rating. Whatever. See it for yourself; it’s hysterical, and fully deserving of whatever cult status it may have now.
ETA: I corrected my spelling. I still refer to the game as just ‘Play’, which is silly because I’ve known the title for ages.