Tuesday, October 08, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] "Dad vs. Unicorn" by PaperBlurt

The Interactive Fiction Competition is back! Spoilers behind the break.

Dad vs. Unicorn tells the story of a dad and a son who live together but are completely out of touch. In the end, a unicorn jumps from the bushes and kills one of the two -- the player's choice. You can play the story from the perspective of each of the three participants.

Before I embark on an analysis of the thematic content of the game, a quick remark on the interactivity of the game. There is one highly effective scene where dad complains about his son in very specific, material terms -- and as you click on them and read the thoughts behind them, these words change into more abstract, deeper words. "... all that fucking money that I throw away on him..." becomes "... all that fucking LOVE that I throw away on him ...". I found this an effective device for showing not just dad's thoughts, but also his habit of hiding behind the concrete and easily grasped.

The rest of the game, however, just consists of lists of which you have to choose and read every item before you can continue. There is no player agency (the death scenes are inconsequential), and except for the one scene, not much other use of interactivity either. So I'm not quite sold on Dad vs. Unicorn as a piece of interactive literature.

On to the theme. The game is about a dysfunctional relationship between a dad and his son. Dad assumes his son will exhibit all kind of stereotypically masculine behaviour, such as a love for mopeds, meat, and ice skating. (I'm not sure how ice skating belongs in that list, but that might be a cultural thing.) Unfortunately, his son is the opposite of a macho boy, and doesn't enjoy the things and activities that dad wants him to enjoy. This disappoints dad, who basically gives up on the boy.

A boy who doesn't fit gender stereotypes, but is raised by a dad who thinks in those stereotypes -- that is a powerful situation. It is, for instance, the central situation of Billy Eliot, in which a traditional father must somehow come to terms with the fact that his son wants to be a ballet dancer. But to make the most of this situation, one thing is essential: the father must be a loving parent. Otherwise, there is no struggle, at least not within the father.

Here, Dad vs. Unicorn is sadly lacking. Dad is an utterly one-dimensional character whose obsession with masculinity is only trumped by his disconnection from every kind of love. His problem is not that he cannot accept his son for who he really is. His problem is that he is a perfect egotist, interested in nobody but himself. We do not for a moment believe that this awful guy would be more loving to a boy who fitted his gender stereotypes better. He is simply incapable of loving.

The son himself is presented as a victim, nothing more. Significantly, while we learn about the ways in which he has failed to live up to dad's stereotypical expectation, we learn nothing about the positive sides of his character. Presumably, we are meant to feel compassion with him -- but there is nobody there to feel compassion with. (With? Toward? To? Native speakers of English, what is the right word here?) The boy is just a cypher.

PaperBlurt -- whoever that may be -- have not done themselves a favour with these characterisations. Presumably, the piece is meant to explore the destructive power of gender stereotypes. But by making the father into a loveless ass, they've made that exploration impossible; for his lack of love trumps his inability to think about gender in some other way. Indeed, one could reasonably suggest that in portraying dad as somebody utterly incapable of empathy, PaperBlurt have fallen victim to exactly the stereotypical thinking about masculinity that they wish to avoid.

Enter the unicorn. This fabled beast is presented as the epitome of masculinity: a violent bully, unable to care about anything but his own strength and pride. In case you missed the symbolism, PaperBlurt are careful to make it explicit in terms that nobody can miss:
Your deadly forehead penis is your scepter!
I admit it: I love that line.

(As the writer of Nemesis Macana -- a game that gives a sexual reinterpretation of the entire history of IF -- obviously has to.)

And in fact, as an interpretation of the symbolism of the unicorn, it is quite accurate. It is also rather unsubtle, especially since the symbolic counterweight is missing: there is no virgin to calm the unicorn, no cup to symbolise the feminine. Perhaps ruthless violence is what you get when you let the masculine principle run rampant; but nobody has ever believed that it should be allowed to do so. Even those who defend gender stereotypes, in fact, especially those people, would claim that the masculine should be balanced by the feminine.

(By the way, I believe it is possible to rescue the masculine and feminine archetype without succumbing to sexism. But let's not go there.)

So what is the appearance of the unicorn supposed to teach us? That dad's ideals lead to death and violence? But that makes a straw man even of the unsophisticated defenders of gender stereotypes. That the masculine must be balanced by the feminine? In other words, that this family is dysfunctional because there is no mother? Nothing in the work suggests that PaperBlurt consciously wants to defend conservative family values, but in the end, I'm afraid that is the only lesson I can take from it -- unconvincing though it may be.

Because the game seems to fail rather baldly in exploring its theme and explaining its message, and isn't that successful in terms of interactivity, I'm ratting it 5 out of 10. That doesn't mean it's not worth playing, though.


  1. I would go with "feel compassion towards".

  2. I just finished reviewing this on my own blog. Frankly, I hated this piece when I played it. While writing about it, I developed a little more respect. I concluded:
    "The dad totally deserved his fate. I chose to kill him from all three perspectives. I suppose there was some catharsis in that."

    There is some catharsis in that. And so there is some value in the game. But it still ranks low for me.