[IF Comp 2019] Each-uisge by Jac Colvin

Each-uisge is a supernatural horror story set in Scotland and based on Scottish mythology. You play a child of around ten years old who has to confront an animal that may be just a horse, but is probably either a dangerous kelpie or an even more dangerous each-uisge. In spite of the prominent horror elements you can’t actually die, I believe, and the entire piece feels like it’s aimed at perhaps a younger teen audience. (The blurb tells us that parental guidance is recommended for younger children, though I’m not sure how I’d guide a younger child through a story in which you can callously let loose a monster that will kill your neighbour.)

What I like most about the piece is that it takes this rather unknown bit of mythology – no vampire or werewolf or other overused creature – and keeps us in suspense about what kind of story is going to unfold around it. For a while, I thought it was going to descend into full-scale horror, with me being devoured by the demonic horse as soon as I freed it. But no, it all ends on a rather more tranquil note, which is equally fitting. The game is also solidly made, with options being greyed out based on your earlier decisions, and a nice list of achievements that gets automatically updated as you reach more of the possible ending events.

There’s room for improvement too, and I would especially single out the prose here. It is too verbose; too many words that add nothing to the reader’s experience, and by adding nothing, detract from it. To take something from the initial page:
“I’m busy getting breakfast sorted! If you don’t want it burnt, I’m sure you’re old enough to answer the front door for once!” The sound of your mother’s voice echoes sharply from the adjacent kitchen, while the smell of charcoal belies her promise of an uncharred meal.
There’s a lot of information there, and much of it could be lost without loss – indeed, with gain. Should we care that the kitchen is adjacent or that the voice echoes sharply? Not really. “I’m sure you’re old enough to answer the front door for once” reads better as “You’re old enough to answer the door, child!” And we already know that it’s the mother saying this, because she has just been addressed. So maybe render this entire paragraph as:
“I’m busy getting breakfast sorted! If you don’t want it burnt, you’re old enough to answer the door yourself!” The smell coming from the kitchen belies her promise of an uncharred meal.
There’s less to take in for the reader, which means that what is there is taken in better. Also, delivering the same story content in 15 minutes (say) instead of 20 minunes simply means that it will pack a bigger punch! So as I was thinking about the game, I decided to write in my review: “The author should sit down with every page of text and attempt to trim it by 25%.” Then I read Sam Ashwell’s review… and, uh, he literally writes: “With a heavy cut – maybe reducing the word count of the average paragraph by about a third – this would flow much more naturally, be more enjoyable to read, and impart more drama.” Which finally allows us to quantify exactly our respective levels of criticism!

In fact, he is spot on about the other weaknesses of the game. The first, which I’ve also seen mentioned by other reviewers, is that the game in some circumstances seems to force you into a direction that just doesn’t fit the choices you’ve been making. In my first playthrough, I consistently chose to believe that the monster is evil, and that I should stay away from him. And yet here I am, stealing food from the house (I didn’t even understand why I was doing this, at first) and then going to check on the horse! There is some attempt to justify this through the mental powers of the horse, but at this point in the story it is described as tired and without spirit, so that didn’t really ring true. Near the end of the story, the choices work pretty well; but here in the beginning, it feels like you’re forced down a lane even if you explicitly choose not to go there.

My final and smallest criticism would be that the game hews more closely to some standard ChoiceScript conventions than seems desirable. Choosing a name and a gender makes some sense in the big, story-of-your-life, be-what-you-want tales that are typical of Choice of Games; it makes little sense here, and if anything, stands in the way of clear characterisation. Also… since the names are not immediately recognisable as names, I didn’t even immediately understand they were names! “Bring the milk in here as quick as you can… [1] Aoife [2] Ealar [3] The sound of her voice is lost as you run outside, but you know she called you by name which is…” I was like, what on Earth does “Aoife” mean? Has something gone wrong with this programme? And then after I had processed the third choice, it finally dawned on me.

In summary, I can say that I enjoyed Each-uisge; I liked learning this particular piece of mythology; and I went back and played the game a second time to check out what changes and what kinds of endings are possible. There are ways in which both the story and the telling could be more effective; and I feel I’m not quite the intended audience, given the young adult vibes of some of the text. A solid piece; I agree with everything in the Ashwell review, but my score will be several points higher.

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