[IF Comp 2019] The Mysterious Stories of Caroline by Soham S

This has been a difficult review to write. I wanted to like this piece, but I believe it gravely mishandles its highly sensitive content in at least one of the possible endings.

Before I get to that, I want to say something about the interface first, just to get it out of the way so that we can then focus on the narrative content of the game. The Mysterious Stories of Caroline uses quite a bit of sound, and lots and lots of timed content. Neither made my experience more enjoyable. Whenever a sound clip started, Spotify would fall silent, the sound clip would play, and then Spotify would not restart. I’m willing to listen to your game’s continuous soundtrack, but small sounds that interrupt my own background music… preferably not. The timed events were even more annoying. I like to play a game at my own pace; having to wait after I have finished reading, just because the choice links have not yet appeared, interrupts that experience. This is, of course, especially notable on a second playthrough, when you quickly skim over large parts of the text. That said, I actually liked some of the interface ideas in the game, with the highlight being the appearance of the Mysterious Stories book. It looked good, and the pictures really improved the reading experience! So the presentation is certainly not all bad, but different choices could be made for a future game.

On to the more important part, which is the game’s narrative content. It tackles multiple heavy issues head on, including adoption, abandonment, paedophilia, unfair justice systems and mental illness. I applaud the audacity of this; but could it be that there are too many issues here? Certainly the story that unfolds is extremely complicated. It’s not just the story of a boy who has to confront the possibility that his mother may be a paedophile. It is also the story of a boy who was adopted and then ran away from his adoptive home; and of a boy who had been abandoned as a child, lived on the streets for years, and was then taken in by his own mother under false pretences; and of a man who has mental health problems related to coping with difficult social situations. There’s a lot to take in here, and I’m not sure there’s narrative room for all of it to play out. I felt uncertain about the actual mental health state of the protagonist. (Does he have anger issues? You can let him beat up a man, but the game just registers this as becoming ‘more confident’, and anger issues don’t come up afterwards.) And then, when you’re still trying to think your way through the paedophilia issues, there’s a sudden plot twist about your adoptive mother being your real mother, which makes everything more murky. And the interview you have with Kellner is so short, it doesn’t really illuminate anything. The reasons she gives for abandoning you border on the nonsensical – she need to get out, sure, but why not take you along? – but the protagonist doesn’t press her on it, maybe in part because the narrative needs to move on the courtroom decision. This story seems a clear case of simpler being better.

The story is mostly on rails, but how it ends depends to a significant extent on choices you make. My favourite scene was the one in the bedroom, when you discover the book. This was creepy; it shed new light on Kellner and the protagonist’s history; and, as I remarked above, it also looked good. Whatever you do, however, you’re always going to end up talking to Kellner – a bit weird, would she be allowed to just talk to future witnesses like that? – and having to make the momentous decision about whether or not to help her in the court case. The first time I chose to help her, or rather, to tell the truth in court. How any lawyer could have thought that it would be helpful to bring in a child she had treated the way she had treated me is beyond me, and helpful it wasn’t: Kellner got convicted. Fair enough, although the newspaper article that said that I couldn’t remember details I ought to be able to remember didn’t make much sense to me. I seemed to remember the childhood very well; and anyway, how could it have undermined the case for the defence? Still, I felt relatively positive about the narrative experience.

Then I replayed it, and of course I chose the other course of action: I told Kellner that I would not help her. To my surprise, the game immediately took this decision and turned it into a decision to frame her: to go to court with the express intention of lying and making her look bad. Nothing in the narrative had prepared me for this. Then, without any further input from my side, the game tells me that my lies have been exposed in court; that Kellner was acquitted, and that I now understand myself as a vile human being. Two weeks later, I commit suicide.

This narrative is frankly repugnant. Perhaps it is possible to tell the story of a victim of abuse who is filled with so much hatred that he makes an immoral decision, is overcome with self-loathing, and finally commits suicide. Perhaps. But telling that story would require immense sympathy and patience; it would require the writer to impart to the reader a deep understanding of the protagonist, of what makes him tick, of why he makes the decisions he does. It requires love. There’s nothing of that here. We move without any explanation from an understandable aversion of helping Kellner to the bizarre decision to frame her in court, and then, with only the most cursory of bridges, to the protagonist’s suicide. This callous moral and physical destruction of the protagonist is aesthetically indefensible. It cheapens everything that came before. It left me aghast.

I’m also sure that it’s not meant this way by the author. My hypothesis is that the author started out with a narrative thread in which the protagonist helps Kellner, and then added this ending because there had to be multiple endings… and this particular ending because it seemed nicely symmetric to the other one, in which it is Kellner who kills herself. I totally believe in the author’s good intentions, but I have to judge this particular ending as a spectacular misfire. Of course, it could just be changed! I hope it will be. Both the topic and the game deserve better.

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