Next up in IFComp reviews, we have “Sunday Afternoon” and “J’dal”. Only three more left after these ones, and I’m all done. Whew!
“Sunday Afternoon” by Virgil Hilts
Ooh, I liked this one a lot! You are a little boy in Victorian England spending a titular Sunday afternoon in the care of your uncle Stephen  and aunt Emma, trying to escape the boring confines of their boring house and boring books and boring Bible sermons so you can go outside on this bright sunny day.  Later on, you discover that there’s actually a framing device: you’re older, a soldier in World War One, and playing a storytelling game of sorts with your trenchmates to pass the time. Very neat.
The perspective of the young boy reminded me quite a bit of “Guilded Youth”, particularly in the sense that all these adult things are happening around you that you don’t entirely understand, but are just juicy enough to pique your interest. I also enjoyed that, as a little boy, you long for adventure and think the idea of going to war sounds really, really exciting, whereas, in the framing device, the whole conceit is that you’re pining for the lost innocence and simpler times of your youth. 
This definitely feels like one of the more polished games in the competition, too. The conversation system is well-hinted and feels less guess-the-noun-like than other games with an ask/tell system seem to; I even liked that if you tried to ask about an unimplemented topic, the player character says “Aunt Emma wouldn’t have anything interesting to say about that, surely; at least, nothing that you would find interesting.” It does say a lot about whom I’m playing.
Only gripe I have is that I feel like the game ended a bit abruptly. I thought we might go back to the framing device again, and see the soldiers’ reactions to the story, tying it all together, but all we get is one line. It was one of those “wait, that’s it? I must have missed an alternate ending or something; let me go back and check” things for me, but alas, that was the ending. Ah well.
“J’dal”, by Ryan Kinsman
You are J’dal, a young woman of colour in a D&D-esque fantasy world with the power of exceptionally good eyesight. Since this seems to be a fantasy world that, like ours, is dominated by white men, you are much maligned and no one takes you seriously, despite being very important to your team because of your eyesight powers. The team in question consists of your adopted dad, who’s your mentor and the only one who really understands you, Roderick the fighter, who’s kind of a douche, and Stolas the wizard, who’s kind of a know-it-all. Together, you must enter a cave and retrieve a standard fantasy artifact, puzzling your way through in the process.
First off, yay for representing women of colour as protagonists! And yay for attempting to grapple with racism and sexism issues! That said, there were some things about the representation of such that felt a little off to me. Like J’dal’s self-description including the sentence “Well, you can’t see the scar much with my black skin anyway.” For one thing, dark skin does visibly scar, and also, if I were describing myself, I’d just call it “my skin”.  Your mileage, of course, may vary. And of course, since this is a fantasy game, it could well be that J’dal literally possesses jet black skin of a sort that doesn’t visibly scar, in which case, forgive my presumption.
Generally speaking, though, I wish there’d been a bit more showing and less telling, when it comes to these issues. It was nice (okay, not actually nice, but you get the point) to see things like hotel rooms only being equipped with urinals, and being ogled when a puzzle required you to strip naked and go swimming, but I do wish there’d been more of the subtle microaggression-like interactions a marginalised person would experience. This probably could be accomplished with more detailed, nuanced writing of character dialogue and actions; the characters, as they stood, felt a bit flat and not fully realised. Because, though sometimes we may like to think of prejudiced white people as nasty racists and not much else, they’re still people in their own right, with their own motives and justifications.
Implementation in the game is also not fully realised, as I found myself in quite a few guess-the-verb-ish situations, particularly where fight scenes were concerned. And J’dal cheerfully announcing every time she was going to swim to the other side of the cave felt a little off, especially after the Big Reveal happens. It’s the author’s first game, apparently, and… well, I guess it’s not bad for a first game. Hopefully they’ll make more and better games in the future that do an even more effective job at tackling Important Subjects.
- This Stephen happens to be a rather familiar Reverend who’s been featured in a couple of previous competition games, giving a clue as to the identity of the rather obviously pseudonymous author. ↩
- Personally, as I’m sure most geeks of a similar stripe would agree, I’d have preferred to stay inside and read, but to each their own. ↩
- I don’t personally relate to the idea of nostalgia about my childhood, because being an adult is so much more fun and I actually do get to go on the kinds of adventures I could only dream about as a child… but then again, I’ve never had to go to war or anything, so on that front, the protagonist’s nostalgia is quite believable. ↩
- There should also be a comma before “anyway”. ↩
Only gripe I have is that I feel like the game ended a bit abruptly. I thought we might go back to the framing device again, and see the soldiers’ reactions to the story, tying it all together, but all we get is one line. It was one of those “wait, that’s it? I must have missed an alternate ending or something; let me go back and check” things for me, but alas, that was the ending.
The more I reflect on this, the more I think that it’s very reliant on the audience knowing how this kind of story goes, which is very much this author’s MO. There are many, many stories about the pleasant problems of growing up as a middle-class boy in rural English towns around the late Victorian and Edwardian, and WWI only needs to be gestured at to understand the end of the story: grisly death or horrified, PTSD-riddled, troublingly-incomplete disillusionment.
Re: scarring, I got the impression quite early on that J’dal was a dark elf or drow, hence the literally-black skin and seeing in the dark. (Drow are pretty much Exhibit A in the unsubtle colour-coding and sexism of D&D-ish fantasy, so if you were wanting to do a revisionist take on D&D they’d be a logical choice.)
Ah, yeah, my experience with D&D is limited enough not to be super familiar with those particular creatures, so good to know!