Friday, 15 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Ms. Lojka by Jordan Magnuson

I just finished a music and video project and have turned my gaze back to IF to find Spring Thing.

They say that in Australia, I could call it 'Fall Fooferal'. If 'they' are trying to do me a kindness in saying this, they are off base. No Australian would say 'Fall'. I doubt they'd ever say 'Fooferal', either. Therefore I'm calling it Autumn All Stars, prejudice of positivity be damned.

Ms. Lojka by Jordan Magnuson (you can click this link to play it online)

Ms. Lojka is a weird lady who lives in a weird tower in New York and does weird things: so says the weird narrator, via my paraphrasing, in the tale also called Ms. Lojka. The game says on the box that it is not for children. It took me about twenty minutes to play.

My response to this game was all over the place, though I must frame this statement in a positive arch where I would say that if you like morbid intrigue, I recommend Ms. Lojka. It also has great audiovisual and aesthetic strength of the kind that makes me say it is the most expensive-looking (in a Hollywood sense) Twine I have encountered. I will still elaborate in this review on link offerings whose rhyme and reason I could not discern, features I wish creators would not enforce when using the Twine engine, and, at considerable length after some dots, what I made of the game's final message.

Ms. Lojka's introductory image, a scary pastel of a dour woman looking right at you, establishes a mood of anticipatory fearfulness that prevails for the duration. The next image fades in, an impressionist-style pastel of a New York street. An improbable ziggurat stands in the background. The prose of the narrator's thoughts begins to appear, typed onto the screen in real time to the accompaniment of chattering typewriter audio.

Here's something really creepy about the typing, at least on a Mac – if you hide the browser window which is running the game, or move it to another space, the narrator stops typing right where he is. The sounds stop. The letters stop appearing. As soon as you unhide or bring the window back, he continues typing from the very next letter. Awesome!

The narrator turns out to be a glib and somewhat sardonic observer of New York. He speculates on the existence of one Ms. Lojka who dwells in the tower, what she does up there (violence) and what she might represent. Clickable phrases in the narration lead to prose elaborations of the kind you might expect. You can guide the narrator's thoughts around a little bit, but over the course of the game, no prevailing design scheme of much force emerges. Sometimes you get one thought or one slice of history instead of another. Sometimes the choices just aren't very different or comparable. They don't start to construct a frame of reference in relation to each other that would cause you to invest in them with intentionality, or even with much useful speculation.

In short, for ninety percent of the story, I didn't really know why I was clicking one link or another except to make the prose advance in general. I did have a fearful sense of, 'What might happen next?' but that came from (1) the strength of the game's outward aesthetic (2) the game's initial cues that I should be fearful (3) the morbid-leaning speculations of the narrator. It didn't come from anything I clicked, or any anticipation of outcomes or changes based on words I clicked.

Some of the links are emotion or concept words which, when clicked, send you to a black screen which types the narrator's less-filtered inner thoughts, making for a sort of pathological critic channel. The thoughts are brief and often self-correcting (the latter a neat effect) but they are so abstract in relation to the regular narration that they didn't make me feel things. I couldn't hang them on details at the time, though I was tempted to do so in retrospect of the game's ending.

The inner thoughts become more mottled and unsettled as the game progresses, but their practical effect on me was to swell my annoyance that I couldn't really tell when the thought links were ready to click. You have to wait for the thoughts to settle, then you wait a bit more, then you realise, 'OK, the words have stopped moving. I can click now.'

This bumpy business took me in and out of the headspace. My belief is still that the performative/interface/temporal effects that Twine authors can brandish are mostly being used to querulous effect. They are definitely of querulous effect when the issue of replayability is a factor. This game does eventually ask you if you want to play it again in a different way, thus implying there would be a significant variance of content if you were to do so. Knowing that I could not hasten through any of the real-time typewriter text or the thought-shifting black screens was the most immediate reason that I didn't.

I frankly discuss the game outcome that I obtained below the dots-meets-cut.

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In the ending I reached, the game basically says that we (the narrator) have attributed a bunch of weird evils to Ms. Lojka. She lives in a creepy tower in New York. She kills animals and dumps them nearby. She may also have used witch powers to cause a man to be run over. And then the game says: Actually, it's you who greases the wheels of society with blood everyday to help do things like build big towers in New York. You accuse Ms. Lojka of being weird and evil, but really you're complicit in being weird and evil every day.

Setting the overall pessimism of the idea and its very general terms aside for a moment, for this turn to work or be felt logically, the player needs to have been drawn thoroughly into identifying with the narrator in the first place. We also need to have identified the narrator as Normal, Typical and/or Ignorant so that we might align his condemnation of Ms. Lojka as a weird foreign evil with him being a self-oblivious, irresponsible person.

This is the big problem with Ms. Lojka. The narrator comes across as a super weirdo right off the bat. The whole world is weird. In its magic realism, I didn't identify much with anybody. The character I speculated about psychologically was the narrator. I only speculated about Ms. Lojka in terms of her being a figure in an unsolved mystery story. The narrator reminded me a little of sociopathic characters I've seen in films, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. The game's abstract black screen thought sequences further confused any coherent sense of humanity I might have drawn from him. Ultimately, this was not a guy I would use to set up ideas of typical behaviours and beliefs of the modern city-dweller, but it's not like the gameworld was amenable to having anybody in that role in the first place. It was all strange and vague.

So in the end, the game implied I had identified with the narrator, and that I was therefore a hypocrite for having awful ideas about Ms. Lojka. The 'I/You' accusatory text which rewrites itself endlessly on the last screen (a brilliant way to deliver this idea, had I accepted its premise) makes it hard to draw up an alternate reading of this particular ending that isn't conflationary about the identity positions involved.

Personally I am weary of (and sometimes angry) at j'accuse and trick games which make broad claims about the failings and complicit guilts of some blob of people, usually ending with the pointing finger. This game seemed to fingerpoint on a non-working foundation of fairly abstract content.

Yet, while by now I probably sound extremely displeased about everything in Ms. Lojka, I'm not. I found it aesthetically strong, and the story was appealingly weird and mysterious. Even though I didn't get is link scheme, and I got tired of waiting for the typewriter, and I got tired of clicking my way out of the black screen of inner thoughts, and that I wouldn't replay it because of those things – I found it to be a compelling experience.

In terms of the possibility of other endings, I'm content that an ending a player reaches in good faith is an ending a player can be content with. If there's a scheme behind the possible clicks to be made in Ms. Lojka that caused me to end up with my ending, as if it was the one I, the driver, selected, that scheme was opaque, and obviously off target. I couldn't discern patterns amongst the choices other than that I started to be able to tell which ones would lead to the black screen of broiling thoughts, and I started avoiding them.

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