19 November 2011

How Suzy Got Her Powers

As promised, I'm posting my thoughts on this year's ADRIFT games from the IFComp in the form of letters to the authors. I'm beginning tonight with a letter to David Whyld, author of "How Suzy Got Her Powers."

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I was glad to see you entered IFComp this year, as I've been glad for your renewed activity with IF in general. Unfortunately, I have to say I was disappointed with your IFComp entry this year. Perhaps I'm just used to expecting off-the-wall comedy from your work, but I can't say I haven't also enjoyed your more serious writings like "The Final Question." I think part of what nagged at me about this one was that it seemed more like an IntroComp entry than one meant as an IFComp entry, so it felt out of place. As a superhero origin story, it left me unfulfilled.

A superhero origin story needs to go beyond the plain fact of how one gets their powers. To take an example, Peter Parker doesn't just get bitten by a spider, "The End." He gets bitten by a spider and chooses to use that power become a crime fighter. An origin story should tell us what a hero fights and why. Suzy, aka Scarlet, is fighting... what exactly? We don't ever really see it. She's not fighting from intrinsic motivation either, which makes her harder to work into the mold of a heroic figure. A lot more is left vague than I would've liked in that regard.

Superheroes need to be strong characters, defined by what they do. What does Suzy do? The interpretation I got was that she's a sexually harrassed waitress who hates kids and lugs around useless items that she loathes. Especially given her items, I felt like I was getting mixed signals, expecting Suzy to be a farcical superheroine, but that didn't pan out.

The story claims that her usual response when a crying child says their mother is trapped a building she can see is currently burning is "to shrug [her] shoulders and say, 'Yes? And?'", which didn't do a lot to make her likable to me. Is she supposed to be an anti-hero? I get strong reluctant hero vibes from her, but that doesn't really work with the rest of the setup unless the Magic Eye compel completely changes her. If it does, though, we don't get to see any of that, so we're missing out on major character development.

I feel like I should've gotten some development from Suzy's debatably brave rush into danger, but it sort of happens and is done, and that's it. Quite a bit of the game, instead, is spent developing interactions between Suzy and the annoying child (giving it the mints and wiping its face with a tissue, oh-so-motherly-like), even when those motherly representations seem to run counter to the rest of her character. Is she motherly at heart or does she hate kids? If she balances this contradiction, might there be a better way to show it? As it is, the nurturing actions are all optional content. Was there other optional content I missed that maybe made her character stronger than I'm getting from what I played? I'd be curious how the scoring breakdown of the game characterizes Suzy.

Come to think of it, overall I'm just confused about who Suzy *is*. Messages are too mixed. If you could pick one action in the game defines her as a heroine, what would it be? Is it her expression of apathy? Her rush into danger? The way she gives mints to kids? Or throws fire extinguishers? Or is it just the virtue of her always being the only one around?

It's pretty hard to get an audience into a conflict the protagonist doesn't even care about. Like Suzy herself, the writing felt like it was just reluctantly going through the motions in an aimless, "Well, I guess I'm here, I might as well" sort of way. I much prefer your writing when it lets loose from conventions and blasts off full force into its subject matter, like in For Love of Digby or Back to Life... Unfortunately. There are a lot of stock phrases in this story that I think you could easily re-write into something thematically potent and exciting. I know you have the talent to do it.

I played through about four times and never did get full points. I appreciated that some work went into getting players to execute non-standard commands and into the presentation of the inventory. I imagine the inventory as it is would mean always having to keep the number of dynamic items down in order to avoid one's inventory from really bloating up the screen, but I think that could be a good design decision overall. I would've liked to be able to throw my brick of a cell phone at the sprinkler system I couldn't otherwise reach. At least then it might've been good for something. The tissue and mint... also didn't really do much for me in terms of character development or usefulness. What does the story lack without them that it needs?

I'd've liked to see how Suzy reacts to being Magic Eye compelled, too. The story just kind of ends at that point, but we don't know how she feels about it. Again, it sort of felt like if we just said, "Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider-- the end." Maybe giving us one bad guy to hunt down or one crime scene to investigate afterwards could've helped to better establish expectations of Scarlet as a heroine.

We didn't really get to use our New Alien Toy for very much. How do you envision it working in the future Scarlet release or releases? It would've been nice to use it in that intended way at least once in the set up so we'd be ready for it when it comes up again.

Overall, what direction do you see Scarlet going in? What non-spoilery info could you tell me about the villainy she'll face? Will she have a costume? If so, what do you envision and what does it tell us about her?

I hope your game's reception in the IFComp has not dampened your enthusiasm for writing this character or her story, but I'd like to see more development in both. To that end, I am eager to see more of this work. I think you might do well to follow an episodic model for releases in this case. I could really see it working, especially as that's been more-or-less the normative mode for superhero development.

Well, that's about all the input I have on that for now. Any thoughts? Please comment below, or perhaps we can take this over to a thread on the ADRIFT Forum or intfiction.org (in which case I'll update this post with a link).

Hope all is well,

1 comment:

  1. Excellent criticism! I like how you point out that superhero origin stories should develop the character and motivations. Also, very clear definition of what a superhero character is: "strong characters, defined by what they do." Reminds me of when I said in my thesis that I am who I am "in spite of, and because of my disability." Which also fits your definition quite nicely.
    Having never played the game though, I can't comment on in-game character development. However, her personality seems to be conflicted. Perhaps he was going for the unassuming secret identity thing, but it almost sounds like this was just sexual harassment. The tone of the game seems very mixed that way. As a superheroine origin, it fails because you never saw her be a superheroine. Rather, it is the origin of her unassuming secret identity Suzy. And no one wants to see how Superman became Clark Kent. That's backwards and asinine. Well-written critique, Duncan! Now, I'd just like to play the game.