IFC10 Review – Sons of the Cherry

This is a review of a Comp game, and as often happens in reviews of Comp games, I will be Saying Things about this game.

Sons of the Cherry, by Alex Livingston, is a Java-based ChoiseScript (thanks Emily) CYOA, which took me about fifteen minutes to play.  CYOA is an interesting medium, but I find it usually less satisfying than parser IF.  The way I deal with CYOA in competition against parser IF in the Comp is to give CYOA a lower maximum score (five).

I figure it’s fair because CYOA is less impressive, to me, and far easier to write.  I don’t feel it’s accurate or fair to rate it equally to good-but-flawed IF, which would be far more difficult to make and more enjoyable to me as a player.

So, for example, Sons of the Cherry is a fine CYOA, and has nothing terribly wrong with it — as a CYOA.  On the other hand, it fails to use the medium to best advantage.  It had some problems that I’ll get to.  But the fundamental problem was that, as a reader, it didn’t grab me.

This was largely because I had options, but nothing to do.  [mild spoiler]  For example, I quickly end up locked in jail with nothing to do.  I’ve been framed for torturing a small child with no pupils or irises who has ichor dripping out her mouth, and I’m likely to be found guilty of witchcraft. 

So I’m sitting in jail with nothing to do, thinking that JAIL MIGHT NOT BE THAT BAD when a mysterious man WEARING A MASK mysteriously materializes INSIDE MY LOCKED CELL — none of which seems to indicate to my witchcraft-practicing PC that this guy is some kind of wizard — and offers to spring me. [/spoiler]  And much of the game is like this:  I have nothing to do until I’m given a script, and then when I’m given the script I can follow it — or follow it.

CYOA has a different set of problems from IF.  IF is tough to play by default, because of the parser, of the problems of modeling the world, and because of the wide-openness of the (apparent) form; so you need to lead the players fairly clearly.  Otherwise you get guess-the-word and other mind-reading troubles.

But CYOA has the reverse problem.  Here you need to work to present the player with problems in need of solutions and go out of your way to provide him with substantial options.  In writing CYOA, you must struggle to offer your reader meaningful choices.

Computer CYOA makes some things easier than straight book or hypertext CYOA, because you can track variables.  So characters can refer to things you’ve done in the past.  The world can have memory.  And Sons of the Cherry to some extent does this — you can view your stats, which might or might not have something to do with the game’s response to you.

But for computer CYOA, which is well-developed in its own right, Sons of the Cherry is mighty basic.  Really, it’s linear.

Meantime, as Victor Gijsbers points out, there wasn’t much witch-trialery going on in America around the time of the Revolution.  England executed its last witch before 1700.  There were a few witchcraft arrests after that, but it basically petered out.

(The famous Salem witch trials were also over by 1700.  I know a girl who pratices Reiki and various other stuff who went with her then-fiancee — since married — to Salem, Massachusetts, spent a bit of money on knick-knacks, and reported back on the amazing energy there.

(What she didn’t know was that the witch-burning town of Salem later changed its name — to Braintree.  Where I used to work as a trucker.

(I didn’t notice anything particular about the energy there; but then again, I don’t do Reiki.  Maybe she was picking up on the vibes of other tourists?)

Historical fiction should be historical; at least it should be plausible.  But Sons of the Cherry has several anachronisms.  The mephistophelean NPC tells you that the word “magick” must be spelled with a k in his presence.  First, I’m pretty sure this was the innovation of Alistair Crowley, who lived in Hemingway’s time.  That is, quite recently.

Second — “spelled in his presence?”  Is he looming over my shoulder while I write pamphets on the subject?  Third, the author seems not to know that Crowley’s variant was to be pronounced “mage-ick.”  (So a better spelling would have been “maegic,” but I guess it’s not as cool.)

We’re also told that we’ve fallen in with a secret ring of spiritualists.  Spiritualism is the practice and ‘philosophy’ of contacting the dead with seances, and it didn’t exist until after 1848, when two little girls made some spooky things happen on — coincidentally? — April Fool’s day. 

Whether you believe there are cases of legitimate and effective seances or not, the 1848 event exposed a fertile market of suckers, and Spiritualism grew into a con game and a business remarkably quickly.  An ex-spiritualist named Lamar Keene wrote a book detailing how the con works, down to the practice of keeping extensive basement files on names of customers’ deceased family, which practioners would forward around to allow the customers to have a good experience if they went to other Spiritualists.

Anyway, they weren’t around during the Revolution.

And this last bit of revisionism didn’t work, either–

“…Did you attack those people to further your career?”

“Do not be coarse,” Washington says.  “We are building a new civilization here.  A civilization of reason.  For the first time in history a nation will be built not on superstitions or the power of corrupt ancient families, but on equality and representation.  The Christian religions are completely democratic; we are all the same in God’s eyes.”

ok– 

This is not how Washington saw the Revolutionary War.  Sure, make him a master manipulator if you want.  But the goal was not cultural revision.  The colonials basically saw themselves as English.  What cultural change had happened had happened as an accident of living out in the boondocks.  And this had nothing to do with the presence of trees, so much as the fact that you hunted for your dinner.  Frequently.  With a rifle.  And so on.

–You could make it about trees and tree-spirits, of course.  It’s been done.  I vaguely remember being forced to read The Scarlet Letter of Courage, which had the implicit theme (I’m told) of tree spirits taking over a sexually unfettered witch who as a major hobby lured Civil War soldiers to their watery deaths.  Orson Scott Card did something similar, using hexagons.

Historical fiction is difficult for this reason — you have to know history.  Well.  You need not only the details, but the gist.  The feel.  The culture.

But, I would have forgiven all the anachronistic weirdness of the story, if the author had seemed to know what he was about with the new history.

The fundamental problem is that the story gets its emotional signals crossed.  First, we’ve fallen in with devil-worshippers, who are willing to torture a little girl (who has no pupils or irises, poor thing) as a more effective way of talking a gawky teenage lad into hanging out with a bunch of goth geeks — and our PC is a little thick, and doesn’t seem to hear all us IF Comp players yelling, “DANGER!  SATAN WORSHIPPERS!”

Ok, then the story proceeds to cast aspersions on the terrible hypocrites who are Christians.  –And who instigated a major cultural break from Europe and England.  Apparently because it wasn’t Christian enough.

Wrap up with that the Satan worshippers — ok, sorry, “Spiritualists” — whose philosophy we never really got — aren’t very nice?  It just doesn’t work.  It seems the author wanted to write about some occult philosophy, and about the ethics of power, but never asked himself the tough questions the exploration of which might have informed this writing.

Honestly what I think is happening is that the author is young, and without realizing it picked a far more ambitious project than he currently has the skills to handle.  My suggestion would be to switch to a strictly fantasy genre, where facts wouldn’t trip him up, and to focus on making the most of what his chosen medium — computer CYOA, or perhaps IF — has to offer.

I look forward to his future work.

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Published in: on October 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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