Saturday, October 05, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] "Saving John" by Josephine Tsay

The Interactive Fiction Competition is back! Spoilers behind the break.

Saving John is CYOA-style game that bills itself -- on the competition page, not at the beginning of the story itself -- as being about someone with a multiple personality disorder. This made me think of the RPG Everyone is John, but the two are entirely unrelated.

The main theme of the story is announced in its second sentence:
My psychiatrist says that in order to be saved, one must want to be saved.
In other words, we will explore the Arminian heresy of resistible grace! Either that, or I have been reading too much theology lately; and unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the latter of those two options.

Saving John is the story of a man who is drowning. His girlfriend Cherie is attempting to save him by reaching out to him; and the game ends when John decides to either grab her hand, or not grab it. Why would he decide to not grab her hand? Because he has severe trust issues, made worse by his multiple personalities. Much of the game consists of navigating through a web of memories to sort out these personalities, and to gain insight in the ways that John has been using them to keep a distance between himself and Cherie. There's Adam, who hates Cherie; Sam, who serves as John's excuse to cancel dates with her; and Lucrezia, an imaginary alternative romantic partner.

The exploration of the theme is somewhat shallow: basically, the psychiatrist is right. (I'm not so sure about that, but the game simply affirms this.) Far more interesting is the process of stitching together all of John's confused memories into a coherent narrative -- or, I guess, into a coherent personality. The game's structure does a good job of representing John's somewhat chaotic mind, which can skip from scene to scene, while also making sure the narrative moves along, since the final decision comes along before you have explored everything. Possibly it would have been even more interesting if the game's competition blurb had not spoiled the fact that John has MPD.

The character of Cherie could have used a little more work, though. While the shallowness of her portrayal is perhaps meant to show how little real contact John has actually made with her, it also makes it hard to understand why she perseveres in this dysfunctional relationship; and, more importantly, it makes it hard to see how she could possibly save John.

Perhaps it is true that we can only be saved if we want to be saved; but that formulation seems to put everything into our own hands, and doesn't do justice to the figure of the saviour. We can only be saved by those whose love is strong enough to kindle new love in ourselves; and this requires mutual openness. If Cherie can save John, that must be because she can show herself to John, and her openness creates the conditions in which John himself can open up to what we may -- even from a secular perspective like my own -- call grace. A Cherie who remains a cypher, who never becomes more than an outstretched hand and a lock of hair, cannot fulfil that role.

Temporary score: 7 out of 10.

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