Friday, October 3, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Why Don't They Leave the House?

Why Don't They Leave the House? by Nicholas Stillman is a nasty piece of work. It warns on the title page that it contains strong horror themes that might be disturbing. This disclaimer is not nearly strong enough. Stillman describes some absolutely brutal scenarios that vault far over the boundaries of good taste. Most of the stuff in here is so over the top disgusting that I found it almost comical. Grotesque buffoonery on a grand scale. But then a image or idea would bring me up short, lodge itself in my brain, and rob me of sleep. Why Don't They Leave is gross and unpleasant and seems designed only to offend. That's not to say Stillman isn't doing some interesting things, but you've got to have a strong constitution to get through this one.

You play one of eight bus passengers who have banded together after their driver abandons them in a blizzard. You take refuge in an old farmhouse where the passengers start mysteriously dying, one an hour on the hour. Why Don't They Leave isn't particularity scary. There's nothing that threatens the player, physically at least. There's no clear antagonist, and beyond the drive to solve the mystery, not much conflict either. Despite the heavy use of figurative language, the game isn't very atmospheric either. There's a lot of description of the snow and the emancipated look of the group, but it doesn't amount to much. The farmhouse never solidifies into a distinct setting with a character and presence of its own. Instead the book almost entirely relies on it's extremeness for support.

In your attempts to solve the mystery you get entangled in more and more morally compromising positions, starting with riffling in the pockets of a corpse and skyrocketing from there. The book makes it clear that you are supposed to imagine yourself in this scenario and that you aren't playing a character. At it's core, it seems to be a comment on the YOU in the famous Fighting Fantasy slogan "in which YOU are the hero!" Why Don't They Leave asks you to imagine yourself in more and more extreme situations. It would almost feel like a test of morality except that 1. you're encouraged to jump in and get your hands dirty. By embracing the vile things the book asks you're rewarded with Clues towards the book's hidden good ending. And 2. most times you end up in an ever worse or more extreme situation if you balk at or try to avoid the nastiness. The book encourages you to compromise your morality and punishes you if you don't. Perhaps I'm off the mark here, but maybe the only way to escape unscathed is to simple stop reading. But that feels like a lame meta cop-out to me. (Not that I would disparage anyone who did stop, because yeesh.)

Note that this isn't always the case. On my initial playthrough I gleefully searched for drugs and hacked at a pantry in the dark, but I found myself drawing the line at torturing what I perceived as an innocent. While I did miss out on a Clue, I was denied a worse fate, and for that I'm grateful. Still, such mercies are rare, and there's no real right way to turn. You're going to be up to your neck in it, no matter what you choose.

On a game level, there's some nice mechanics here. The "you play as you" condition serves as a skill system of sorts. Based on your real-life experiences you'll notice or have insight into certain things that will provide hints on how to find Clues. It's a novel idea and works wonderfully, though the hints aren't always helpful. Also, the real ending is skilfully hidden, being neither obvious or beyond the realm of discovery. However, some of my friends who also played this had trouble differentiating the hints from the Clues, thus obscuring the ending perhaps beyond Stillman's intention. I found the ending satisfying to solve, but found the content of it disappointing. The solution to the mystery wasn't worth the hassle. Perhaps that's intentional.

As mentioned, Stillman writes with a lot of figurative language. Metaphorical invention abounds, but the book lacks the verve of Gunlaw. Far more often than not the language feels overwritten and phrases like "Marsha screams obscenities and throws her shoes like boomerangs" or "Family pictures, scores of them like Atari pixels, fall and smash with the thundering blows" are wildly out of place. According to Stillman, he wrote Why Don't They Leave for last year's competition but was worried it was inappropriate, and so entered Gunlaw instead. Why Don't They Leave lacks Gunlaw's delightful language and truly unique vision. In many ways it feels like an earlier work.

I can't in good conscience recommend Why Don't They Leave. None of its mechanics are clever enough to justify it's extreme vileness. When comparing notes with friends it was interesting to see that some bits that slid off my back utterly revolted them and vice versa.  Stillman has crafted such a diverse set of horrors there's sure to be something here to utterly wreck you. I'm still not sure what the point of the book is. If Stillman intended it as an examination of morality, and limits of player agency in gamebooks... well, it took me a long time to look past the theatrics and my own revulsion to get to the themes. And I'm not sure that they're successful. It's one thing to ask a player how far they'll go, but when you only have the choices the author has given you (implicit in the gamebook format) and they're all bad ones, it feels less like an honest examination and more like a sadistic puppeteer pulling on the strings. And if Stillman's intention was just to shock and offend? Mission accomplished, I guess.

Stillman writes in the afterword that every work should be a catharsis. I hope in writing Why Don't They Leave he found what he needed. I hope that this review will be a catharsis for me, so that I can finally get this book out of my head and move on to more pleasant entries.

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