March 31, 2011 12:00 AM |
['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Reflexive Entertainment's Matches and Matrimony, a visual novel/dating sim based on the novels of Jane Austen.]
Matches and Matrimony takes the plot, characters, and banter of Pride and Prejudice, together with some borrowings from Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, and blends them into a Ren'Py dating sim.
These days, of course, you can get Pride and Prejudice remixed more ways than Coke at a soda fountain. Mr Darcy tells the story from his point of view. Elizabeth Bennet happens to meet Emma, for extra cross-over fun. Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr Darcy on a ship on the way to America, or as a Sheikh in the Algerian desert. Elizabeth Bennet solves murders. Elizabeth Bennet fights zombies. Mr Darcy turns out to be a vampire, more than once. Elizabeth and Darcy experience their first, second, third, Nth years of marriage. Charlotte Collins' daughters grow up.
And, of course, in the way of all fanfic, beloved side characters die, and Darcy and Elizabeth get it on, repeatedly and in lurid detail, including with variations where theirs is a gay romance or both of them have secondary lovers. And I have barely penetrated the thinnest surface of this genre. The search "pride and prejudice sequels" on Amazon delivers a mind-boggling 167 results; "pride and prejudice variations", 89 results.
Consequently, there is a sweetness about how earnestly Matches and Matrimony takes its material. It uses a lot of original text, and its help files are all about reminding the player how the heroines of various novels acted and encouraging the player to emulate them. It's not trying to say something else through Austen; it's just doing the stories. It's like seeing a Shakespeare play where the director has had absolutely no funny ideas about arming the Capulets with parasols or making King Lear drive a vintage Rolls onstage: surprising.
The form of dating sim does introduce a few new demands -- namely, a choice of several suitors, and encouragement to replay. Often figuring out the right thing to do depends on being fairly familiar with the original stories, to the point where at least one player suggested the game might function as a helpful review for students.
The attempt doesn't completely work, for several reasons; and yet I had fun with it anyway.
I must get my fangirl complaints out of the way first. Matches and Matrimony gets a certain amount wrong. Some of the wrong spots are clearly deliberate adaptations of content to make the game flow more smoothly and keep the roster of NPCs from becoming overwhelming. The Bennet family has only three daughters rather than five; Lady Lucas is Eliza's aunt, neatly cutting Mrs and Mr Gardiner out of the story; Wickham is changed to Wickeby, a character with most of Mr Wickham's background and also a few nods to Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. All of those changes make a kind of sense, even if they feel odd to people who know the texts well.
Less obviously intentional are the anachronisms. Matches and Matrimony repeatedly refers to Austen's era as Victorian, though Austen first drafted Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s; and when she died in 1817, there were still twenty years to go before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. The Big Ben clock tower (completed 1858) appears in the background of a London scene.
The player character has a chance to read during the course of the game, too, and her readings include works by Elizabeth Gaskell (born 1810), Charles Dickens (born 1812), and Oscar Wilde (not born until 1854 and not flourishing until the last decades of the century -- and the mind reels at the idea of Eliza Bennet thumbing through, say, the script of Salome with the Beardsley illustrations).
I admit this is nitpickery, and not all players would notice or care about such references. But these details jarred me a bit, not least because they called to mind the manners and morals of a culture that had changed hugely and rapidly after Austen's death. It was a little like finding references to the Beatles and Michael Jackson in a book set during World War I.
The more serious issues, however, are structural. Part of the challenge is that it's not completely obvious where to attach the gameplay into an Austen novel. Matches and Matrimony borrows the scheduling focus from some existing dating sims: each week, the player can choose what to do with her time, choosing from activities such as reading, visiting friends, and working on embroidery. The choice of activities affects the protagonist's statistics in areas such as "wit" and "propriety", and these in turn gate certain choices in conversation and interaction with other characters.
This is somewhat sympathetic with the concerns of the text: Austen does discuss how her heroines spend their time, and the effect of those choices on their personalities. The officious Emma visits sick tenants; the flighty, overly sensitive Marianne Dashwood reads a lot of poetry.
But the really critical choices in Austen's novels are often about secrets (told when? to whom?) and emotional openness or restraint.
Through its scheduling mechanics, Marriage and Matrimony lets us get at those choices only at second hand. In order to refuse the marriage proposal of Mr Collins, be sure to go on lots of long walks outside first, as this will raise your willfulness stat and equip you to say no under pressure. And because it's hard to tell in advance which stat is going to be critical in an upcoming encounter or how high that stat is going to need to be, there's a lot of unguided thrashing around to do. In several playthroughs I found myself backing up the story repeatedly to take another run up to a critical decision, because I hadn't realized my character was going to have (say) a vitally important pianoforte performance in that chapter.
The other issue lies in the way the story branches. In some dating simulations, the idea is that all of the possible dates are available simultaneously, and you play through the game a number of times in order to figure out how to get with each one of them. (See Date/Warp, for instance.) Matches and Matrimony, by contrast begins as a more or less straight lift of Pride and Prejudice. Though it opens the possibility for the Elizabeth Bennet analogue to steal Mr Bingley from her sister Jane, wed her relation Mr Collins, or fall for the outrageous Wickham-alike, it essentially frames those outcomes as less desirable possibilities and nudges the player towards the proper and ordained romance with Mr Darcy.
Winning Mr Darcy is fairly hard, though. If the player misses the plot junctures that would make this happen, the game starts to introduce options from other plotlines, bringing in Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth from Persuasion. Wentworth's introduction is particularly bizarre, because it requires informing the player halfway through the game that her character had a hitherto-unmentioned prior love affair that Mrs Bennet scotched. The idea of Mrs Bennet opposing any marriage for any of her daughters doesn't match well with the characterization we've seen so far, and neither does being told that the protagonist has aged unhappily since the Wentworth encounter, when earlier scenes explicitly indicated that she was still fairly young.
Thanks to these structural choices, it's easy to get into a situation where the overall narrative arc of the game makes no sense: it introduces Darcy, then Brandon, and then finally Wentworth as possible love interests. If the player pursues one of the later gentlemen, the result is a conclusion that has nothing to do with any of the initial hooks or premises of the story.
Then, too, the game often trades in player agency in favor of preserving the original story. Most of the dating Ren'Py games I've tried make a storytelling virtue out of the fact that you have to learn the different suitors' preferences in order to pursue them. Matches and Matrimony partly follows this tradition, but the difficulty about predicting when a stat will be needed and how effective it will be makes it very hard to drive; and feedback about Mr Darcy's preferences is deliberately withheld, so you can't see when you've made him like you better, perhaps to recapture that sense of mystery about his character.
Fundamentally, then, Matches and Matrimony falls down by failing to observe that interactive stories often must present plot possibilities in parallel that static fiction presents serially.
In the text of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth must first misunderstand and be unpleasant to Mr Darcy, and then come to see his positive qualities. But this doesn't always make a very satisfying arc for the player, especially the player who is trying to be nice to Mr Darcy from the outset. (And we can fairly assume most players will try to get with Darcy.) Forcing the player to go through an arc of treating Darcy badly and then well recapitulates the narrative of the book, but at the expense of agency and a natural interactive rhythm.
This is why in games, we often have a failure state (not seeing the truth about Darcy) and a success state (realizing he's a good guy after all) and they are both open to the player at the same time; it's just likely that the player will see the failure state first, and incorporate that into an overall sense of the narrative possibilities.
Alternatively, Matches and Matrimony could have backed up a level and explicitly modeled the character flaws that make Elizabeth initially unable to get along with Mr Darcy -- perhaps by tracking her incorrect opinions and attitudes, and challenging the player to find ways to overcome these. (There are a few moments of discovery like this in the game currently, but they occur where the book puts them; they're not procedurally or systematically presented, and there is no way for the player to achieve a revelation about Darcy without going through the confrontations proscribed by the text.)
This choice would have distanced the player a little from the character, since we would then be working against her a bit, explicitly manipulating her personality from without. But it, too, would have been a consistent and interactively sound way of exploring the themes of the novel.
All that said, I did enjoy this piece, as one often enjoys revisiting a favorite milieu or context.
And there are notes that do work entertainingly well. Mr Collins in particular is well handled from a procedural point of view. Against all the normal rules of dating sims, he likes more or less everything the player does. Be kind to him or insult him, it doesn't matter -- his admiration of the protagonist only increases, with his proposal as an inevitable outcome.
But in general, Matches and Matrimony confirmed an existing sense I have about interactive retellings of non-interactive originals. Setting, characterization, and mood can all be carried over. By all means leave out the zombies, sheikhs, and musical numbers that adorn the more fantasy-prone adaptations. But most of the time, it's vitally important not to be faithful to the original plot.
(Disclosure: I played a free review copy of this work.)
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon