Archive for July, 2010

TLC: Branches and Endings

Arguably, I shouldn’t complain about the gratuitous sex scenes interrupting the psychological mystery in Tender Loving Care. In a sense, they’re my own fault! Now that I’ve reached an ending and no longer fear spoilers, I’ve taken a more thorough look at the alternative tracks using VLC, and I find that, in several cases, the only difference between two versions of a scene is how explicit they are. I still think the game was mistaking my intent, though. I’m a completist. If I kept going back to that book on erotic art in the bathroom every chapter, it’s because I wanted to see everything. And so the game… showed me everything.

But not all possibilities, of course. The story seems to always follow a single track, hitting the same key points: Kathryn seduces Michael, someone poisons the dog, Michael becomes increasingly unhinged, and finally Michael contacts Kathryn’s agency to express his displeasure and have them call her away, leading to a confrontation that leaves someone dead. The variations are in the details. Take the scene where Michael contacts the agency: in all variants, he storms into Dr. Turner’s office only to find Dr. Turner absent, then yells at the receptionist until she calls the agency so he can talk to them. The bulk of the scene proceeds exactly the same way in all variants until the call is over, at which point he can continue to be rude to the receptionist and storm out, or calm down and apologize to her; if he apologizes, she either expresses sincere hope that things get better for him, or (the variation I got) warns him not to get in Kathryn’s way. That’s all the variation you get in that scene. Just little things that change what it all means.

Kathryn’s stated reason for seducing Michael is to keep him from dismissing her (which he’s perpetually on the brink of doing), because she can’t let him jeopardize the work she’s doing with Allison. Frame-tale Turner is outraged by this violation of professional ethics, but we’re given reason to believe that similar “unconventional techniques” underlie her tremendous success in prior cases — if successes they truly are. There’s a scene where Kathryn confronts Michael with what she believes to be his own role in Allison’s illness: that he doesn’t really want her to get well, that he was keeping her in the semi-catatonic state that we see her in at the beginning of the game out of a sort of psychiatric Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, because playing the caregiver was his penance for his unprocessed guilt over Jody’s death. That he sees Kathryn as a threat because she just might be able to cure Allison for real. There are at least two versions of this scene. I got the one where she seems to have a point, and where Michael is clearly just as messed-up as Allison, even if less obvious about it. The other variant makes Kathryn seem more like the crazy one, vindictively accusing him for no good reason.

I think the point where I started regaining faith in the game was when the dog died. The dog was a new addition to the household: Allison tells Michael at one point early in her therapy that “Jody” wants a dog, and Kathryn thinks it’s a good idea (get her caring for something real), so he grudgingly gets one, and immediately comes to hate it. He complains that it makes too much noise, but presumably really hates it as a sign of Kathryn’s machinations. “Jody” names the dog Punky, the same name as another dog they had had previously, which had eaten rat poison and died. And the new dog dies the same way: Michael finds the poison deliberately poured into its food bowl. He assumes that Kathryn did the deed as part of her sick mind games. If Kathryn is in fact responsible, she never lets on: even when alone with Michael, she insists that he did it. The question-and-answer segment afterward asks who you think did it, and I fingered Allison, because both Michael and Kathryn seemed sincere, and I kind of suspected that Allison was more than the passive victim she seemed. But the story never provides any definite answer.

In the end, Kathryn, knowing that her time in the house is over, tries to force Allison to a breakthrough by “killing” a doll that Allison had come to identify with Jody. Michael tries to stop her, there’s a struggle, and then comes the single greatest forking of paths in the game. Maybe he accidentally pushes her down the stairs, maybe he clouts her on the back of the head with a hammer. Maybe he calls emergency services to take the body away, maybe he just buries her in a shallow grave in the backyard — I saw the latter, but I didn’t get the follow-up in which Dr. Turner visits the house with a couple of policemen and sorts everything out. (When he’s burying her, he says things like “Your cab has arrived, allow me to help you in!” (thump of body dumped into hole). I had assumed this was just gallows humor on his part, but the Dr. Turner ending has him actually confused about what was happening.) In the most twisted variant, we see Michael and Allison tucking the body (or is she still alive?) into Jody’s bed and saying goodnight. There seems to be only one ending where Kathryn survives: she hits Michael with the hammer instead of the other way around, and then takes his place, in control of the passive and once-more-semi-catatonic Allison. That ending makes Kathryn into a being of pure malevolence, but really, none of the endings are kind to her. Even in the best of lights, where Kathryn had Allison’s interests at heart and had accurately identified Michael’s malign influence and had a solution that would have worked if given enough time, the authors see the need to punish her. Such is the fate of independent-minded and sexually powerful women in this sort of entertainment. (Have I mentioned that Michael, the person directly responsible for her death, is the movie part’s viewpoint character?)

tlc-eval At any point in the exploration phases, you can bring up your personal psychological profile from the main menu. (In a nice bit of confusion-of-levels, you can also get it from your file in Dr. Turner’s office, in the few exploration scenes set there.) The profiles at those points are short, giving about a half-dozen canned points that are obviously generated from the last round of Q&A. Once it’s all over, however, you can get your full evaluation, which turns out to be multiple pages of wishy-washy generalities reminiscent of Astrology columns. But what do you expect?

The endgame menu also gives you the opportunity to watch your entire personally-generated movie from start to finish. I’ve seen it claimed online that, in addition to the CD-ROM and DVD-ROM and branching DVD-Video versions, there was a release of TLC as an ordinary non-branching movie. I’m not convinced that this is true, because there’s a lot of confusion among the few people who have even heard of TLC, but if it is, I have to wonder what branches, what ending it chose. At any rate, without the exploration bits, it does seem to have something like the right length for a feature film. One review I saw complained that even with the exploration, it only takes about five hours to play. Obviously I took longer, partly because I was so thorough in sweeping the rooms for new text items, partly because it’s been a busy couple of weeks and I only played a chapter or two at a time. I submit that this is the better approach for this piece, as it leaves time for contemplation. This makes it unlike most movies, which benefit from staying immersed in the experience.

TLC: The Monster at the End of the Book

It’s with some trepidation that I approach the ending of Tender Loving Care. If there’s one thing that TLC does a lot better than its predecessors and enginemates The Seventh Guest and The Eleventh Hour, it’s provoking a sense of dread. It’s better at this because dread is the anticipation of something bad to come. T7G and its sequel wear horror on their sleeves, putting ghosts and skulls and spiders everywhere like a haunted house in a carnival. There’s nothing to dread, because you’ve already seen how bad things get. TLC puts you in a beautiful house on a sunny day, and tells you that it’s all going to go horribly wrong. It’s sort of like Hitchcock’s famous example of the ticking time bomb, except that it doesn’t even tell you what’s going to happen, which gets your imagination involved.

But then, the closer I get to the end, the more the story takes shape and denies imagined possibilities. For example, for a brief time, I was imagining a cheesy third-act twist where it turns out that Jody is alive and Michael is actually the delusional one. There was some slight evidence for it at the time, such as a minor character claiming to have seen Allison with a little girl in a wheelchair. The whole possibility was pretty thoroughly ditched shortly afterward, and good thing, too, because it didn’t really fit in with where the story had been or was going. But the important thing to note here is that I was imagining a cheesy third-act twist.

No actual ending to this story can compare to what the imagination conjures up from mere suggestions. But more than that, my expectations of a 90s interactive movie are not high. The appearance of a bit player in an Eleventh Hour t-shirt provoked fresh worry by reminding me of the work’s lineage when I least expected it. I want it to live up to the promise of its unusual and intriguing beginning, but the more it becomes concerned with piling on the gratuitous nudity, the more I come to regard it as just another gimmick title pandering to the stereotypical teenage male gamer. And so I approach the ending with trepidation — not just the dread of what’s to come in the plot, but of how far the aesthetic experience will descend in the pursuit of cheap thrills.

TLC: Thematic Apperception

The question-and-answer sections of Tender Loving Care come in two types. After the video sequences, you’re quizzed about your impressions of what you just saw, as I described before. The transitions into the video sequences are done through the game’s approximation of a Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. This is a psychological evaluation tool along similar lines to a Rorschach test: the idea is that you’re shown a picture, and have to fill in details, tell a story about what’s happening in the picture and why. Except of course that here you’re not filling in the details yourself: you’re picking answers from a list, which means your evaluation and its consequences can only go in a limited set of directions, like one of those personality quizzes that used to be (and possibly still are) so popular on the social networking sites — “Which videogame character are you?” and so forth. (I should make a quiz like that using Michael and Allison Overton and similar obscura.) And like those quizzes, the answers I want to give are frequently not among the options available. You often get a scattering of odd replies, none particularly close to what you’d have chosen on your own, as if the game is trying to make you come off as unhealthy. And really, even without the answers, the questions themselves are often leading, spoiling the exercise’s real usefulness as a TAT.

But that’s okay, because the game isn’t really a psychoanalyst, and the point of the TAT questions isn’t really to act as a TAT. Rather, it seems to me to have two purposes. One is simply to provide some variety in gameplay, to provide a buffer between exploration and movie mode. (This is even more apparent when you consider the occasional alternatives, like the one time where it has you guess at Zener cards instead.) The other is thematic. It’s there to make the player aware of the idea of a TAT and how it works, so that they can later have the realization that, in a sense, the whole game is a TAT. That the investigation into the mystery of what happened chez Overton is just a pretext to give you ambiguous data and see what you make of it. Which is, of course, obvious when you look at the game from outside, but the game wants you to recognize it even as Dr. Turner questions you. In case you don’t get it, a magazine in the game makes it more obvious: it contains an interview with Dr. Turner, in which he describes his ideas for a kind of electronic TAT, perhaps to be distributed on CD-ROM.

This isn’t the only written matter in the game. The exploration sequences are pretty much all about finding stuff to read — and after the first few chapters, the finding isn’t such a big deal, because it pretty much uses the same objects in the same locations over and over, only varying from chapter to chapter which bit of text you’re shown. Michael and Kathryn both have computers on which they’re keeping journals, the biggest source of information about their inner thoughts, including secrets not mentioned in the movie. Allison has a hand-written diary that looks and reads like the scrawled ravings of a lunatic — probably the most ham-fisted touch in the whole work, and frankly insulting to the character.

Even when not directly about the main plot, in-game texts often deal with it obliquely. There are an unusually large number of mentions of people who have lost their children. Television content seems to always involve psychiatrists, nurses, or both. Like in a dream, the whole environment is obsessed with the same few themes. In the bathroom, there’s a book on erotic art — something the whole game certainly qualifies as — that starts with a lengthy discussion of the place of voyeur figures — which is essentially what you are, if you prowled around this stranger’s home enough to find the thing.

Some things are less definitely connected to the main plot, but highly suggestive. In Michael’s study, there is a large volume titled “Women Who Kill”, a history of prominent murderesses. The first chapter, made available piecemeal over the first several chapters of the game, is about women who killed their children to spite their husbands. It even describes a woman who did so by means of an auto accident, the same way that Jody died. There’s really no suggestion in the main story that Allison deliberately killed Jody, but after reading that stuff in the context of so many things that are commenting on the story, one naturally starts to wonder. The second chapter of the book is mainly about poisoners who provided beleaguered women with the means to do away with their oppressive spouses. This seems more like Kathryn’s role, but again, there’s nothing to suggest a definite and literal connection in the plot, except perhaps for an unusual emphasis on food and cooking throughout, which might possibly be leading somewhere.

Of course, all of these suggestive and biasing tidbits mean that the game as a whole isn’t any better as a real TAT than the explicit TAT segments were. But at this level, I’m willing to regard it all as primarily a work of fiction, and my persona within it as part of that.

Another Look at Red Alert

And now, a brief interlude. For July 4, American Independence Day, I couldn’t resist temporarily resuming my role as lackey to Joseph Stalin. I had left off halfway through the Soviet campaign before, and I’m one level farther along now. It seemed like a fairly by-the-numbers level: start in one corner of the map, destroy all Allied units and structures, and while you’re at it, destroy the nearby village and massacre its inhabitants, because you’re evil. (Honestly, I don’t recall any other RTS taking such pains to remind you of this in the mission objectives. In Warcraft, the mere fact that you’re commanding orcs seemed to have been considered enough.) Presumably there were some new units introduced, but after three weeks without playing, I don’t know which ones they are. Perhaps they would stand out more if I hadn’t already seen every unit in the game from the Allied side.

Coming off Tender Loving Care, I’m amazed afresh at the difference that even as little as two years made to the quality of video playback. I don’t think I mentioned before that the video content in Red Alert is interlaced with black stripes, which is very distracting until you get used to it. This sort of interlacing was fairly common practice for early CD-ROM-based FMV titles, and in retrospect, I find it puzzling. I can understand the need to keep your video at a lower resolution than the already-low-res-by-today’s-standards screen, given the CPU speeds and CD-ROM throughput of the day. But surely once you’ve read a scanline-worth of data and decompressed it, slapping it on the screen twice can’t be much more expensive than once. Copying blocks from one place to another is one of those things that computers do really fast. So perhaps they did it this way because they felt it looked better? More like the then-familiar scanlines of a TV, concealing jaggies in the unused space? I have the feeling that an answer to this would have been easier to come by back in 1996, but at the time, I think I just took it for granted that this is how video on computers looked.

TLC: Story Basics

One thing that really struck me when started my first pass at Tender Loving Care all those years ago was how adult it seemed. I’m not talking about the nudey parts here; titilating the viewer with glimpses of boobs is more adolescent than adult. I mean that it was pretty much the only thing at Electronics Boutique 1Remember them? with a story aimed at people above the age of 16. The whole thing revolves around the suppressed emotions of a married couple. The central question isn’t “How do I beat the bad guy?” but “What is wrong with these people?”

At the start of the story, we have Michael and Allison Overton living in the shadow of a traumatic road accident six months previously. Allison has become extremely concerned with caring for her young daughter, Jody, who was hurt in the accident. In fact, she’s got a one-track mind, turning any conversation toward concern for Jody, and the player quickly figures out that she’s not just obsessive, but delusional: Jody is dead. 2At least, you figure it out if you have the least ability to read between the lines. The game acknowledges the possibility that the player is dim. Several chapters later, just after a flashback to the accident and our first glimpse inside Jody’s unused bedroom, a question-and-answer session asks if you had believed that Jody was still alive. There are three choices: “Yes”, “No”, and “I still do”. Michael humors her, and does things like say goodnight to Jody when his wife demands it, but clearly would rather not have to deal with the problem. Compounding his frustration, the couple have not had sex since the accident.

Sex is a big part of the story, in part because psychotherapy is a big part of the story. Allison has been seeing Dr. Turner (the host character played by John Hurt), but he brings in a colleague, Kathryn Randolph, who has had success in similar cases. Kathryn moves in with the Overtons, masquerading as a nurse for Jody in order to gain Allison’s trust. And hoo boy does she get it. Allison was resistant to the idea of bringing in a nurse, but once she meets Kathryn, they bond instantly — leaving Michael feeling all the more more excluded and ineffectual. He lashes out at Kathryn, desperate to regain some measure of control (and, with it, self-respect), but it’s a losing battle. She has to do what’s right for Allison, and it’s wrong of him to interfere with that, or even to refuse to cooperate in every way, right?

Well, only if the therapy is working. Michael doesn’t think it is. When Allison joyfully announces that Jody has started sitting up and talking, it seems to him like she’s just descending farther into fantasy. Maybe he’s right, or maybe he’s letting his hostility get the better of his judgment. Either way, Allison notices that he doesn’t share her feelings, and makes her displeasure known. So as far as Michael can see, Kathryn is not only ineffective at getting Allison to face reality, she’s also driving a wedge between them. To make matters worse, when he takes his concerns to Dr. Turner, he basically tells him to stop worrying. (In the frame-story, Turner admits that it was a mistake to dismiss his concerns so quickly.)

On top of it all, Michael has the hots for Kathryn — something she may be deliberately encouraging, albeit while taking care to maintain plausible deniability. Why would she do such a thing? Perhaps because she’s attracted to him, perhaps to make him more easily manipulated, more reluctant to dismiss her. Perhaps to make him feel guilty, to punish him for his role in bringing Allison to this state. There’s even some suggestion that punishing Michael is a subconscious motivation of Allison. But that hasn’t really been gotten into in the movie segments yet. Rather, it’s hinted at in the materials you find in exploration mode. I’ll get into that in my next post.

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1. Remember them?
2. At least, you figure it out if you have the least ability to read between the lines. The game acknowledges the possibility that the player is dim. Several chapters later, just after a flashback to the accident and our first glimpse inside Jody’s unused bedroom, a question-and-answer session asks if you had believed that Jody was still alive. There are three choices: “Yes”, “No”, and “I still do”.

TLC as Interactive Movie

Tender Loving Care is not the only interactive movie I’ve interacted with. My trophy case 1The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog. includes such titles as A Fork in the Tale and Psychic Detective, I’ve rented Scourge of Worlds: A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure (the only video DVD that’s ever made me google for a walkthrough), and I managed to catch Mr. Payback while it was still running in specially-modified cinemas. I frankly don’t recommend any of these, except perhaps as case studies in interactivity design. (Mr. Payback was particularly interesting as a UI experiment: by use of subtitles, it polled a roomful of people about what should happen next, reported the results, and applied them, all without ever pausing the action.)

In all of these works, the interactivity is obvious. You’re presented with options, you make a selection, you see the results. In most cases, this amounts to a cinematic equivalent of a “choose-your-own-adventure” interface 2Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot., with all the pitfalls that entails. Tender Loving Care isn’t like that. The connection between your actions and their effects in the movie are far from obvious.

I should emphasize here that there is definitely the possibility of altering what you see. I’ve peeked at the movie clips just enough to confirm that some scenes exist in multiple versions. Whether this constitutes a branching plot or just different presentations of the same events, I’m not yet sure. Once I’ve hit an ending, I intend to take a more thorough look. But regardless of how strong or subtle the changes you wreak on the story, you’re never explicitly choosing one branch over another. Supposedly what you see is dependent on your psychological profile, which the game has been building up through the interactive segments.

The obvious part of this is the periodic multiple-choice questions, but the exploration sequences supposedly play a role too. For example, at one point you can watch a grainy black-and-white striptease on a television in the house, and according to something I recall reading once, the game remembers whether or not you interrupted it. If you watched the whole thing, the game draws conclusions about what sort of movie you want to watch and has Kathryn get her tits out in a later scene. Now, that’s what I read, but it seems unlikely to me that the striptease is the only factor in the decision — certainly there are enough multiple-choice questions about your sexual attitudes, as well as your attitude toward Kathryn in particular. But, short of disassembling the executable or doing a whole lot of experimentation, there’s no way to know which inputs actually have effects. The result is, predictably, a lack of sense of agency — although the free-exploration sequences mitigate this somewhat. Even if you’re effectively relegated to the role of passive observer in a movie that’s putatively interactive, at least you can play hunt-the-hotspot between times.

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1. The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog.
2. Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot.

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