IFComp 2016: Cactus Blue Motel

Spoilers follow the break.

Three friends on a road trip, youths on the verge of adulthood, stop for the night at a dingy run-down motel in the middle of the desert. At night, the place “wakes up”, going through a Cinderella-like transformation into something special and magical: the peeling paint becomes pristine, the long-disused pool fills up with gleaming pure water, vintage automobiles appear in the empty parking lot. And vacant rooms suddenly have occupants: a selection of eccentrics (including one jackalope) who have apparently been there for decades, without aging, without contact with the outside world, most of them still somehow blissfully thinking that this is just a temporary stop until they rest up or finish writing that novel or in some other way find themselves ready to leave. Although it’s possible that it hasn’t been subjective decades for them — time, we’re told, acts strangely here.

The interaction strikes a nice balance between the storyish and the placeish, as fits a story that’s mainly about a place. It’s in Twine, but it’s the sort of Twine that lets you explore freely, and leave conversations and come back to them later. I hadn’t seen this done much in Twine before, but there are several entries like it in this year’s Comp. So great is the sense of freedom that it was surprising when, at one point, I felt like the story was railroading me.

See, I was suspicious of the place from the moment it transformed. It reminded me a little too much of stories of people wandering into fairyland, or of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, translated to the American west. The transformation happens while you’re talking with a friendly leather-jacketed stranger named Dean, one of the motel’s regulars. Dean tries to convince you to stay for a while, and to talk your friends into staying as well, but I was as noncommittal as the author would let me be, and left him without promising anything. And when I met the other guests, it just further convinced me that staying wouldn’t be a good idea, that this was a place where people got stuck, unable to move on — a particularly bad idea in a coming-of-age story. So when I went back to my room, and the story assumed that I had already made up my mind to act on Dean’s suggestion and try to convince the others to stay, I felt like I had been pushed into a decision I hadn’t consented to, or worse, like I hadn’t even been informed about the decision when it was made.

Fortunately, the story at least acknowledges my concerns after this sequence. One of the guests — specifically, the jackalope — is convinced that the motel is a trap, and that no one who chooses to stay more than one night ever actually leaves. He gives you a series of quests aimed at testing this, like sneaking a look at the place’s records. And he’s repeatedly proved wrong. Meanwhile, the unfolding drama of the three friends tried to reverse my first impression: so far from representing a rut, the motel offers each of them a possibility of escape, a way of breaking an unhealthy pattern that’s already in their lives.

But first impressions are strong. On my first play-through, I fled the place as soon as I could all the same, rejecting hasty life decisions in favor of the already-planned. In retrospect, I really appreciate the ambiguity of the situation, and the way that the game gives you genuine choices where even the genre-savvy player doesn’t know everything.

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