IFComp 2020: A Rope of Chalk

I always have trouble writing about the more deeply-crafted ones. So let’s just start at the surface. This game concerns a small group of college students engaged in a sidewalk art competition on a hot summer day, which ends in disaster when it turns out that one of the people involved, vengeful over imaginary injustice, spiked the drinking water with hallucinogens. The effects are subtle at first, and before you start outright hallucinating, you get a vague sense of Something Wrong (enhanced by the story’s frame, which tells you from the get-go that this is a recounting of “the incident” long before you have any idea what “the incident” is). But the narration escalates in weirdness, switching up the narrative style, even going outright nonrepresentational for a while. By the final act, you’re in a world defined by the chalk drawings, and by what they suggest to the player character’s psyche in a sort-of-Jungian way — but this is also the part where you finally understand what’s going on, so in a way it’s a return to the ground.

Now, I say “the player character”, but in fact there are four, one for each act of the story, including the villain in a flashback. And the game uses the changes of viewpoint to change how the world is presented — not just in how their inner narration describes characters and interprets their drawings, but how the presentation layer works. For example, in the first act, as I walked past all the artists at work, I got used to examining the person and their art and then, if I felt like it, speaking to them. But in the second act, where you play a much more awkward and self-conscious person, examining a person immediately initiates dialogue with them, even if you don’t want it and have nothing to say. Act 1 names locations according to who’s drawing there, act 2 by other features. There are lots of little touches like that, some of which I didn’t consciously notice until reading the author’s commentary. (And then there are the flashier gags, like when a hallucinated NPC speaks to you via the game’s help system.)

So I feel like this is first and foremost a collection of character portraits from multiple angles — primarily of the four playable characters, but secondarily of all the NPCs. And there’s a bit of a flaw there: on first playthrough, when you don’t yet know how the whole thing is structured or what triggers the end of the acts, it’s easy to pass people by without engaging with them enough. The story gives you tasks, and the tasks are straightforward enough that you have to make a conscious decision to tarry. The fourth act, in the chalk world, where you finally take control of the character that the author has identified as the story’s hero, is much more like a traditional puzzle-based adventure game, and doesn’t have this problem. There’s probably a design lesson in that, although it’s hard to see how to apply it here, in a work that uses the unreality of puzzle-based interaction to heighten the difference in feel between the chalk dream and the parts that precede it.

As this is a work about an art competition entered into an art competition, I can’t help but see some metacommentary in it. In the chalk art contest as in the IFComp, we have competitors who are really into it and others who are gratuitously half-assing it, arguments about what should be allowed, and even something like a copyright thread: one of the characters draws a scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which results in a scene in act 4 where you walk into Halloween Town and talk to Jack Skellington. As far as I can tell, this is currently allowed by the rules, but could have resulted in a disqualification in an earlier stage of the Comp’s history, when the whole thing was smaller and less legally sophisticated. The chalk artist responsible defends against copyright arguments by making fun of the idea that it could possibly matter, and it’s easy to see that as the author’s defense as well.

In fact, there’s an unusual amount of general defensiveness on display. The whole thing starts with a page-long Watsonian disclaimer, asserting that “The narrative compiled here purports to reflect only the recollections of the individuals involved” and accepting blame for inaccuracies and so forth. The author has explained that he felt a need to put some extra distance between himself and a story that can be read as portraying psychotropic drugs as magical self-actualization tools, but I feel like it goes beyond that.

At any rate, I’d better sign off on this because that paralysis of summarizing complexity is setting in. Just be aware that it’s got layers.

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