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.

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