Don’t Look Back: Choice, Consequence, Unrest

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The Next Leap…

The mission prompt informs me that I am now Tanya, an introverted, intelligent peasant girl of fifteen, but it doesn’t really insist on it. Following the introductory sentence, the narration shifts to the third person. And that’s just as well, I figure. From my experience with the two preceding vignettes, short but potent, I know that I ought not become too attached, lest heartbreak follow. Pyrodactyl’s Unrest, with its heady mix of fictional politics and human drama and its cast worthy of a Tolstoy novel, is not, after all, Tanya’s story. Not exclusively, in any case. I have a god’s eye view (paradoxically both detached and focused) of her drought stricken village, but I have already learned that my power is limited. I am not God. I am not even Doctor Sam Beckett. According to the description on the tin: “…there are no heroes of legend, there is no mystical quest, and fate has not chosen you.” Foreboding words, but the proof is in the pudding.

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From the very beginning, it was clear to me that Pyrodactyl’s promises of deep interactivity and role playing freedom have, in fact, been fulfilled, but what the player can and can’t actually accomplish is really a matter of scope and scale. As Chitra, a seasoned ambassador from the Naga Empire (a prosperous nation of sentient and comparatively enlightened serpent beings that serves, in large part, as a convenient means to address xenophobia), I had full reign over my words and actions, if little else. I decided that Chitra was to be a paragon of diplomatic virtues, cordial, sensitive to cultural differences, quick with a joke when it suited him, and, above all, dedicated to his mission, one of peace, security, and mutual profit. I could, however, have easily turned him into an arrogant, demanding hard liner, or a cold and calculating manipulator. I couldn’t predict or avert the inevitable disasters to follow (there wouldn’t have been much of a plot otherwise), nor could I leave the confines of the royal gardens, where the controversial treaty between the Naga Empire and the humans of Bhitra was to be negotiated and signed, but I was free to do my best, free to choose how my character, my charge, responded to the limiting circumstances at hand.

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As I take in my new environment, the huts, the gently swaying trees, the other peasants at work, I smugly marshal my wits and prepare to do my best yet again. I am Tanya now, but probably not for long. I won’t get attached.

The challenge at hand is a great deal more intimate in scale than what I’ve encountered thus far. The geopolitical intrigues I’d played a vital part in just minutes ago are now well out of reach, reduced to the tragic background noise that marks the humdrum rhythm of ordinary lives. Tanya’s parents have arranged for her to marry the local merchant’s son, a move that is ostensibly designed to improve her lot in life, giving her the rare opportunity to jump castes. It’s just that the boy has a reputation for brutishness, as does his father, and Tanya, at least my version of her, would really prefer not to marry at all.

And here is where Unrest “opens up.” The Traits window describes my new charge as a loner, and as deeply intelligent. One of the few entries in her journal, under the “places” tab, speaks, in inviting terms, of a meritocratic university about a week’s journey away. But it is left up to me to connect the dots (the quest journal, inventory, and “charachter sheet” are here used, quite cleverly, as optional means of enriching the narrative, with no real mechanical application). Is the entry merely a fantasy, or is it a quest objective? Excitedly, I realize that this is entirely up to me.

To Pyrodactyl’s credit, I can easily play Tanya as entirely acquiescent to her fate, obedient, self sacrificing, a team player. If I want to, I can take the short route through this particular story, have Tanya at least pretend to be happy with the development, have her get married, hope for the best, never mind the awful implications. But, of course, I don’t want to. “Not on my watch,” I think – arrogant, but, I suppose, fully justified in my desire to solve the emotionally charged puzzle of Tanya’s life. There’s a whole village to explore, in any case, opportunities to discover and exploit. I am sure we can work something out. And just like that, I’m attached…I’m very, very attached.

Rabbit, Run

I can’t claim to understand Tanya’s exact dilemma, of course. I have had a few run ins with that particular pressure, (the culture I hail from, like most cultures, is…complicated) but my birth-assigned gender and my secular half-Russian, half-American formation had insulated me from the worst of it, turned what might once have been a drawn out dance of social and familial obligation into an awkward phone call to a young woman I’d never meet (my grandmother got together with her grandmother one afternoon, and so on, and so forth). But most of us can relate to the heart of it, in one way or another. The true tension is between the universal desire for personal freedom (at least I suspect it’s universal) and externally imposed societal and cultural pressures, and this is about as fundamental a human problem as has ever existed. Every day, the majority of human beings make at least one, if not several, choices in answer to this seemingly inescapable quandary: they get up to go to jobs they hate, because they have to, or stay in relationships they are unhappy in, because they have to, or they run, like John Updike’s Rabbit, always with a host of monstrous questions in pursuit.

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Personally, and even now I admit this with trepidation, I’ve almost always been a runner. This is why I freelance, why I write about video games, why I’d spent five years hustling in a low rent apartment, even when an opportunity to take a rather “enviable” nine-to-five (which might have afforded me an adult person’s salary, my own office, a nice place to live, not to mention the approval of family, certain peers, and society at large) fell into my lap. I really just couldn’t do it. “Second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.” Always, I choose Neverland over the real world. And I’ve never learned whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I am, simply, what I am. Aren’t I?

Unrest’s conversation system, simple, straight forward, and somehow uncommonly interactive, had given me an opportunity to be what I am, regardless of what role I’m assigned, what character I’m given custody of. And as I ponder Tanya’s future, as I wander the village in search of a key, in search of some means of escape, I slowly begin to realize that this approach to narrative isn’t exactly as liberating as it might initially seem. In fact, by giving me the ability to express myself, to truly roleplay, as very few interactive experiences have, Unrest has trapped me in the very delicate space between my values and my morality. Just as in the real world, the two rarely run in parallel for more than a moment. Certain things are negotiable. Certain things are not. Yes, I was free to play Chitra as a heel, just as I am free to play Tanya as a doormat, but I don’t want to…or, to be more precise, I can’t. I just can’t.

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The Limits of Control

I carefully note my options, always with an eye for potential exits. My pulse quickens as I examine each possible solution, as the consequences of each possible decision flood my mind, an angry cacophony of seemingly impossible compromises. I save often, realizing that my ability to rewind time at will is my best chance at getting out of this with my sanity intact.

I try to simply refuse, but Tanya’s mother is not interested in reasonable negotiation. She brings me/her/us before Laxmi, the cruel, uncompromising land owner (I’d met her before, but I was empowered then, safe behind a thick, scaly hide), and my/her/our choices narrow to marriage or death. I choose death, at first in hopes of shocking her into canceling the betrothal, and then, after realizing that she will never relent, out of sheer defiance. And I reload the last save, not even bothering to read the opening narration of the next vignette. Again, I am in the middle of the village. Tanya is still alive, still hopeful. Somehow, I can smell the dust and the manure, feel the heat. I am sweating, and my breath is shallow. Saving and reloading has become an integral mechanic. Iron man mode is clearly not for me. I need to find a way out of this that Tanya, and I, can live with.

I’d discovered fairly early on that a friendly local merchant sells travel supplies, that there are horses in the stable, that a traveling Naga peddler might be persuaded to smuggle Tanya out of the village and into the city (which is fraught with its own set of dangers), that her dowry, a significant sum earned by her father through his side line as a toymaker, is just beyond the gate of Laksmi’s manor, that the betrothal itself might be sabotaged, possibly through several means. But every way out has a barb to it, every choice has consequences, some of them brutal. Should Tanya leave Juhi, her only true friend (and maybe more), behind and strike out for that university? If the two girls ride together, they are more likely to be noticed and caught, but if I make Juhi aware of the plan, she’ll insist on coming along, danger be damned. I can have Tanya sneak off without her, thus ensuring her safety, but can Tanya bear the thought of the one person whose company she truly enjoys stood up, abandoned, betrayed, alone at the meeting place, even if it is for her own safety? Maybe it’s easier not to tell her at all. Maybe it’s better to just disappear, never look back. And what of Tanya’s family? Her father, at least, is clearly a good, loving, and sensitive man. The only true way she can avoid bringing disgrace to their name is by complying with their demands, but then we’re back to square one. And I can’t. I just can’t.

Whatever I decide, someone’s going to get hurt. By rushing for independence, Tanya has to be cold, even cruel, to the people who, ostensibly, care for her, but to choose otherwise would be to risk squandering her potential, trapping her in a life of servitude, in a new family even more troubled than her own.

Again, and again, and again I reload. Several times, I end up in Laxmi’s courtyard. The ultimatum remains the same, and she remains resolute. She talks of sacrifice, of bearing one’s burdens, of social order. Tanya is nothing to her. She will make an example of her, again, and again, and again. Several times, I escape, but always there is some loose end, some possibility, some shard of a hope for a better, more traditionally “satisfying” conclusion. I turn to look back, and there I am again, in the middle of the village, in the sun, in the dust. This goes on until I am spent, utterly spent, emotionally exhausted. “You shouldn’t have gotten attached,” I tell myself. “You should have known what you were in for.”

The Needs of the Few…Or the One

The whole awful ordeal is now splayed out in front of me, dissected. I know the village by heart, the village where everybody knows my/her/our name. Suddenly, I understand what I have to do, and I don’t like it. It doesn’t make me feel good, or powerful. But there is a clarity to my thoughts now, a resigned understanding. I have to save what I can. I have to do my best. But my best is never perfect, and never will be.

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I’ve been spoiled by games like Fallout, Skyrim, Deus Ex, Divinity: Original Sin; I’d come to expect that if I can only get a high enough score in a particular stat, or pick just the right lock, or ferret out just the right piece of information, I can usually “take a third option,” have my cake and eat it too. When confronted with the proverbial Kobayashi Maru, I am dismayed, terrified, incredulous. Intellectually, I understand that real life usually works like Unrest, as opposed to any of the above, that the epic we write with our very breath stars no single character, that the system is complex, that the pressures and limitations are sometimes impossible to overcome without some kind of compromise, that everything and everyone is interdependent, and all too often codependent, but damn it if I wasn’t going to fight it until I couldn’t fight it anymore. I suppose it’s only human.

With tears caught in her throat (I imagine), Tanya makes her preparations, does the things she must do, hurts the people she must hurt. It isn’t really a choice. For me/her/us, there was never really a choice to begin with. There is no way to save everything and everyone. There simply isn’t. At sundown, she will run, and I/she/we can only hope to avoid that classic, mythical mistake, that fateful error made by Orpheus and Lot’s wife, of looking back.