Note: Because strong language and themes of domestic abuse appear in this game, they will also appear in this review.
A couple of years ago, I released a game with some pretty intense themes, including rape, murder, and slavery. Aside from whatever other ways my game succeeded or failed, people’s reactions to encountering this sort of thing in a work of IF varied a lot. Some people really appreciated it, others… not so much. One player rather memorably described it this way: “After playing, my head felt like someone had been hitting it very hard with a solid metal thing.” After playing this game, I understand a little more where that guy was coming from.
Jane takes on the topic of wife-beating, portraying it from the perspective of the victim, the abuser, and a few others besides. The experience of playing through a story in IF form, as opposed to reading it on the page, really intensifies my identification with the characters, and there were moments during my time with Jane that I started feeling physically ill, and dirty, involved in something I did not wish to be a part of. I don’t mean to sound disapproving — those moments were quite powerful and dramatic, and the game did give a clear warning about its subject matter before it began. Indeed, the times when I was feeling the most upset were when I was admiring Jane the most; its writing and its implementation occasionally managed to affect me quite strongly.
On the other hand, that effect was only occasional, for several reasons. First of all, though I applaud it for its ambition in getting inside the heads of abuser, victim, and onlookers, the characterization frequently fell a bit flat for me. The dialogue and actions of the characters sometimes rang quite true, but other times felt fairly stock, as if pulled from one of those movies that always seem to be running on the Lifetime channel. Another, more severe issue is that presenting a story like this interactively is a major challenge, and the game wasn’t always prepared to meet that challenge. At its worst moments, the clash between the intense action of the story and the standard Inform library responses evoked by my actions was outright comical, completely defeating the drama:
"You'd have nothing!" he shouts, continuing his rant. "No one would
ever want you. You're of no use to anyone. You'd be nothing."
That's hardly portable.
John's lost in his mind again. "You ARE nothing!" he shouts again. He
steps forward quickly and shoves you back, causing you to stumble to
keep your balance. "You're useless! You're so fucking useless!"
That would be less than courteous.
Those library messages, quite suitable in the majority of IF situations, are laughably inappropriate here, and either the author or the testers should have caught them. The debugging verbs should also have been turned off — the effect of these things together was that Jane had a fairly rushed feel. Even more damaging, by failing to account for fairly reasonable actions, the game makes itself too vulnerable to ridiculousness, which is poison to the kind of tragic storytelling it attempts.
Even when it does properly account for the player’s input, though, Jane usually feels quite straitjacketed. In fact, although the game borrows heavily from Photopia by using multiple perspectives (albeit a chronologically intact story) and a virtually identical approach to conversation, it reminded me less of Photopia than of Rameses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the brilliant subversion of IF and storytelling that Rameses was, both because that game arrived first and because in its very use of multiple viewpoints and linear chronology, Jane dilutes the best rationale for its linearity.
I can see a viable argument that Jane (the NPC, not the game), and perhaps even her abusive husband, should present few real options to the player. They’re locked into the cycle of abuse, and the player’s frustration could mirror that of the characters as they try and fail to break out of their long-established patterns. However, that’s far less true for other characters, who lack such a reason for being bound to any particular course of action. In addition, as the intensity of the rising action builds, the characters should have more freedom available, as desperate measures become more and more plausible.
Since I experienced the story in accurate chronological order, I expected that at some point I’d be able to find my own way out of the ugly tangle of that relationship. Instead, what I found was that I had to follow the game’s singular path through it, and that meant enduring just as much abuse as the game decided it ought to commit. In my own way, I felt a little battered by the time I finished. I did finish, though. I didn’t quit. I guess I was asking for it.