The Ballroom is a Windrift game by Liza Daly.
This is a mutable story, a story that uses the same overall framework or outline in narrating what is arguably an unchanging set of events, except in different contexts and perspectives. It is difficult, however, to state exactly what this common set of events is, because the similarity is one that manifests itself in language rather than in plot. In other words, the author uses the same sentence structures and describes each scene in the same order, but what happens in each scene cannot really be considered similar to one another, except in the way in which it is narrated.
Upon clicking a link, changes to the story take effect and are reflected briefly in red. In most cases, the player is also able to “go backwards” by clicking once more on the same link, allowing the player to compare the “before” and “after” states and thereby enhancing the player’s appreciation of the game.
Despite the briefness of each perspective, the characters feel real, and their actions are lifelike and believable, demonstrating the author’s judiciousness in her selection of details that collectively paint a vivid picture of the scene. The fact that the majority of these details can be varied (e.g. always the presence of an escort, but a different one depending on the scenario) makes the author’s selection even more impressive, given the constraints of number and space.
Even though the setting is the same, how each character views it is different — it is separately termed a “ballroom”, a “meet point”, “Ballroom C” and so on. Even so, it is clear from the unchanging overall shape of the text that the place in question is the same. The benefit of this, cleverly taken advantage of by the game, is the opportunity to feed the player with new information that is immediately understood, without the risk of vagueness or ambiguity. The “loadedness” of each new situation is also emphasised because the player is made aware of the contrast between this situation and the first, most “neutral” one.
Closely related to this is the sheer impact, and the stark visibility of this impact, that each choice makes. Modifying something that seems trivial can overturn the whole chain of events, adding entire stretches of paragraph to the page and radically changing the existing ones. I particularly like how the author goes beyond the more obvious, well-used tropes of fashion and drink choices as decisive factors in affecting the protagonist’s experience; rather, she gives equal importance to less conspicuous factors like the sex of other characters and the time of day, which play just as large of a role in changing the story.
While the game seems to offer an infinite number of possibilities, the options available to the player are surprisingly limited. In fact, there is only one option the player can really select at any point to advance in the game, though the game retains as links the options that the player previously clicked on. In this sense the game creates an illusion of giving the player the freedom to modify the story however they like — an illusion enhanced by the radical effects of each change — when in reality the game is guiding the player through a fixed series of events. This seems to me to be a shortcoming, as it encourages the player to gloss over one of the most important parts of the game, the subtle nuances of each synonym, which he/she does not need to pause to consider given that these nuances will not have any bearing on the only “choice” that can be made. Furthermore, removing the autonomy of the player in deciding how the story should proceed is at direct odds with the powerful effects of clicking on a link — however magnificent the change, the player does not have a part to play in it. This is particularly so for a game like this, in which changes to the story occur on a much larger and more visible scale than they would for a game that is told on multiple pages.
The ending is interesting. On the whole I think it’s important because it adds a form of closure to what might otherwise be an unconnected list of incidents, unifying them as a medium for a plot and making the order in which they are told significant. The universality of the second person pronoun “you”, however, seems to detract from the shock delivered by the ending since it raises the question once again of whether the player is involved. By being addressed in the second person for every one of the preceding perspectives, the player is not given a concrete identity that he/she can attribute all the protagonist’s thoughts and actions to, and is instead disconnected from the protagonist because the protagonist keeps changing. The apparent implication of the player in the final scene, then, seems anomalous and comes across as a little perfunctory.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Vanilla. Uniform in name and appearance, yet each mouthful is slightly different from the last.