IFComp 2020: Babyface

IFComp 2020: Babyface

babyface

Babyface is a Twine game by Mark Sample.

The protagonist is a woman whose mother recently passed away. While visiting her father to check up on him, she is shown a series of photos that were apparently taken by her mother. These photos trigger memories of a fable popular during her childhood, that of the eponymous Babyface, a man said to be obsessed with masks and other face apparel because of his belief that looking at something “uses it up”. Partly from a nightmare, partly from a need to pacify her father, who wakes her in the middle of the night asking her to rescue her supposedly alive mother, the protagonist goes to Babyface’s house, where the sight of a decaying man with an unblemished face compels her to take his face in her hands and stare at it unblinkingly, until it withers like the rest of him.

Many devices, both literary and gameplay wise, are employed to amplify the fear factor. Masks are creepy because we rely on someone’s expression to tell what their intentions are; if we can’t see their face, we don’t know if they mean us harm. A mask with a smile painted on it, akin to the smiling Babyface photo in the game, is even more creepy because the viewer knows the smile is artificial, and is consequently more starkly aware of the possibility that evil lurks beneath. Likewise, children are scary because they can mask (pun intended) as cute, innocent creatures while harbouring evil intentions. This is well exemplified in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which the antagonist Mr Cooger, while in his young form, sneaks past the otherwise astute observations of his “aunt” and gets away not merely with theft, but with pretending to be a victim of a robbery and pinning the blame on the protagonists Jim and William. I do believe Bradbury’s novel served as an inspiration for this game, since both involve evil individuals who are mature in mind but childlike in body (although Babyface at the end of the story seems childlike in mind, too).

The use of Latin is significant in both its resistance to understanding, central to the unease felt by both the protagonist and her father, and its association with cults and ancient evil forces. There is a suggestion, reinforced by Babyface’s age and decaying state, that he accessed knowledge not meant to be accessed, unlocked secrets meant to be sealed away forever.

Unfortunately, I was ultimately unsatisfied with the horror element because I didn’t find it compelling. While the justification for Babyface’s obsession with masks is intuitive and sound, that of the protagonist’s decision to drive to and enter that house isn’t: she realises she’s “suddenly there”, admits that she’s “not sure” what she’s doing, and vaguely describes how she “finds herself” getting out of the car and going into the house. The best horror stories have clear, watertight justification for every character motive, which is why they are so effective — they give the reader a sense that the events occurring are inevitable. In Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship”, for instance, three passengers of a rocket ship disembark and see, on the surface of a foreign planet, what seems to be a vision of themselves crash landing and perishing. After overcoming their fear that this is a vision of the immediate future, they go back to their ship and launch it. Then the pilot decides to turn back, because he’s seized by the notion that the vision they saw was nothing more than an illusion projected by the inhabitants of the planet, something engineered to scare foreign entities away from their fertile and bountiful home. The horror felt at this moment by the other passengers is vivid not because their pilot is mad, but because he is reasonable: he has a logical, if outrageous, conviction that provides sound justification for his fateful decision to turn back. (Scary, isn’t it?) This isn’t so in the game: I get the sense that the final confrontation could have been avoided, particularly because of the way it’s set up — the protagonist goes into the house despite having heard stories about it, which comes across not merely as stupid, but untruthful.

I also found the Lovecraftian descriptions of Babyface slightly gratuitous. The word “eldritch” is an extremely loaded one because it’s so frequently used by Lovecraft; chances are you probably learnt this word from a Lovecraft story, as I did. Mostly it’s the fact that I don’t find Lovecraft scary (even though I adore his writing), but regardless of my preferences, using a word like “eldritch” (alongside expressions like “a wet plunging sound” and “writhing”) to describe the monster casts it in a Lovecraftian light, grouping it in the same category as other Lovecraftian monsters. This wouldn’t be a problem if Lovecraftian horror was the author’s goal (and maybe it is), but if their goal was to unnerve the player, creating a Lovecraftian monster is counterintuitive because at best it comes across as a rehash that people have already seen before and will therefore not find scary. This is doubly so for Lovecraft specifically, at least for me, because Lovecraftian monsters are commonly described with elaborate, flowery expressions that have little to do with plot and setup (which I personally find to be more compelling). “Eldritch” and other literary words like “gloaming” that appear in the game also contrast jarringly with its earlier contemporary style of writing (“jk, Dad. jk.”).

The question of what happened to the protagonist’s mother is unanswered. According to the protagonist, she and her father buried her mother together, yet in Babyface’s attic, she reverts to her father’s belief that Babyface was responsible for her mother’s death, a notion that fits in with the words on the photos, “never watch me watching you”, and with the nightmare the protagonist had, in which she, presumably through the eyes of her mother, was forced to stare unblinkingly at some Latin graffiti in front of her. There seems to be a slight contradiction here, however: if I understand correctly, Babyface tortured the protagonist’s mother by removing her eyelids, explaining how she was unable to blink, and made her wither by himself staring at, or “watching”, her. But if the protagonist’s mother was buried by her family, indicating that her body was found, why is there no mention of how disfigured it was, or of ongoing investigations of her twisted killer?

(I realise I’m being considerably harsher than usual, mostly because this is a horror game, which I have higher standards for. But my being harsh is a testament to the quality of the writing — it has to be of a high calibre for me to nitpick about it in the first place. And I do think Babyface is well-written, if it isn’t already clear. There are many things it does well that I don’t think need to be explained, such as the text delays it employs to increase suspense.)

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Cacao barry. Dark, sharp and restrained, leaving a memorable aftertaste.

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