Electric word, “life” is a Twine game by Lance Nathan.
The protagonist is a working adult, Perry, whose roommate, Sanjay, is hosting a Halloween party. His best friend, Andy, shows up unexpectedly, and they chat with some mutual friends until Perry, in response to one of their requests for a drink, gets up to go into the house. At this point the door opens preemptively, causing Perry to lose his balance and plant a hand on Andy to steady himself — except that his hand goes straight through him. No one notices, however, and he orders Andy to follow him to his bedroom, where Andy admits that he himself is unsure what’s going on. Apparently he was in the process of driving to Perry’s house when he suddenly found himself there. He speculates that something might have happened to him on the way, which, as Perry finds out the next day, turns out to be exactly the case. The story ends with an overview of Perry’s life since that day, throughout which he never tells anyone about the incident, nor forgets the friend that meant so much to him.
I’m usually critical of large chunks of text confronting the player, and I expect many judges will be, too. The writing in this game, however, is exceptional, and justifies, in my opinion, the less-than-ideal UI. It’s more appropriate to think of this as static fiction with a little bit of interactivity, which I am personally open to, provided the writing is good. It is in this case: I was strongly reminded of Gary A Braunbeck, who I believe served as inspiration for the game. Braunbeck is a horror writer (no surprise there) whose stories are characterised by supernatural occurrences, feel-goodery banter, and stark, bloody horror, with themes of family, bereavement (which he himself experienced multiple times) and moving on. He usually opens his stories with a quote, and writes in the second person fairly often. All these characteristics are present in some way in the game, most notably in the heartwarming banter between Perry and his friends. Perry’s reflections after being exposed to the news of Andy’s death encapsulate perfectly the familial themes in Braunbeck’s writing: “And more than anything, a constant flow of conversation, light, meaningless, forgettable, and somehow the most real thing there is.”
The relationship between Perry and Andy is well explored, giving weight to Andy’s death and its emotional impact on Perry. Andy’s facetious remarks in the face of oblivion (“If I’d known that all I had to do to get into your bedroom was die, I would have done it years ago.”) are refreshing for their humour and heartwarming for their significance — they demonstrate a familiarity and an intimacy with Perry that are built on years of friendship. Crucially, his remarks also help to dispel awkward sugariness, minimising the melodrama inherent in leaving someone behind. When Andy says goodbye, his words are sincere and unaffected precisely because they contrast with his irreverent remarks previously. Having the scene cut off before Perry can respond is perhaps a bit trite, but it does its job of keeping melodrama at bay.
The title of the game, “Electric word, ‘life'”, is interesting. The first thing that came to my mind was Frankenstein, electricity being crucial to the monster’s life and all. The game does turn out to be a horror game (or at least one with supernatural occurrences), though of course Frankenstein has nothing to do with it. I’m not entirely sure what sense of “electric” the author intends, but one possibility is its transience (as in a spark that flashes briefly). This would serve as a metaphor for the abruptness with which Andy’s life was taken from him, as well as the briefness of the overview of Perry’s life at the end of the game. Another possibility is the sense that means electrifying, which would be relevant because Andy’s death makes Perry realise the shortness of life, and how important it is to treasure it while it lasts — life is electrifying, and worth investing your soul in. This interpretation is supported by the quote in the author’s note: “If you don’t like / The world you’re living in, / Take a look around; / At least you got friends.” The second part of the quote, though, reads: “We’re all excited / But we don’t know why; / Maybe it’s ’cause / We’re all gonna die.” This might explain the quotation marks around the word “life”, since it’s something that’s ultimately nonexistent. Seen in this light, “electric” seems ironic as well, cynical almost — what’s the point of getting excited about life if we’re all going to die?
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Mango. Warm, uplifting, and sweet without being saccharine.