IFComp 2020: How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings

IFComp 2020: How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings

elephant

How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings is a Twine game by Peter Eastman.

The player is a child being told bedtime stories by their father. These stories are pourquoi stories, explaining why certain animals are the way they are. Gameplay consists of responding to the narrator’s prompts, usually regarding the choices made by a character, such that there is a sense of collaboratively creating the story with the narrator. Nonetheless, it’s possible for the narrator to reject the player’s suggestions as illogical, forcing the player to make another choice. After three stories are told, the player is put to bed and the game ends.

The use of a narrator as a medium for these stories (as opposed to merely telling the stories to the player directly) is significant in the way it sets up a sense of anticipation, akin to being told stories around a campfire — attention is called to the oral aspect of these tales, and specifically to the narrator’s voice, which we can imagine to be soothing to our ears. This effect is facilitated by the writing, which uses everyday vocabulary and simple, unconvoluted syntax (“When he got hungry he ate what he liked. No one was safe.”). In particular, the use of conjunctions mirrors everyday speech, making the text conversational (“And what do you suppose he decided to eat?”). I also admire the choices made by the author as regards the font and physical layout of the page, which I think are significant as well. The font is a serif one, complementing the white-on-black text in giving the narrator’s words a sense of dignity and formality, enhancing the feeling of tapping on the rich, time-honoured tradition of storytelling.

There are also pictures, which help break up the monotony of the text, making it even more readable. The fact that they put one in mind of children’s books is somewhat counterintuitive, framing the narrator as a character rather than a person, but this consideration is a small one, outweighed by the colour and beauty they bring to the text.

In terms of distancing themselves from clichés, the stories are excellent. I’m not familiar with Kipling, so I don’t know if the personalities of the characters are rehashed or borrowed somehow, but the stories managed to subvert my expectations, which were that the animals would each meet a gruesome fate, like in dark fiction. Instead, there is always a happy ending, which the author consistently manages to achieve in a truthful, uncontrived manner. In the first story, for instance, the tiger, in trying to eat the elephant, bites on his ears and causes them to stretch into what eventually become wings. Then the elephant flies, and the tiger expresses his interest in keeping himself alive, which the elephant refutes by saying that that would violate his own interest, since the tiger would eat him if they land. The elephant then proposes a compromise: he will fly just above the sea, ensuring that the tiger can land in the water safely and swim back to shore while the elephant himself flies away, safeguarding both their lives.

The use of irony is very effective here — obviously, it’s in the elephant’s greater interest for the tiger to die, and yet he chooses a solution that protects both their interests, for the technically logical reason that it makes more people happy. There is also irony in the way the tiger and the elephant have a rational discussion that follows reasonable steps to a logical conclusion, for no other reason than that this is the way their minds are made. Considering the intuitiveness of these motivations, it’s somewhat ironic that the stories are called “Just So” stories, which implies that they defy intuition and understanding; rather, characters behave logically and reasonably. I think this is something the game does well: it resists the temptation to take an absurdist stance, as might be expected from the “Just So” description, and instead subverts expectations while staying true to reality. Things don’t take a darker turn for the sake of doing so, nor do bizarre events occur for no apparent reason. Instead, explanations are proffered and the story brought to a resolution.

The brevity of the game is a shame, considering how well-written it is. The author embraces the stories for what they are — bedtime tales, meant for temporary entertainment and nothing more. This is congruous with the intuitive, within-the-lines nature of the stories themselves, which befits the duration of the game — a twist ending, or some form of recontextualisation, might conversely come across as rushed. Still, I would have liked to know more about the narrator and his son, which would have added to my appreciation of the stories.

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Coconut milk. Consistent, organic, and rooted in earthiness.

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