Ectocomp 2020: Toadstools

Ectocomp 2020: Toadstools

toadstoolsimage

Toadstools is a Twine game by Bitter Karella.

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist wakes up in a forest with no recollection of what happened to them, or why they are there. As they look through the items in their possession, they start to remember their identity as an employee of Caesar Psychopharmaceuticals, a small startup that pays employees a variable income depending on the type and number of mushrooms they harvest in Pamogo Forest, where they are in. They remember how they must have eaten a Fire Imp, a mushroom that erases the short term memory of the person consuming it, in order to forget their encounter with the God of the Forest, a being said to manifest in the eyes of those afflicted, or about to be afflicted, with Pamogo Catatonia Syndrome, also known as PCS. PCS, as its name suggests, is a condition akin to insanity, in which an individual becomes irrationally optimistic about the prospect of staying in the Pamogo Forest for eternity. As the protagonist starts to spend an increasing amount of time in the forest, thoughts of kinship with the forest start to insinuate into their mind, prompting the final choice of whether to finish the Fire Imp that the protagonist previously took a bite of, prior to the events in the story. The game ends either with a repetition of the first line, “it’s raining”, implying a neverending cycle, or with a suggestion that the protagonist saw the God of the Forest, who is not described because the protagonist is no longer alive to tell the tale.

A lot of thought went into the setup. The forest is explained to resist development and modification in general because of its worthlessness, which distinguished it from other more valuable assets that, by contrast, were “snatched up, auctioned off, divvied up, and gone”. The presence of Greensleeves, the name of the person whose dead body forms a landmark for lost wanderers, is accounted for by the suggestion that he too used to harvest mushrooms for a living, an explanation that cleverly doubles as a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s eventual fate. Then, the company the protagonist works for, Caesar Psychopharmaceuticals, is explained to avoid legal confrontation by virtue of its small size, which allows it to bypass the notice of authorities. The author even takes this a step further, explaining that big companies, too, go unpunished because they are too powerful to stop, and that it’s therefore important for illicit companies to make the leap from small to big in one breath. Explanations like these reinforce the ones they are based on, adding credibility to both. The fact that the author calls attention to the explanations they provide by capitalising words like “WHY” and “REASON” is especially encouraging to me as a player, since they signal a concern, on the part of the author, to uphold the truth of the story and maintain the player’s suspension of disbelief.

The horror element at the heart of the story is the unknown, and the fear it causes. No one knows what the God of the Forest looks like, or if they even exist. The protagonist doesn’t know how to get out of the forest, or how much longer they have to endure this state of not knowing. They don’t even know the time of day since the canopy of the forest covers the sky completely. There is a certain forbidding quality in the abbreviation of Pamago Catatonia Syndrome to “PCS”, akin to the inaccessible jargon used by governmental agencies and other authorities as a means of exerting power over the reader — even knowing what PCS stands for, the abbreviation masks its meaning from the player and requires that they perform an additional mental step to truly know it. There might also be some subtle significance in the way PCS is a possible abbreviation for Caesar Psychopharmaceuticals, the implication being that the company is consciously sending their employees to their dooms. Most importantly, the descriptions of the mushrooms in the guide book are almost never definite, with a clear discrepancy between the descriptions in the book and those of the mushrooms in real life. The player is not merely forced to make correlations between the generic descriptions they are given and the much more detailed ones in the book, but to do so in the context of many of these mushrooms having severely detrimental effects, imbuing the unknown with a very real implication.

Unfortunately, the justification for the protagonist’s appearance in the forest, which the events of the story are based on, is not strong enough in my opinion. The protagonist’s state of being lost is implied to be a direct result of their consumption of a Fire Imp, suggesting that eating the Fire Imp was only a temporary, if necessary, solution that led to another problem, almost like making a deal with the devil (the name “Fire Imp” might be significant in this regard). Yet it’s also mentioned by the protagonist that the situation in which they found themselves is neither new nor unusual, having happened to them “a few times before this”. This raises not merely the question of how they managed to regain their bearings on those occasions, but also why they persisted in choosing to put their lives at risk again and again, neither of which is addressed satisfactorily. The only justification suggested is the lack of jobs in the city, coupled with the protagonist’s lack of skills, connections and leads. But to consciously put one’s life on the line even after (presumably) suffering at least one close shave requires a level of desperation that surpasses simply needing a job, and that desperation isn’t reflected in the words of the protagonist. Finding a compelling justification for the premise of a horror story is extremely difficult, but it’s the difference between a good horror story and a mediocre one.

Like I said, though, the author is clearly aware of the importance of waterproofing the plot. This has all the markings of a good horror story, and based on the game’s emphasis on reasons, and the soundness of the secondary justifications provided, I’m more inclined to see the game’s main limitation as an oversight rather than a conscious compromise. I would love to see more from this author.

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Raspberry ripple. The swirl provides sound support, but unfortunately the central element is not quite strong enough for it to take off.

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