Ectocomp 2020: Cabin in the Forest

Ectocomp 2020: Cabin in the Forest

cabinforest

Cabin in the Forest is a ChoiceScript game by William Loman. (Spoilers follow.)

At the start of the game, the player is instructed to create a character who will be “placed into a horror pastiche”. Immediately after, the narrator, Pallas, is established as an important character. Gameplay involves, or seems to involve, putting together the character for the supposed pastiche by selecting character traits from a given list, ranging from the character’s name to their MBTI personality type and both their Western and Chinese zodiac signs. As the character starts to take shape, the narrator increasingly asserts his presence, eventually revealing that the reason for the level of detail required of the player is that he needs to feed on this character, who is real in the same way that fictional worlds are real when we imagine them. Just before he consumes the character, Pallas gives the player a last chance to see their creation, accentuating the loss felt by the player when their character is destroyed while doubling as a means for Pallas to encourage the player to visualise their character, making them more real and therefore more nourishing to consume.

It’s also possible to interpret the entire act as a means to the end of destroying something of value to the player and causing them feelings of loss and anguish, which are what Pallas really consumes. This would parallel the way Hannibal Lecter feeds Clarice information about the serial killer in exchange for her darkest childhood memories, which, as Anthony Hopkins portrayed so brilliantly in the movie, he almost seems to savour, in a gourmet sense.

The other horror production that I was reminded of is Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks, a short film that seems at first to be an episode of a typical sitcom until the viewer realises that the opening credits, complete with a theme song, go on almost indefinitely, with the actual “episode” taking up only a few seconds. In the same way that Too Many Cooks parodies the cheesiness of opening sequences used by sitcoms, this game seems to parody the often touted freedom to be anyone you want that is characteristic of Choice of Games pieces (CoG), particularly since ChoiceScript, the program used by CoG games, is used here. But while Too Many Cooks is almost wholly a parody, with the idiosyncrasy of sitcoms deliberately distorted into extreme proportions, the satirical feature of this game seems incidental rather than its entire basis. There is a distinct reason for the inordinate amount of time dedicated to the creation of a character that extends beyond mere parody, which I think is especially impressive for a game created in less than four hours.

Something the game invites us to consider, in relation to the justification provided for the player’s creation, is the authenticity of the character in the question-and-answer, multiple-choice context in which they are created. The character the player creates seems fake in the sense that the player merely chooses from a list of options that they are not in control of, a mechanic of choice-based games that is usually taken from granted but that is worth examining here since it is central to the story. The narrator, Pallas, is very much aware of the way such questionnaires exert power over the reader, at one point forcibly removing the player’s options and ordering them to try again until they choose the one that he is happy with. What he doesn’t acknowledge, however, is whether this choice still retains any meaning, after not merely originating from a list of options but also from what is essentially not a choice at all, since the player was forced to ‘choose’ it. It’s likely a result of the time constraints under which the game was made that this issue is unresolved, but I think it’s also possible to interpret Pallas’ silence on the issue as a deliberate unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of the method used to create the character, so as not to come across as anything less than the goddess he is. His silence could also be directly related to the point about making a character more real by believing in them — by talking about the character as though the player created them from scratch (i.e. not by selecting from a list), Pallas is perhaps attempting to convince himself that the character has more life than they really do, so as to make his meal of the character a more wholesome one.

For me at least, it’s also not true that there isn’t any investment whatsoever in the character I created. Building a character is unique in the way it’s complex and familiar at the same time, unlike, for instance, building a sandwich, which is familiar but hardly complex. In addition, something that facilitates the illusion of authenticity is Pallas’ consistent, though not perpetual, comments on the player’s choice after every question, which he could easily have omitted. The credibility that this adds to his questions trickles down to the answers the player selects and therefore to the character they create, prompting the player to visualise them as though they were a real person conforming to real standards (e.g. having an MBTI personality). Most importantly, the lie Pallas tells the player at the start of the game, namely that their character will take part in a horror pastiche, provides a clear purpose for the character whose creation the player is incentivised to consider carefully, since it’s implied that what the player chooses will be significant (particularly for players who have played CoG games before). As one reviewer mentioned, though, this is somewhat undermined by the context of the competition, which gives us a hint as to how the game will play out, given that the author couldn’t possibly have had enough time to write a meaningful story after investing so much time into the character creation bit.

(This might be a good time to say that this is my last review for Ectocomp 2020. I’ve played every game, and while I enjoyed most of them, I don’t feel like I really have anything interesting to say. The reason I promised more Ectocomp reviews after IFComp was that there were 48 intents to participate this year, and there being a record 103 entries in IFComp, I expected a similar surge in the number of Ectocomp entries. But I fully understand the constraints of making a game in less than four hours, and it’s a testament to the author of this game that they made something that I feel warrants a review, even a brief one.)

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Bamboo charcoal. If there is a taste, it’s already gone.

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