IFComp 2020: Sonder Snippets

IFComp 2020: Sonder Snippets


Sonder Snippets is a Twine game by Sana.

There are two main characters in the story: Safya and Dadi, her ancient grandmother. Dadi, using a language that Safya only partially understands, tells her up to three tales, all of which involve a character called the Thief, who causes grief in one way or another, usually in the process of trying to do good. The game ends with Safya’s siblings asking her to build forts with them, the appeal of which enchants her immediately, even as she feels, and expresses, a remnant of guilt that she did not really enjoy her grandmother’s tales. Sensing her dilemma, Dadi gently cuts her off with an encouragement to play with the others, saying, in a voice we can imagine to be filled with sadness, that she will continue “another time”.

Safya’s inability to understand her grandmother’s tales is threefold. Apart from the fact that her grandmother speaks in a language that Safya is not wholly familiar with, the tales themselves, while logical, contain a number of absurdist elements whose origin is not addressed (e.g. how the Thief has the power to both read and control minds). Then, there is the psychological factor of Safya’s desire to play with her siblings overpowering her desire, or obligation, to listen to her grandmother, which literally halves her mind, reducing its attention to, and concern for, Dadi’s tales. Her withdrawal from Dadi is further strengthened when one of the children teases Safya for being a baby, framing the act of storytelling as one meant for adolescents. There is clear irony in the way this child contrasts storytelling with building forts, which they imply to be a grown-up activity; yet neither Safya nor Dadi views their remark with contempt, or even amusement. This is in line with Safya’s age, including her short attention span and her unquestioned perception that, transient as we know the act of building forts to be, it is ultimately more gratifying than listening to her grandmother. As for Dadi, the description of her response as “gentle” can be interpreted both as a patient understanding of the importance to Safya of spending time with her peers, and as a sad acceptance that Safya considers building forts to be more meaningful than listening to, and learning from, her stories.

Even to the player, who isn’t affected by either the language or the psychological barrier, the stories resist understanding. In two of the three stories, the Thief gives her target the opposite of what they desire: the Moon desires constancy, and the Lover desires the unknown, but the Thief gives them transience and certainty, respectively. In the case of the Moon, the Thief’s intentions are to challenge their point of view, hoping the Moon sees the value of change, but in the case of the Lover, the Thief’s intentions are purely selfish: the Lover wants to love that which they do not know to exist, causing the Thief to feel offended that she is not the focus of their life. This prompts the Thief to instill in her Lover the belief that their spirit of questioning, synonymous with their love of the unknown, undermines their identity as a Lover, since questioning is an “act of non-love itself”. Exactly why the Thief is simultaneously selfish and generous is unclear, as are the Thief’s specific powers — in the story of the Lover, the Thief is shown to possess both mind reading and mind controlling abilities, along with a demonstrable caveat that her target retains some trace of their past selves, which is likewise unexplained.

In the face of all these questions, the ending plays a pivotal role. Safya’s inability to understand Dadi’s stories is something the player both empathises with and is validated by, since the abstruseness of the stories is seen to be felt by someone else. Then, the tone of contempt in one of the responses at the beginning of the game (“What are you trying to prove, who are you trying to defy? Do you think this choice defines you from the others, grant you uniqueness, individuality unto yourself?”), along with the prevalence of questions in place of concrete answers, has the effect of discouraging the player from seeking to understand everything, foreshadowing the unknowability of the stories. Finally, the stories themselves, while raising many questions, nonetheless contain scraps of logic that cause confusion less in their precise content than in their relevance in the big picture (e.g. why water is a recurring image). This not only gives the player confidence in the truthfulness of the stories, but also reduces the focus on their specific descriptions, framing them as tales to be felt rather than known.

I had to look up the word “sonder”, which apparently is a neologism meaning “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. Of the three stories, the one to which this definition seems most applicable is that about the Sun, who simultaneously desires company and dislikes the top-down relationship between themselves and the planets the Thief steals for them, who have to rely on them for life. Yet even those planets that are self-sustaining feel sadness at having been forcibly removed from their homes, which is where I think sonder comes into play — the storyteller feels sonder in empathising with the planets, but not the Thief or the Sun. In fact, Dadi seems to be the only character in the game who feels sonder, suggesting that these “sonder snippets” she weaves are intended as didactic fables for Safya, who, paradoxically, requires sonder in order to learn it — it’s because she doesn’t grasp the depth of her grandmother’s intentions that she chooses to dismiss them. It’s significant, therefore, not to mention deeply sad, that Safya means “pure” in Arabic, since her inability to learn sonder is not a conscious fault of hers, but something conforming to the innocent purity of her age — something she may never outgrow in time, before her rapidly aging grandmother passes away.  “Another time then,”  promises Dadi simply; but even that may be wishful thinking.

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Chocolate chip. Stark, bittersweet, and ineffably poignant.


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