Disclosure: I follow Ripley on Twitter. I’m very sure that this isn’t even close close to an example of “conflict of interest”, but nowadays, people will work hard to call anything a “conflict of interest.” Take that as you will.
UPDATE (12/29/15): I’ve decided to not go through with doing a series and just straight up review Ripley’s work as critique/analysis. Read on what could’ve been here.
There’s a burst of charm that explodes from Arden Ripley’s three very short interactive fiction (IF) stories. Whether it’s My Kindness Is Not an Invitation for You to Touch Me’s fiery parable about consent in public spaces or ARDENQUEST 2K13’s farcical, mildly post-modern comedy story about relationships in a fantasy setting, there’s this sense of excruciating confidence that never veers off into condescension or obnoxiousness. Instead, it’s used to channel substantive stories about asking for -and receiving- respect and understanding in different contexts. Let’s take a not-so-brief look at these brief little games.
Let’s begin with their first Twine game. ARDENQUEST 2K13 is perhaps their most off kilter story (which they humbly admit is due to a lack of sobriety). A story which at first seems to be nothing more than a farcical distraction about a young gay elf named Arden quietly reveals themes about social awkwardness and queer relationships. This game is a perfect example of Ripley’s control over the way they write. Mild post-modern touches (talking to the player, scratching out words, telling the player to “GO BACK TO THE LAST SCREEN”) establish intimacy with the audience on a comedic level. Unlike the popular empty navel gazing in games like the embarrassing Only If, or, on the non-comedic side, the dishonest Hotline Miami and the “gotcha’” moral hand-wringing in Spec Ops: The Line. You don’t feel talked down to but talked TO. You feel as if you were in company of a close friend, excitedly telling a story with the hopes to share small wisdoms. Their writing style helps humanize these stories, creating a feeling of raw proximity, instead of cold, distant misanthropy.
It’s fair to assume that, judging from the title and the main character’s name, one is in for a showcase of egotism or narcissistic self-pity. Instead, these two factors demonstrate the sincerity of the story’s intentions. By putting their flaws and fears on display, Ripley sets up a story that one can connect to on a personal level. It becomes a story about a real person, not a character, within a fantasy setting and narrative. And that narrative is an amusing one. Through their colorful writing, Ripley establishes a fantasy story free of pretensions and convention. It is a set up worthy of a Monty Python sketch, with all the farce yet without the sarcasm. And that is a positive in this case, as the story intends to communicate its themes with no snark. It builds up classic moments of violent heroism to then suddenly pull them away and instead provides moments of friendly comradeship. From there, we are shown the unexpectedness of human kindness (the cave of hairy elves) and the fruits of trying to understand the plight of others (the “cute” guard). It hints at “VERY GRUELIGN AND EMOTIONALLY CHARGED TRIALS” and instead gives us a simple “you have done it.” You “CHARGE THAT FUCKER WITH YOUR SWORD AAAA” and yet suddenly find yourself between offering to kiss or getting to know that person who you were charging at. It cares about human empathy first and foremost. This goes against the expected obsessions the fantasy genre has for violence and social/political scandals filled with betrayal and cynicism (sounds like an awfully familiar formula). That is not to say, of course, that such “dark” fantasy stories are all useless or bad. It’s just refreshing to see one indulging in care-free joy rather than po-faced grimness. And thankfully, that refreshing feeling doesn’t go to waste.
By the end of the story, young Arden has created new relationships and gained new friends. The Cask of Amontillado quest (a reference that displays the insignificance of fantasy’s obsession with McGuffins over character, as well as a small joke about IP rights) is dropped completely. The wine that Arden so deeply craves isn’t acquired. Instead, ARDENQUEST 2K13 ends with them entering a polyamorous relationship with the guard and the “cute werewolf girl” they had a crush on from the start. Overcoming their shyness and exhibiting new-found self-respect (for their sexuality in particular) and respect for others, they leave behind useless quests and settle down. The last line is uncertain of what the future holds, but it’s hopeful. It begs the audience to keep their heads up in the face of uncertainty. Because, you’ll never know. You may find something and enriching in that future. As long as you live life giving respect and humbly understanding others, things can turn out fine. Or maybe not. As Ripley puts it themselves: