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Analysis: Mole's Eyes - Fatale's Storytelling Attitude

In this Gamasutra column, writer and designer Emily Short looks at Tale of Tales' evocative PC game Fatale, mulling how its mechanics work with the narrative themes of Salome, the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it.

Emily Short, Blogger

November 9, 2009

11 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra column, writer and designer Emily Short looks at Tale of Tales' evocative PC game Fatale, mulling how its mechanics work with the narrative themes of Salome, the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it.] Recently Tale of Tales (of The Path fame) released a new interactive piece called Fatale, which explores the tale of Salome, the dancer who in compensation for her dancing requested (and got) the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Like The Path, Fatale is by turns frustrating and fascinating, with controls that vex and nervewrackingly slow pacing. It's infuriatingly easy to nose yourself into some corner of the playspace and have trouble backing out. (It doesn't help that I was playing on a Mac, so the work's built-in instructions to use, e.g., the middle mouse button were unhelpful.) On the other hand there is so much incidental beauty and horror that one almost doesn't mind. The player's chief interactive task is, as in The Path, to find objects of interest in the environment and then interact with them very trivially. There are lots of these objects, and some of them are tucked away in odd places, and moreover even if you know where they all are you can only handle them in a certain order. This time Tale of Tales has included a readme, but it's a perplexing document, which both contains explicit instructions on how to interact and suggests that the player might want to skip reading them until after a first encounter with the work. Obediently, I gave the work a first try on my own, found it frustrating in many respects and awkward but just finishable; returned and read the document, only to find that there were shortcuts that would have decreased my frustration if I'd known of them. The content is also mysterious. The Tale of Tales website presents this more or less as a gloss on Oscar Wilde's play Salome, or perhaps as an introduction to it -- something, at any rate, to help us understand the original. I found it to be just the opposite: Fatale was very hard to understand until I had read the text of the original play. Part of this has to do with design choices. Fatale uses many lines of dialogue from Wilde's play, but they are presented as text floating in space, or else fiercely whispered with other noises mixed in. This produces a thoroughly creepy atmosphere, but it is not so good for helping the player understand what is happening. A bare-bones knowledge of the biblical story helps some, but there are a number of characters and themes in Wilde's story that don't appear in the Bible. Nonetheless, I found Fatale vivid, memorable, and in many respects more satisfying than The Path. Its brevity mitigates the irritations, and the thematic content is more coherent. I'd like to discuss how it works, but to do this I will have to describe the interaction in spoilerish detail. Considering that the piece is not really a game and that there's not really any kind of puzzle, this may not vitiate the experience as much as it would with another piece. Still, you may want to stop here if you would like to try the piece from a position of innocence. Play begins with a viewpoint in a wet-floored sort of dungeon -- a cistern, according to the original -- and the player is confronted with language that harshly repudiates a woman, calling her daughter of Sodom and accursed. Music plays, and seven veils materialize along the bottom of the screen. At the end a robed executioner enters and chops off your head. Up to this point, I had been identifying more with Salome than with John, because the misogynistic language used against her fired me up on her behalf. That opening passage is minimally interactive, in the sense that you can wander around the cistern and look at things written on the walls, or (and I only discovered this on replay) gaze up through a grate at the dancer above, but the dance of the seven veils will proceed at its own speed regardless and will always end in your death. The bulk of the work involves floating about the terrace above the cistern, finding candle lights and snuffing them out. Snuffing one lights others, and your progress is tracked by a rather mysterious circular "aureola" that gradually fills with sigils. As you progress, you also hear more of the whispered dialogue; and when you are done exploring the game goes to sunlight and white-noise. There's a superb achievement in atmosphere here. Video game settings are often awe-inspiring. Setting is easier for games than plot or characters, and atmospheric settings are legion. Still, the combination of music and language, the way the sky turns red at times, the way the wind whips across the landscape and stirs up the sheer silk veils and bends the trees, the horrible hugeness and warping of the moon -- these convey an apocalyptic sense of the natural world reacting to the moral sickness of humanity. If there were ever to be an effective translation of the Oresteia into interactive media, it would require just such an atmosphere. Salome-2.jpgThematically this fits the Wilde play, which makes much of the menacing atmosphere. Several characters mention the moon -- as a chaste goddess, but also as something that seeks after death. The image is a mirror of Salome herself: Salome admires the moon goddess for never having been soiled by a man: "How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money, a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. She has the beauty of a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses." At the same time she's attracted to the severe inaccessible purity of John the Baptist, and is finally able to kiss him (and bite him, like a fruit) only when his severed head is delivered. So the scenery is gorgeous, and suits the original. But what's the interaction about? There's something sinister about deliberately going around snuffing out candles; at least, the first time I did it, it seemed like some kind of symbolic gesture, especially since the first candle looks to be lighting a little shrine. By the time I'd done, however, any hesitation was thoroughly worn away. When you snuff a light, you get a little candle flame to move around, which you can hold up to objects for a closer look. Then when you step away, the flame is gone. This interaction does force you into close examination of many bits of the environment: a luxuriously-appointed bed, a table with the remains of feasting; a splatter of blood, perhaps left over from the execution; the executioner himself, who stands mute guard; Salome, with the head of John on its plate beside her, watching over the terrace. Above is an enormous, incredible moon, and from the higher parts of the terrace we can see a shifting seascape and the domed roofs of the surrounding city. It is a landscape both beautiful and disquieting, where the player is constantly confronted with the excesses of the society that might produce such things: the lapis tiles, the carpets, the spilled wine. And thanks to the positioning of objects, it's impossible to snuff all the candles without getting a close-up view of Salome's uncovered breasts and buttocks, as well as her face. She's pensive, just occasionally blinking or slightly frowning. She is eating a pomegranate and listening to her iPod. No, I don't know why the iPod. But it's unmistakeably there and impossible to avoid, as the face of the iPod is one of the light sources the player must extinguish. Her earbuds dangle around her neck, appearing to the first glance like part of her huge archaic necklace. The white noise at the end is modern too, with car horns and the sounds of cityscape. salome-3.jpgPerhaps the most satisfying way to regard Fatale is as an illustration of Wilde's play; a sort of updated, new-media replacement of the original lush and decadent line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. As in illustrations, the flow of time is erratic and unreasonable. Long periods pass in which the characters stand still and the player explores the environment around them. Occasionally they blink or gesture, but they seem otherwise unaware, suspended; though the player's manipulations, like a strong wind, disrupt the environment and change the lighting. The few anachronistic elements, meanwhile, might assert the modern relevance of this ancient story of lust and violence. I don't always think that works, but I've seen plenty of theatrical directors at least claim that was their intention, when making the Montagues carry tommy-guns, or showing slides of Rwandan orphans during the interludes of Trojan Women. (Why then the iPod as the item that crosses time periods? Is it perhaps rather the music that lasts through generations, while the violence is of its time? I haven't settled this to my own satisfaction.) In any case, if Fatale is meant to be like an illustration, then a collecting interaction as a way to force close-up engagement with the set makes a certain amount of sense; and in fact we're able to review the close-up images of the snuffed candles again, after we've finished with them. But what does it mean to look closely at this play? "You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen." ...says one of Wilde's characters, to another obsessed with Salome; and "What is that to you? Why do you look at her? You must not look at her.... Something terrible may happen." and "Do not look at her. I pray you not to look at her. While Salome herself says "Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. Of a truth I know it too well." and when she is obsessed with John (in Wilde's play called Iokanaan): "Bring out the prophet. I would look on him." and cajoling another character: "Look at me, Narraboth, look at me. Ah! thou knowest that thou wilt do what I ask of thee." I could go on: there are 80-odd instances of the word "look" or its derivatives in the play, counting a handful in the stage directions. At the end, trying to bribe Salome away from her request of John the Baptist's head, Herod offers her an extremely large emerald, a gift he has from Caesar, that magnifies what you see through it: the opportunity, perhaps, to select and desire someone new. Salome refuses and insists on the prize she originally chose. In short, the glance itself is dangerous in Wilde's Salome. It is the means by which people become infected with desire, and desire leads to death: the death of a young guard, John's death, eventually Salome's own death. Perhaps that destructive desire was something Wilde wished to celebrate and encourage: some academic readers of the play have certainly understood him so. But it does give an oddly edgy meaning to the interaction of Fatale: if to look is to desire, and to desire is to court destruction, then the player of Fatale plays at his own peril. And so the final surprise of the work: when we snuff all the candles we are left staring into sunlight and noise, with no option left but to quit. If, however, we restart the program after having finished, we are shown Salome's dance at last. Desire is fulfilled, but only by making the player completely passive, unable to interfere at all. And this perhaps is the form of our death. (Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.) [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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