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March 29, 2005

Discussion: Every Day is Mother's Day

Every Day is Mother's Day

Hilary Mantel's Every Day is Mother's Day is a very odd little book. There are sort of two plotlines going on: one involves a woman who believes she is a psychic and her moderately retarded full-grown daughter, the other a man originally from the same neighborhood who is cheating on his wife with a younger woman. The two storylines kind of crash together at the end of the book, but I guess I'm getting ahead of myself just a bit.

The more interesting of the two plots is that of the mother and daughter. Social workers are dispatched with some regularity out to the house to see how the daughter is getting on; the mother, who is about as instantly and persistently unsympathetic a character as you're likely to meet in fiction, does her best to avoid them, but is eventually buttonholed and is convinced to send her daughter to a sort of day camp.

The woman treats her daughter horribly -- believing her incapable of any thought whatsoever, she constantly berates her, perhaps thinking she'll have forgotten each insult as soon as it passes by. She is truly abhorrent, and so we feel somewhat sympathetic to the daughter, who is pretty inaccessible to us as well. It's a conundrum, but soon we know for sure that our allegiances should probably be with the daughter -- she has been getting back at her mother quietly for months by using her apparent infirmity to her advantage. Her mother, convinced that the house is haunted by lost souls, never stops to consider that it is her own daughter that is moving things about in the house, making noises, and finding her father's coat and hanging it in the hall.

I never felt that this was out of a sense of revenge -- at least, not the sense of revenge I might feel. The daughter is simply too alien in her thought processes for us to really understand what is motivating her -- it may not even be revenge.

I've tried to imagine what kind of game mechanic comes out of that sort of story, and the best I can come up with is a mechanic in which you can exert power on the world as long as you do it in secret. Manipulation of the world comes as a secondary effect by the responses you provoke in characters.

It seems to me, this mechanic actually has been used a bit -- though usually against the player. After all, genres such as survival horror make use of fear as a primary driving force for the game, and depend on darkness and other forms of secrecy to create the atmosphere which drives the fun. Anticipation and horror are bred from the unknown and the unknowable, the secret and the hidden.

Is it possible to turn it on its head? Let's dismiss, for the moment, board games in which hiding information is required to hide strategy. These aren't really what I'm talking about -- in these cases, we are not trying to provoke emotion, but to foster a winning strategy based on feints. Have there been good games in which the player's ability to act in secret results in secondary effects that are the proper subject of the gameplay? Of course, to match this, there has to be the chance of a discovery which removes the power of such effects.

Certain stealth games certainly approach this: in Thief, you can manipulate the environment to produce a navigable path -- extinguishing torches, dropping moss on the floor, etc. Indeed, these are less effective or even ineffective if the guards see you do them -- so it comes close. You're not provoking an emotional response, but the topology of the gameplay seems closely matched to the mechanic I describe. Is there a game as good as Thief possible where the landscape you're navigating is the emotion of an antagonist, or group of antagonists?

The other half of the book has another sort of secrecy going on -- keeping secrets from your wife. I think that this sort of game has probably been done, in Japan, land of the dating simulator...

Posted by Brett Douville at March 29, 2005 08:10 PM