This week’s readings were like a surreal dream, and I loved engaging with them both. Let’s start with Icarus Needs by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey. This piece’s simple graphics, upbeat music, and bold colors made me nostalgic for playing old school Flash games during computer class. The reader (although, maybe “player” is more accurate) uses the arrow keys to move Icarus across the screen, pick up objects, and search for his friend Kit. The ultimate goal is to get Icarus to wake up after he fell asleep playing video games.
Needs is an engaging puzzle, but I’m not sure how much choice the reader really has in solving it; each problem that arises seems to have only one solution, and all of Icarus’s efforts end with him waking up on his couch. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are other possibilities and outcomes I missed in my exploration.
As I explored, I read surreal dialogue from other characters, existential questions from an unseen narrator, and witty quips from Icarus. I enjoyed the text, the visuals, the music, and the gameplay, but honestly, I don’t see how Needs counts as literature. Of course, it has a few arguably literary aspects, like the allusion to Greek mythology in the titular character’s name. Maybe it also has some deeper meaning that went way over my head, or maybe I missed something because I didn’t read the other works in the series. Overall, though, this piece just felt like a cute, silly, fun video game to me.
This line of thought made me circle back to the questions I asked in my blog on Bots and Trope: What makes something literature? Does reader response theory mean that a text as simple as Needs can still count as literary? Personally, I believe reader response theory has its limits. Yes, readers create their own meaning as they engage with a text, but the author also has to put some meaning there in the first place—otherwise, where’s the line? What’s stopping you from calling the text on the back of your shampoo bottle brilliant literature just because it might mean something to someone somewhere?
Obviously, this hypothetical is an exaggeration, as the text in Needs is more meaningful than a list of shampoo ingredients (plus, you should really be using shampoo bars, not bottles. Plastic is bad for the planet.) However, the dialogue in Needs is either too nonsensical and silly to be literary (for example, Icarus’s quip “He didn’t look like a door… is that racist?”), or it’s too vague and cliched to be truly meaningful (for example, the narrator’s question “Do you often dream of flying?”). Of course, literature can be fun or cute or silly, but it also has to have deeper underlying themes for me to consider it literary.
In contrast, Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive feels literary in a way that Needs doesn’t. Love Alive contains a fully developed world with its own extensive lore. I’m not sure exactly how to describe the amazing vibe this piece gives off. It’s like a mix between a surreal, post-apocalyptic dreamscape; a futuristic feudal fantasy world; and a weird eldritch horror realm. And it’s all in eye watering neon purple and pink. The text’s vivid imagery is pretty disgusting, but in a way, it’s also hauntingly beautiful. For example, when I visited the “dry canal,” I saw “dead vines wave in the wind like sun bleached hair” and an “angel corpse [rot] in the sun.” The piece is filled with lines like these that juxtapose dark, disturbing horrors with images of ethereal beauty.
In addition to feeling like a fully fleshed out world, Love Alive also gives the reader a lot more agency than Needs. For example, I got to choose my birth month (“Eye in the Ground”) and my element (“petal”), which gave me a unique name (“Grale Perdot”). I also decided which locations to visit, choosing between the palace, the workshop, the balcony, etc. Clicking on each location prompted a short but evocative description of the scenery, as though Grale Perdot was quickly glancing around to get her bearings.
Clicking on the workshop brought me to a screen where I could make unique creations, like three glyphs reading ”indomitable / bat-mother / loyal to eternity” made of snakeskin; “a diadem made of heretic bone”; and “a dagger made of the bones of a rival tyrant and angel-leather.” (Can we just take a moment to appreciate how formidable and fearsome these objects are?) I also had a say in the appearance of other characters, such as when I gave the Skull Empress “atlas beetle horns,” a “mantle of moth fur,” and “eyes burning with cold fire” (because those were the least disgusting options).
There were even prompts asking me to draw sigils on my own skin. Though this is a really cool idea to engage readers and force them to create their own meaning, I have to be honest—I didn’t do it. However, at one point, after reading a particularly disturbing segment about helpless, mewling spores that I repeatedly encountered and then abandoned to their (probably dismal) fate, I was asked to “draw the sigil of what you feel.” In my notes, I sketched my sigil: “???”.
As I read, I wondered how much all of these choices affected the story; did my decisions determine the path my character took, or were they just an illusion leading toward a singular outcome? I had a lot more questions, too: why did I have to keep “reapplying hormones” by pressing some weird artefact to my glowing thigh? Why was the Skull Empress hunting humans? And, consequently, what species was my character if not human? And what kind of unethical, disturbing shenanigans were happening in the dream distillery, which was filled with human heads?
In addition to ample amounts of confusion, I also experienced extreme disappointment when I bookmarked the piece for later and then realized my progress had all been lost; I would have to start the journey all over again. Love Alive was so much fun to read, and I was so engaged in the story that I desperately wanted to learn more about the world and to find out what happened to my character. Perhaps if I had finished the piece, I’d have gotten more of a feel for the themes it was trying to portray. Though I couldn’t quite figure out what this piece was trying to say, I definitely enjoyed how it said it.