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The Impact of the Lack of Choice in "my father's long, long legs"

The appeal of Twine games comes from the fact that they are interactive fiction, and often offer different choices that can be made that open up branching paths that tell distinct versions of the same story. This is also a story-telling device used in video games - offering multiple endings depending on criteria met in-game. Often times these endings are categorized as "good," "neutral," or "bad," depending on how the story is played out in each one. Michael Lutz’s my father’s long, long legs, however, relies on a linear path, with only a section of the piece offering a variety of options that only give the illusion of choice, to tell a horror story. It is this design choice that makes my father’s long, long legs a very effective piece of interactive horror. By taking choice away from the reader (or player), it creates a feeling of being trapped, forced to work towards the same "bad" end each time the reader goes through the story. There is no "good" ending for the characters involved, and there never will be, no matter how many times the game is replayed.

My father’s long, long legs tells the story of a father who is driven to continuously dig tunnels in his basement. His behavior increasingly becomes erratic, and the main character describes him as growing unnaturally taller as he spends more time in the basement. During most of the story, there is only one option available to move the narrative along. However, at certain points, you can choose to tell one of three different perspectives first – the main character, the mother, or the brother. Ultimately it does not matter whose story you decide to tell first, as you will have to read all options as the story progresses. This is the first instance in which Lutz uses the illusion of choice to build a tense atmosphere. By forcing you to read all three of the characters’ backgrounds, but letting you choose whose story to read first, second, and third, in terms of horror, it helps build an atmosphere that maybe something in the narrative can be changed, but ultimately, it cannot and the story is on a set path.

Deciding whose story to read first - the mother, brother, or main character's.

There is another section of the story in which one line of dialogue can be changed up to five times. The main character talks to her brother (she is referred to as “young lady” during one scene) after an incident that scared a visitor her brother had to the house. When she was younger, her father would give different reasons for digging, such as looking for dinosaur bones, or a natural hot spring under the house (which in itself is a reference to a Junji Ito story, which Lutz credits as inspiration for my father’s long, long legs). However, on this occasion, the father chose to tell the visitor that his reason was to essentially begin to remake the earth, as “this is not the real world.” By allowing the player to flip through different reasons the father had for digging, but not allowing them to affect the story, Lutz continues to keep the player on a linear path towards the end. This scene is almost a metaphor for the entire story itself, in that the reader can flip through pre-programmed options, but they have no bearing on the story and change nothing. It's a small bit of foreshadowing for the climax of the story, which is the basement puzzle.

The different excuses the father gives for digging in the basement.

The basement puzzle near the end is where this story, and the design choices made by Lutz, really shines and emphasizes the lack of control you as a reader really have over the situation. The main character agrees to go with her brother back to the house after being away for slightly over a decade. The main character has reservations about doing so, but to her brother, their father’s behavior was normal, and he is described as being more “lenient” to their father’s behavior. The brother arrives ahead of the main character and is lost within the basement somewhere. This leads to a series of choices that the player can make, ranging from, “I followed the sound of digging” to “Around me there was nothing but darkness.” Again, just as before with the excuses scene and the order in which you can read the characters’ experiences with their father, this is just an illusion. It is there to disorient the player and confuse them, just as the main character would be following lengthy, winding paths that her father had been building for easily more than a decade. Just like before, all paths lead to the same outcome – the main character has a run-in with something that might be her father, forcing her to run away from the house and leave her brother in the basement.

A section of the ending "puzzle."
The ending screen.

There are other ways that Lutz creates the illusion of choice, or at the very least, the illusion of hope. In the final sequence in the basement, the main character finds a flashlight that her brother left behind. Up until now, the screen had been white text on a black background. This changes when she finds the flashlight. The screen goes dark, and a small, faded white circle appears that follows the on-screen cursor to illuminate the now black words on a black background. Lutz achieves this effect by using jQuery, a programming language that can be used within Twine. The player can then choose what options to highlight. What makes this such a brilliant tool to use in this setting is the fact that, because it suddenly highlights several different options, it helps fool the reader into thinking that these choices will have any effect at all on the ending. Flashlights are also often a "hope spot" in modern horror video games, so those coming from that perspective might make that connection as well.

The CSS for the site, specifically the "puzzle" section, proving that it is black text on a black background.

During the puzzle sequence, Lutz adds sound effects as the main character goes further into the basement. The only indication that this will happen is the small note Lutz has at the top of the page, advising the use of headphones. Up until this point, the experience has been silent, and has been entirely text. What’s interesting about this is this is a common tactic used in video games to guide the player on the correct path. As the player reaches the goal, the volume is supposed to get louder and clearer. However, here, the volume of the digging remains the same, even though one of the options is to “follow the sound of digging.” Were this a video game, or another Twine game, you could expect to find your brother, or fight some great evil in the basement, something that would lead to a happier ending. Since Lutz is telling a horror story, having options other than being chased out of the house and abandoning your in-game brother would take away from the impact of the story, and lessen the tense, terrifying atmosphere Lutz has built up throughout the work.

One of the biggest appeals in video games is to play through and see how many different endings can be achieved, how many different stories you can tell in one game. But to create an effective horror game, Michael Lutz has taken any ability from the player to ultimately change the story, and constantly reminds you of this throughout the story – starting small, by letting you choose whose story to tell first, but forcing you to read all of them anyway, to ultimately including a puzzle that will always end the same no matter what. It removes any sense of hope that the player might have that they are able to change the narrative, and laughs at the idea of having a happier ending for the characters involved.

my father's long, long legs can be found at http://correlatedcontents.com/misc/Father.html

all of screenshots here were taken by me

Credits:

Created with images by thematthewknot - "9.365"

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