A Retrospective on My Favourite Island
I've been thinking a lot about what led up to My Favourite Island. The particular series of events and feelings and days that led to a hazey fugue of creation-state that led to this story.
I dunno where or why I should. Sometimes works are best left unexplained. But I feel compelled to anyway, to have it down somewhere, at least.
[Trigger Warnings: Trauma, suicide, rape, hygeine, body horror, mysophobia, bipolar, eating (in gross ways), sexism, body feels, some spider-like stuff, politics, Twitter.]
A Background in Twine, Twitter & 2012-14
This is the game that I probably got the most renown for in the Twine 'peak' of 2012-2014. I wasn't one of the big names or the originators, but I was part of the same crowd for a while; I also was trans, queer, poor and disillusioned with the stagnant state of 'gaming', but nontheless shaped by it growing up. I think that disillusionment was with a culture that loudly professed its artistic integrity, while venerating the concepts of "fun" and "profitable" as sacrosanct, as well as a certain elitism among a lot of the gamedev community, was integral to that movement & its peak.
There was (and still is) a lot of lionization of game development as this entrepreneurial mountain-climb feat of pure bootstraps and technical perseverence, to achieve external validation that you were a Real Developer. If you're not creating fun or profit (or preferably both), it seemed to say, then why are you even here? This narrative not only stops dead any attempts at making games purely for expression, or just for the heck of it, but it also inherently excludes anyone time/energy-poor from the medium, even when the tools are available for free.
I think that's what made Twine different. There had been other attempts to make accessible gamedev environments in the past, but most had ultimately been imitations of their peers, stripped-down to ease the learning curve. Twine was not "Baby's First Game Development Workspace", and for us it never wanted to be; You could express what you wanted to with far less access to resources, both material, digital and personal (time, energy, knowledge).
So it was not just the tool, but the ideaology that came to surround it. You want a tree asset in your level? Type "There is a tree". Your game now has a tree. Work more detail into it, or don't; People will see the tree either way. It was punk's "Take 3 chords. Good. Now go make a song" axiom applied to a medium that had shaped our dreams as kids and was, by and large, still fixated on the olympian mount of becoming a "True, Super-Productive, Market-Validated Developer of Real Games".
There are constant Technical Aptitude vs Raw Message and Commerce vs Community back-and-forths in every medium, and gaming is no exception; I am talking about a single instance here. As a subculture, it crested and then subsided around 2015, as a lot of people got pulled in other directions; Robert Yang wrote an excellent retrospective on the queer indie game niche back then. If you weren't there, it's a good peek into that subculture I'm referring to.
That's not what I'm going to talk about here, but it's an important context for it; I started making Twine games as a form of expression, after playing a few and reading Anna Anthropy & Porpentine's writing on the subject.
My Favourite Island was my first game.
Scifi & Sixroots
Like Porpentine mentioned in her review, one of the major influences was the Culture saga of Iain M. Banks. Specifically in this case, Surface Detail. Some of the major themes are very similar; Entrapment in a different 'level' of existence, the form of the body as a means of punishment, rape, trauma, dissociation, transition between planes of existence,
an alien race with trunks.. There is also a constant undercurrent in The Culture novels, sometimes in-depth, sometimes throwaway mentions, of all manner of beings choosing to be all manners of forms; The Minds themselves (Ship AIs of colossal intellect) are frequently shown playing, relaxing & conversing within whole realities they can freely morph, create and escape of their choosing.
The Culture saga and Expedition were the two main influences on the Sixroot species. Making them liquivorous predators like those in Expedition seemed like the best way to channel.. A very core-level revolted-confusion at the human form, to make the player's body feel fundamentally alien & grotesque; It is a form of feeding that is common among invertibrates, but expelling one's bodily fluids into another creature for consumption is fundamentally alien to us. Eating is also an essential, inescapably biological component of our lives, that's then woven into the very fabric of our society,
The first encounter with a Sixroot, and the ritual banquet in the village centre, are devices that are meant to drive this point home: The first time, it is a voyeuristic, outsider view of a fundamentally alien act of violence; The second time, you are both invited and pressured to perform it as a form of bonding with your new 'kin' (peer pressure & biopower are themes I never conciously meant to weave into MFI, but nontheless came about). You are rapidly shifted from documentary-like distancing to entrapment in the fundamentally violent cycle of biology.
The Sixroots' three-sexes means of reproduction plays a similar role; The closest I can imagine for humans would be a surrogate pregnancy, which is still not comfortably adjacent (there's usually less coral reefs and adolescent flippers involved, as I understand it). Part of the three-sex design was simply a wish to break the gender binary as an assumed "biological norm" for alien life. I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and combined with an adolescence spent in the local library's Science Fiction section and, well, being trans, this wasn't a particularly new or revolutionary idea to me. But it seemed like most SF depictions had "Okay, so you've got your men and your women, but instead of what we do, they.."
I wanted a species that was rooted in a triad, rather than a binary system, and for that to be their "biological sex". You're told in passing you're a Traveller- It's assumed by everyone in your adoptive culture that you're just fine with that. That assumption & its analogies isn't a major theme, but it's there nontheless.
Lesser influences are numerous; The Octospiders inhabiting Arthur C. Clarke's Rama saga had an influence both on the Sixroot biology and culture, as they were one of the most resonant depictions I came across at a young age of a species with no 'face' relatable to their human visitors, as well as having a sexual biology & behavior radically different from our own, which then impacts their entire culture as a result.
As for hooves? Well.. They're just plain weird to me. (Sorry ungulates.. I still think you're cute?)
As I said, MFI was written in a hazy 24-48 hours of creative-burst I had very little control over. It was a state of simultaneous suicidal depression and manic energy*. Absolutely the strongest driving force was the urge to express.. A fundamental disgust with the biological form- The prison of meat that I'd always felt trapped inside.
The fact it's a punishment for the protagonist to be "cast down" has been mulled over, but the question has usually been "For what?" In truth.. Not a clue, sorry. The punishment angle was always there to reinforce the negativity of the experience, the sheer contrast between the two states (Likewise, any 'Fall of Man' analogies are purely accidental).
Where all this Gross Get Me Out comes from is something I've never been able to pin down- like most complex matters, I doubt there is a 'single true answer'. Painful levels of sensory hypersensitivity (and the sheer alienness that's often felt by Autistic people) certainly contributed, making sure I would never be comfortable in my own skin, but it's not the only thing; Having a phobia of germs & microbiology given to me from a very young age by a parent and later traumatic dissociation (another gift from the same) are certainly contributors, but again.. None of these parts put together make up the whole.
Bodies are just gross to me. I don't want one, I'm not attracted to them. The concept of Body Positivity is one that I happily endorse for others who wish it, but for myself it would always be a lie, a repression. Likewise, diagnostic labels tend to slip like water off a duck's back;- It doesn't fit any of the other myriad diagnosise that are constantly being invented and re-invented, to my knowledge, anyway. Maybe there'll be a medicalized term for it someday. For now, I am blissfully free of such external impositions of the whys and wherefores of myself in this respect. It's a core aspect of who I am, not a mental schism I wish to have 'fixed'.
Throughout my life, I've searched frantically for people who feel similarly to me; When I've found works that relate a similar sense of carnal imprisonment I've held onto them for dear life. A few are listed at the end of MFI; Epidermal Macabre is a good example, but To Have Done With The Judgement Of God** was probably a very big ommission, in retrospect. Body Horror has always spoken to me on a profound level for similar reasons. Animorphs, Crash, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Cronenberg***..
The Title, the Sea and the Island
The ocean sequence and it's pivotal nature to the 'main' branch of the story**** are a bit weirder in their origin. During that 'mixed state' I had a few scant lines of one song going over and over and over and over in my head for at least 2 days. I would say it was maddening, but.. I wasn't really in a stable place to start with, so 'it certainly didn't help' is probably more accurate.
The song in question is I Break Horses, by Smog (Bill Callahan these days), and the lines in question are:
"Well, I rode out to the ocean,
And the water looked like tarnished gold,
I rode out on a broken horse,
Who told me she'd never felt so old"
"Tonight I'm swimming to my favorite island,
And I don't want to see you swimming behind"
It is, from the songwriter's intent, a song about a guy who broke a friend's heart*****; But to me one verse resonated with my own feelings of a different kind of escape. I deeply wished to (wish to) die, to be free of all this; Flesh and culture, nature and civilisation.. I just wanted respite from the constant cycles of violence, microcosmic, macrocosmic, societal, ecological, individual, communial, and the meat I have to pilot through it all. I've been suicidal on some level for as long as I can remember. I do not medicalize it; it is simply my view of life- that option will always be open to me, inviolate, and that I will someday take it. The fact I know that it would hurt those I love deeply for me to do so is something that I have struggled with far more.
This mantra beating in my head seemed emblemetic of this. The ocean, the island, a metaphor for escape. The person swimming behind.. A metaphor for the string of despair & lost hope I dreaded would follow my departure. It's an ironic and entirely unintentional part of spontaneous writing, then, that they came symbolize the protagonist's acceptance, on some level, of the life they find themself in ("Living on despite it, or embracing it", is.. Deliberately left vague. I wanted that to be the player's reading, their projection, their decision- Not mine).
The Hut and the Egg
The egg scene in the hut is a different fish; I once had a brief, clumsy sexual assault from a friend at a furry party when I was like, 18. We were both shaken from a car crash, and tried to forget about it and do stuff together once we got there. I was in pain, and I told him to stop. He didn't. Repeatedly. A friend intervened a few seconds later. Nothing came of it after, other than an awkward conversation and a gradual drifting apart.
The egg scene was.. Coughing up some of the trauma of that event. Attempting to process it. Some weird fever-dream interpretation of the odd little details and feelings that stick in your memory years later.
The Vine Serpent
Fuck. I don't even know where this guy came from.
He's the only other character in the entire narrative who acknowledges the protagonist's (and so the player's) experiences as legitimate, but he is also by far the cruellest of the characters the protagonist encounters in their new life. A cold, mocking laughter, that nontheless legitimizes what no one else can see. Maybe I should have left the egg-dream/memory distinction uncertain, but it was important to me that I didn't; I wanted the protagonist to have gone through that, to have really experienced it. Something in the world had to acknowledge that it was true.
The Vine Serpent's path(s) is one of the hardest in the game to play through, for me. I'm still not sure why he's there after nearly 5 years, but he serves an important purpose. I want to make it clear I guess that he's not (or 'not just', depending on your take on postmodernism) the 'externalized depression character' he could be read as; That was never my intent. He is a more complex beast, though despair is certainly in his diet. A beast I still don't get, and don't wish to encounter again to attempt to harvest any further meaning from.
He exists, he stands solitary guard over a people he seems not to care much for. He hates you, but with a aged, sneering contempt rather than an impassioned anger. He acknowledges you as an outsider and condemns you for it- You're an unwilling (but culpable) trespasser in pastures you were never meant to trample over, a toothless wolf among his flock.
Choose Your Own Conclusion
1. I don't really have one. There are lots of things I could go on about that influenced My Favourite Island. There are lots of grand, unanswerable questions, and people who've tried to answer them, that I could go into, but I won't. Take from this what you will.
2. We're stuck here, now, in these bodies. Nature is a beautiful, grotesque ouroborus of violence and suffering. People are cruel, groups are crueller, and both often manage to be cruel even with the best of intentions. There is no ultimate escape to any of this, outside of death itself. If we choose to live, then no-one else can provide us with an Ultimate Reason or Final Reward for choosing to do so; We might as well try to make it easier for each other.
3. I miss those who chose death before me, but I do not begrudge them their choices. For now, I live. Tomorrow, who knows.
4. The sea is a metaphor for something? Or lots of things? Don't ask me. (I'll just reply "Fish poo." and run off while you're distracted)
5. "Fish poo."
*: Bipolar folks, you probably know this dance. (I hate to fall back on psychiatric terminology, but it provides useful shorthand at times for "complex thing this label points in the general direction of, and I don't have a better word to hand for")
**: Artaud exoticized various Native American cultures a lot; So reader beware on that front, "To Have Done With.." Is no exception.
*** : Just.. All of Cronenberg, really?
****: There are a few possible endings; I don't consider any of them more 'canon' than the rest, but if you haven't reached the sea.. I'd say it's a very important part of the whole. Equally, playing through once, getting whatever ending you get, and walking away with your own personal story is one of the joys of Interactive Fiction.
*****: That particular "Free Bird" machismo; What happens when you mix guys who don't want a monogamous romantic relationship, a culture of monogamy & romance as the established norm, a big ol' dose of sexism, and the manipulation of another's longterm hopes and desires.
Get My Favourite Island
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