A Rope of Chalk by Ryan Veeder (2020)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Ryan Veeder? More like Ryan WEEDER if you ask me. Get it? Haha. Yeah, I get that Ryan is actually more into the harder stuff, but I couldn’t find a way to make Ryan CRACKER not sound racist.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Drug use should never be trivialized. Some of the best people I’ve ever known took trips on episcophacetin and never returned home again.

My Verdict:

To play this game is to step into another, very strange world. I think I finally understand now what Ricky Martin was talking about when he sang about livin’ la Veeder loca.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Ryan Veeder is one of the best and most intriguing IF writers to emerge on the scene over the past decade. He’s prolific, he has a website, he tweets, and people give him money every month on Patreon just for existing. I assume all the hot AIF action is only accessible to his OnlyFans subscribers which is in my opinion one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by capitalism.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/A%20Rope%20of%20Chalk/chalk.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: Taco Fiction, Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing, Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics, and many more!

A Rope of Chalk is a mess, a glorious, chaotic, and entertaining mess. It is a wild, topsy-turvy ride that takes you from the banality of a college art competition to the furthest reaches of the center of the mind. Like a babe in the dark woods who is cruelly plucked from the protection of the crib and abandoned to the whims of the ravenous wolves, the player can do little but react helplessly to the swirling environment that surrounds him or her. The wolves happen to be baby wolves so there’s no real danger, but it’s all pretty goddamn confusing nonetheless. It’s worth diving blindly into the maelstrom primarily because our guide through the pandemonium happens to be one of the best young writers of interactive fiction we have.

This may not be a particularly useful comparison, but I tend to think of Ryan Veeder as being the most Adam Cadre-like of his generation of IF writers. The games aren’t particularly similar, but both fellows tend to do interesting, unique work that challenges our preconceptions of what IF is and should be. They push boundaries, innovate, and take bold risks. Furthermore, they’re both excellent writers who are adept at creating vibrant, complex worlds and vivid, complex characters. They’re two of the funniest guys around when they want to be, too. Perhaps the most infuriating quality that they have in common is that even when their games annoy me I have to temper my criticism with thoughts like, “But that was interesting. That was unique. That made me think. That made me feel. That kept my attention and made me keep playing.” I hate that. If you’re going to be annoying, just be annoying. “Annoying good” and “annoying fascinating” aren’t valid alignments except in highly specialized D&D campaigns.

Ryan Veeder games often start out one way and then twist, turn, and ultimately reveal themselves to be something else or at least something more. So it is with A Rope of Chalk. Even though the game starts out in a very ordinary way and places you in the very ordinary role of a college student who is judging a chalk art competition at her school, there’s a sense that not everything is as it should be. Weird things keep happening. People seem a little off. As you wander the competition, study the chalk art, converse with the artists, and try to settle a dispute between two of the competitors, you’re also waiting for the shoe to drop. The dynamic tension that Charles Atlas once utilized to make himself unreasonably ripped now feels like it is in the air, supercharging the atmosphere and creating an uneasy aura of anticipation. Something is coming. Something is going to happen. You just don’t know what. Yet.

If ARoC was less Veedery, it could very well have been a perfectly reasonable if unremarkable addition to the slice of life genre. I wouldn’t like it nearly as well if it harbored no mystery, but exploring the art show isn’t unpleasant. Thanks to the game’s first unexpected change in perspective, you get to view the event from two different and distinct vantage points as Lane, a judge at the show, and then as Alec, another student who is helping organize and judge the competition. The perspective changes and arty setting make it a little reminiscent of Exhibition, but this game is less dramatic and brooding than Ian Finley’s old chestnut. In both games, the skillful characterizations are the highlight. The brief conversations you have with the artists make you feel like you are really getting to know them, and in so doing you get to know the characters you control as well. My first frustration with this game was the extent to which I found myself locked to the personality of the player characters. You can’t really change their attitudes towards the other characters or the art. For example, there’s one artist that Lane and Alec seem to share a visceral dislike for. Those feelings don’t seem completely unreasonable under the circumstances, but all your interactions with this artist are predetermined by Lane and Alec’s preexisting opinions. The dialogue options you are presented seem to offer ways for Lane to be friendly and Alec to be flirty, but these are phantom choices that the PCs will actually ignore if selected.

To a large extent, you don’t really control Lane or Alec or any of the other characters in whose shoes you will walk. You can’t change them. They are what they are. When their minds are made up about something, you can’t do anything about it even though you’re the one typing and nominally the one guiding the action. There’s good and bad aspects to this. The best thing is that each character is distinct and well-developed, including both the NPCs and the PCs. There’s no character here who is as nebulous and plastic as Shepard from Mass Effect who can to a certain extent be whoever the player wants them to be. These are characters with prior attitudes, personalities, relationships, and life experiences that shape who they are. That can become annoying when you don’t see things quite the same as your characters. In retrospect, I certainly shouldn’t have spent as much time as I did trying to hook Alec up with the badass snake lady or the badass tattoo lady when I knew his heart was already set on another, considerably less badass lady. Screw me for trying to broaden a guy’s horizons and inject some excitement into his life. Was it so wrong to want him to see the possibility that there might be someone out there he could meet who would actually be sure if she liked him or not? That’s a potential drawback to great characterizations, I suppose…Veeder did such a great job developing the characters that I started genuinely caring about them and wanting to run their lives for them. It turns out I would totally play the hell out of a Ryan Veeder college dating sim which gave me some meaningful agency. Maybe next year?

The boldest game design decision in A Rope of Chalk was undoubtedly to make the final sections of the game largely take place in the drug-addled minds of characters exposed to a dangerous hallucinogen. The Veed manages to pull it off without it seeming too ridiculous or disrupting the narrative of the game. That’s no mean feat. One of the game’s main characters, Hina, really only comes to life when we confront the angels and demons that lurk in her mind as she’s tripping balls. The amount of character development and quality writing Veeder manages to stick into a series of hallucinations is nothing short of remarkable. The depiction of drug use in the game is largely playful, but there are unpleasant aspects to the hallucinations as well. The fictional drug in the game, episcophacetin, seems to have insight-yielding qualities similar to LSD, but Hina’s hellish experiences in Cealdhame would likely deter all but the most hardcore of addicts from partaking. There was something about the combination of a pseudo-maze with garbled generic fantasy writing that I found deeply unsettling. Luckily, you don’t need to stay in that fiendish realm for very long.

While the writing and the characterizations in A Rope of Chalk are top-notch, I found the playing experience to be a little too passive for my taste overall. You aren’t given enough freedom to influence the story, and there isn’t enough to do to make you feel like you’re driving the story forward through your own actions. It’s not a completely puzzleless game, but you’re only called on to perform a few basic actions from time to time. As such, it’s easy to feel like an observer watching the story unfold from afar rather than an active participant who is interacting with the story and making things happen. Although this is undoubtedly a good game and one of the best entrants in the 2020 comp, the passivity and limited interactivity keeps it from achieving great game or classic status in my mind.

One interesting thing Ryan Veeder does with some of his games is give them elaborate back stories that seem highly unlikely to be true. For example, A Rope of Chalk is presented as a true recounting of actual events, and there is even a closing section that lets you study documentary material ostensibly collected from the actual participants of the art show that gives you additional information about the events and updates on what the group is up to now. I still don’t really think this game was really based on a true story, but I think this might be the method Ryan uses to make his characters seem more real to him. It’s like an author imagining herself having a conversation with her characters so she can understand them better or Sean Penn literally becoming Spicoli to fully immerse himself in the role. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and it really is all true. Even Nega-Hina. And hey. maybe this review isn’t really even happening at all and we’re both just super high on episcophacetin right now. What up, Skellington?

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 31/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10 (The parser is somewhat mediocre by design because there are so few actions allowed by the game. Veeder did do a nice job of providing numerous descriptions throughout, including some you might not expect — take a good look at Faye’s tattoos, for instance. I know Lane sure did!)

Special Ratings For This Game:

Characterizations: 8/10