Taken by the hand to the downward spiral


Several months ago I had a chance to play The Plant, the solo rpg created by Jason Morningstar; if you would like to see what kind of results it can bring in terms of fiction, I attach the journal of my play, in Italian and English*:



*In retrospect, I seem to have messed around with at least two of the directions to select the right prompts. Ugh. Also, there are no indications on what to do if you gain an equal amount of Fear and Anger, so I randomly chose the ending. Consider that a personal chaos factor in addition to the rules. I'll leave the text unaltered though.

For those unfamiliar, the game is about a man’s search for his daughter inside a mysterious factory. In terms of preparation, you are required to create a deck of up to ten cards -with 4 letters on their edge and numbers from 1 to 10 on each of them, no duplicates, and at least three “down” cards -representing the factory and its rooms. These will be drawn one at a time and, depending on the numbers and the connections represented by the letters at the edges of each pair of them, will direct the player to a specific prompt from the manual, which describes a room layout and questions you on something. You may also be required to draw from a second deck composed of details-these represent objects, memories or feelings related to the daughter. Sometimes, visiting a room will result in extracting a detail card; other times, you will be forced to increase your Anger or Fear score. These latter will determine which ending you obtain once you finish the deck of cards representing the plant.

The whole process might seem more like a game of Snakes and Ladders than a role-playing game: draw a card and match it with a second one (randomly, given the lack of any informed choice criteria), move around a room, get a +1 to a score and/or a detail (again assigned according to the prompt, not according to some action or personal decision), reply to some question. Rince&repeat. The game procedure seems to come across as so automated and unidirectional that it turns you more into a tourist than this family man desperately searching for his daughter.

Thus, it would seem that it should not work. But, against all expectations, it tends to do so- at least personally, it offered me genuine moments of bleed and surprise.

This can only be related, in my view, by the pleasure that the exercise of reincorporation can bring when you face the prompts you’re given with 100% commitment. Therefore, I want to focus, primarily, on celebrating some of these moments, and secondarily on what works – and what doesn’t – in magnifying this exercise, and tie it to the constraints offered by situations and outcomes that appeared most obvious to me.

Rifling through trash until you hear a “click”

In general, the prompts in the manual are quite generous in describing where you are, what is in that room and its state, as well as its general function in the design of the plant, before throwing you a question. Brutally speaking, 95 percent of these descriptions fell flat in front of me. Not having a clear picture of what exactly many of the described machines were (what the hell is an extrusion press!?), I simply reported a 1:1 description from the prompt to the journal, and there they died along with my interest.

Something, however, emerged unexpectedly. The description of a mouse carcass in the second prompt pushed me — following the instruction of that specific imput — to reincorporate the animal into “a memory of that room, at a time when it was in much better condition” (almost the verbatim instructions of the prompt). The experience was similar to how my girlfriend tells me excavations in archaeology are: you place a perimeter, dig up quintals of dirt, plastic, and trash until you find a pot shard or a nail. It may or may not be important in the big picture, but in the meantime you speculate on it, you work on it. In short, you save it and see what you do with it. And the fact that somebody else, playing this game, might have thought the mouse was not a very interesting thing makes me think that that little space to describe is mine alone.

This element exploded in the fifth prompt-I wasn’t even clear what the prompt was describing, other than generic vents to crawl through. Then, suddenly, the word “absest.” Next prompt, an “X-ray thickness gauge” in the new room (whatever that is). And at that very prompt, a randomly drawn detail card: the voice of the daughter declaring “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I had entered that Detail Card imagining a generic confrontation or abuse, but now I thought of connections between these fragments. Embracing them honestly, only one possible answer: chemo, and therefore cancer. The question

Who does the item remind you of, other than your
daughter, and why?
Gain 1 Anger

Made me immediatly feel about another parent: the protagonist’s mother. It was a powerful blow – it certainly shocked me a little, for personal reasons – and it helped inject new meaning into the situation: I’m here to save you, even if it scares us both.

The questions to be answered in the prompts, in retrospect, are not so awful. In fact, they offer a lot of room for freedom in how you want to approach them. But if there was only this “freedom,” I wouldn’t have known what to answer starting with the second prompt. So I ended up scavenging and connecting dots who could or couldn’t lead to a bigger picture. Thinking about it, it seemed to me that this process of reincorporation was more related to semantic associations between scattered elements than to a logical chain of events-as I remember my experience with Swords of The Skull Takers-but it still produced meaning to pump more energy into the what was happening.

The Terrible Twins

Here’s what the manual has to say about Anger and Fear:

As you go through the plant, you’ll become more and more angry, and more and more afraid. Keep track of how many points of each you’ve accrued, because it will be a factor in the outcome of the game. You’ve got a separate card for this, although you can probably keep track in your head if you prefer.

pg. 10

What the manual doesn’t mention is what those scores mean at the moment you acquire them, and any direction on how to report your immediate experience in your journal description. Assigning Anger and Despair thus works well for setting the tone of the reference prompt: if, as in my case, you remember your wife talking to someone else, and the prompt tells you to add +1 Fear, the tone of that discussion will have a different impact than one that has you assign +1 Anger. But, at the same time, it leaves that definiton of Anger or Fear, in that precise moment, open to a wide, although not infinite, range of different interpretations. In that case, reorienting yourself is tied to the elements of the situation at hand.

So it was an interesting constraint….most of the time. Turns out, sometimes the prompts just can’t help but step on their toes. This is more evident when in prompt 8 (which, I must admit, could have worked differently without missing the Detail Card):

Why does the item on the card fill you with stubborn
Gain one point of anger.

That didn’t leave me much room: the prompt tells me I’m determined, and to add Anger. At the time I remember having simply copied these sensations onto paper, without elaborating further. It fell flat, proably because I was comparing the experience I had with the others.

In short

What are the feelings about that? Certainly, compared to other solo games I have tried, I felt that I was much more driven in terms of choice. If as a player I feel the need to find creative space to fill in the blanks in the manual, I certainly didn’t feel it in the selection of rooms to explore, because it turns out to be, without being able to look at prompts, a totally random element.

However, I admired a certain element that continued to emerge within these prompts: the ability to surprise and disorient me as I decided to trust and embrace them honestly. Many of these prompts modify at base information previously reported in the journal. The impression is that the mysterious father seeking his daughter has, consciously or unconsciously, forgotten or suppressed things unpleasant to him. Mildred’s episode in the diary is deliberately a reversal requested by one of the prompts. But even certain inconsistencies, in the end, did not leave a bitter taste in my mouth. The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is that of James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2 (or Shutter Island, for a cinematic comparison).

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2 responses to “Taken by the hand to the downward spiral”

  1. Quick link: The Plant (no longer at Bully Pulpit; this is the internet archive)

    You have described a lot of the things I felt when playing the game, and it’s a remarkable design. I agree with you completely about how one reincorporates through association rather than a logical-causal sequence.

    Another element for me, however, came with time. I’ve come to think that the game either has a built-in limitation, or maybe that I do when playing it: that I find the resulting world-view to be at best shitty and arguably evil. “I,” “you,” the protagonist or whatever we want to call i, is doomed to be revealed as an abuser, or as deluded, or otherwise terrible.

    I might be wrong about this, and I hope I am. I haven’t played the game very many times, and certainly not in an experimental way to arrive at all the possible conclusions. And I haven’t read the numbered text in the absence of play to see what they all are, either. Pehaps it operates more like a Rorschach test, so that other outcomes are quite possible and what I’m observing is the game’s internal logic which perceives me (personally) as any or all of those things. Which is still kind of grim or possibly nasty, but not the foregone notion that “whatever happens, you suck” which I’m perceiving.

    I should try it again and see.

    • “Evil?” Maybe. “Deluded,” and ultimately immersed in a crappy world capable of breaking spirits and perverting even the best of intentions? Definitely.

      I’ve had a chance to read the prompts after completing the game, and the only event that retains unequivocal positive value is what I would consider the “golden ending,” in which the father walks away with his daughter and leaves behind the memories of the factory. But those constraints I mentioned, Anger and Fear, turn any question into the titular downward spiral. I mean, even a seemingly positive news like “your foreman warns you that you’re going to be a father” is met with a point of Fear. And others are decidedly more explicit: “When were you around enough blood to form a strong memory of its odor? Earn a point of Fear.” The range of the two concepts is-as mentioned, when the prompts are not stepping on each other’s toes- wide enough to turn hatred into determination, fear into preocupation: but it is an exercise that, because of this obscure, mechanical setting, I would find counterintuitive, exhausting. It is infinitely easier to go with the flow and believe, as in my case, that this figure is hiding something and is not simply a determined father — something, by the way, explicitly signaled by at least two other prompts.

      I’d like to know how your next game goes, to dispel the doubt you presented but also to understand how you would approach the game in light of your first result.

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