Triptych (2009)

April 18, 2009 - Features

In Stephen Lavelle’s brief but dense Triptych, a decontextualized internal monologue similar to those he used in Mirror Stage (review) is broken to pieces by two intrusive elements.  First, there is a quasi-adventure game-style series of actions the player can take to explore a room. The feedback for these actions is interleaved with the sentences of the monologue. The actions you can take are inconsequential, and you soon run out of options. There is also a set of related, emotionally loaded words that gradually replace more and more of the words in both the monologue and the room exploration, so that by the end of the game (which is no longer than a minute or so) you only see these words repeated in random order.

There are six different monologues, two different rooms to find yourself in, and at least nine sets of emotional words.  (The word sets are difficult to count reliably since there seems to be some overlap among them.)  The combination of these three elements – monologue, room, and word set – is chosen at random at the start of each playthrough, a combination which may be the triptych referred to in the title.

There is no obvious underlying theme to the pieces of content being thus combined.  The monologues share themes of weather, loss, external pressures, and memory, but in a variety of different contexts.  The two rooms are spare and uninteresting.  The word sets, which range from pleasant (honey, sunlit, gleam) to trivial (teamwork, strategy, management, cooperation) to alarming (rape, body, other, dirty), seem like they might correspond to some taxonomy of emotional states, but are otherwise unrelated to each other.

Like Lavelle’s other work, Triptych is strongly reminiscent of a psychological experiment.  Are you meant to read the framing monologue and your interactions with the room differently if the word set is happy, frightening, uncomfortably sexual, etc.?  Or are they merely meant to startle and distract you from the narrative aspects of the game?

While the word set has a clearly obtrusive effect, it took me many playthroughs before the separation of the monologue and the room interaction was obvious.  Up to that point I tried to read them as continuous, with the monologue representing my character’s thoughts as she did things in the room.  The resulting stories made no sense, even before being overtaken by PHALLIC PHALLIC LABIAL and so forth, but my brain made the best of what it was given.

The game encourages this kind of over-interpretation by including numerous points of connection between details in the monologues and available actions.  One room has a window, and several monologues describe the weather outside, which either leads you to open the window or explains what you see if you already opened it.  A monologue about lost keys mentions a bedroom table, which is visible in one of the rooms.  One concerned with errands that need to be done may prompt you to choose a “leave” command which doesn’t actually work.

Having a narrative and a space of player action that are functionally indifferent to each other, but not obviously so, creates its own kind of friction, and could make for an interesting game on its own. But of course, the intrusion of the emotional words eventually obliterates this friction. The two streams of text lose what distinction they have as they move closer to gibberish. This could evoke the dominance of emotion over rational thought and decision-making, or perhaps a violent disinterest in the relationship between game and narrative. Whatever you take away from this movement from subtle cognitive dissonance to unbridled nonsense, Triptych is at least remarkably efficient in making you feel strange.

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