Adventures with Mermaids

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Web cover art for The Daring Mermaid Expedition.

I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.

When I saw that Choice of Games had published a new text game under the name “The Daring Mermaid Expedition”, I knew I had to try it. I’ve had excellent experiences with COG games, in particular their “Affairs of the Court” series (beginning with “Choice of Romance“), as well as the Heroes Rise series, the first of their games to be released on Steam. COG text adventures are accessible and engaging. Defined, as the name implies, by the large number of choices given to the player, they are rich with character customization and multiple endings. To get a good idea of the kind of story you are walking into, the beginning chapters are free to play.

Unfortunately, DME’s opening chapters don’t really do that. The very beginning of the story artfully slides into POV with the main character reading a book about the scientific adventures of an explorer. While this is a perfectly cromulent literary device, in the context of a game it’s much less interesting than it would have been as a piece of straightforward prose. Things pick up when the protagonist meets her very first mermaid. One of the first characters introduced in the game, she proves to be as critical to the plot as one might expect.

The opening chapters focus on the Royal German Marinological Society, a retro science fictional organization of natural scientists and explorers. The setup leans on the atmosphere of thrill and danger of historical explorers, and the genre of adventure fiction that commemorates them. While the story doesn’t give any date or concrete time period, the flavor of science practiced is a far cry from the sterile laboratories typical of 20th and 21st century SF. The game is also populated with an appropriate supporting cast, and the protagonist can choose a mentor based on their own philosophical approach to the scientific method.

One of the most disappointing things about DME, which is on the whole a very playable and entertaining game, is its lack of depth. Pun not intended. For each element of the world-building, from the Marinological Society, to the pirates encountered along the way, and most especially the mermaid civilization you set out to discover, there is only enough detail given to whet the appetite. Sometimes the lack is strongly felt, like in the sketchy, under-written romances. Other times the adventure tumbles forward so quickly, it’s only later that you realize that you really didn’t learn all that much.

The Daring Mermaid Expedition is a well-written story and a roller-coaster adventure, but it leaves the player with the feeling that there should have been a lot more of it. The conflict between the secretive, retiring mermaid society and the scientific establishment is classic, and the game mechanic keeps it fresh. The various possible endings range from horrific to bittersweet, although the most victorious endings lack a certain sense of satisfaction. It’s telling that, at seventy thousand words or more, the game still feels a little incomplete.

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One Salt Sea cover art.

Funnily enough, I was playing and replaying this game roughly in parallel to reading Seanen Macguire’s One Salt Sea, fifth in the Toby Daye series and focusing on relations between land and sea fae, with a strong focus on the mermaid-like merrow fae. Macguire even describes the queen of the sea fae as looking like a “classic mermaid”, in the section of the plot that appears as a preview in the preceding book. Once again, I took one look at it and knew that I had to have it.

October herself is a character naturally averse to the sea and all that’s in it. Despite the fact that her boyfriend is a selkie, a shapeshifting fae who uses a sealskin coat to assume the form of a seal. Despite the fact that her most powerful ally in the literal sea witch of legend, and arguably the most powerful fae still living. Most interestingly, despite the fact that she spends a chunk of the story underwater herself, searching for clues in the investigation of two kidnapped mer-children.

Watching characters confront their fears is something that should be interesting, although poor writers use it as a lazy substitute for real character flaws. One of my favorite things about the Toby Daye series, and the main reason I stuck with it through five books (and possibly beyond), is that the protagonist is flawed in very deep-seated, dangerous ways. Her struggles and foibles are authentic and affecting, even through the necessarily stilted recap of the previous books’ plots. She makes poor choices that she knows she’ll regret as she’s making them — like asking a sea-witch for an underwater enchantment — and pays the price for them, as expected.

Not that it makes the books predictable, on the contrary. It’s quite unusual to find a story that commits so well to forcing its characters to live with the consequences of their decisions. Toby always survives her escapades, no matter how dangerous, because she is the main character and her death would end the series. She always survives, but she never escapes unscathed. From the gunshot wounds she regularly nurses, to having to reconstruct her entire view of her childhood, no one pays a higher price for Toby’s mistakes than she herself. It’s rather refreshing.

Both stories were satisfying in their own way, with a shared subject matter and radically different tones. Alas, the one thing neither of these adventurers could supply me with is a mermaid girlfriend. Some things, apparently, you still have to do yourself.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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