IFcomp 2016: Manlandia

“Manlandia”: a story about a place where there are no women, and about the female adventurers who go to explore it.

This one got a bit of attention right out the gate for being, apparently, a gender-switched retelling of a 1915 story and only revealing the fact at the end. Well. Credits happen wherever they happen, and it’s not my business whether this constitutes a controversy or not. It just means … it just means I was spoiled a bit as to what it all meant.

The story follows the adventures of three women venturing into a secluded Utopia where the female sex has not been seen in 2000 years. Immediately, I’m transposing genders in my head, and seeing the very obvious “gentleman adventurer” tropes of the original. Knowing that it’s a gender-switched retelling necessarily colours my ideas of what’s going on, and I’m not sure what I might have thought otherwise. I think the original might have been running on two ideas: that women are stronger than they are given credit for (good!) and that a world run by women would be a perfect Utopia (bad!).

Some of the story works in the manner of other gender-switching setups: by switching the genders around, the discomfort we might feel with one trope or another highlights the double standards we might have with regard to that trope. Some people, for instance, might have issues with Terry’s description as a sexual predator when she’s a she and not so much when he’s a he. Similarly, the scene where our heroines are seized and overpowered by the men–it is only the sense that we’re in a world where standard male privilege is afforded to women rather than to men that prevents this scene from going straight to horrified assumptions of a Fate Worse Than Death. This also goes for other ideas related to strength, ability, the experience of violence, and the place one’s sex has in the world. Reversing the genders of the original brings us back to those two ideas described above, but not in quite the same way. Instead, we’re asked how we feel if those ideas are put forward as something new and revolutionary; that is, how we’d feel if we lived in a world where the reverse were regarded as the general truth.

Admittedly, I would have liked something a little less directly drawn from the original. I would have liked to have seen the same setup as seen through the eyes of women in our current male-default society. But perhaps the imagery and messaging would not be as strong in that case. But there is one bit of text that I do wonder about: in reading the history of Manlandia, our heroine states that being a male-only society did not save it from war, slavery, and other sins embedded in the history of the bi-gendered world. I wonder if this (gender-switched, of course) existed in the original. It’s an acknowledgement that a single-sex society, male or female, does not lead automatically to Utopia, that both sexes are equally vicious, and that neither needs the other to do evil … perhaps Manlandia/Herland seems to be Utopia only because it is not the primitive, barbarian society our heroines/heroes expected.

For something based straight off static fiction, I actually found somewhat more interactivity in the story than might be expected. There’s some significant pathing through the various choices, even if we always come back to the same plot nodes. A lot of that pathing seems to be expository in nature, but I get the feeling that it might actually also affect our attitude to everything that is happening and therefore our final outcome. If not … well, it’s a fine illusion, and an illusion is as good as the real thing in Interactive Fiction.

I don’t know if I can say anything about the writing. I don’t know how much of it was straight adaptation of someone else’s work. I will say that the rearrangement into Interactive Fiction seemed very well done, so much so that I was unsure, on my first playthrough, if the choices were real or if I was merely hitting a “next page” button.

For breakfast, I think we’re having sausages and eggs, with a side of fresh tropical fruit, and strong English Breakfast tea. A fine day’s start for a gentleman adventurer out on safari! A gentlewoman adventuress! You know what I mean!

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