IF Comp 2016 Reviews: Screw You, Bear Dad

“Screw You, Bear Dad” was the first game I played this year, largely because I had seen its cover art on the hashtag for a couple of days, and also, come on, a bear protagonist. I’m not made of stone.

The game does indeed feature a bear PC, though it also dedicates time to other characters (more on that later). It opens as you’re falling through a skylight–bulletproof but not bearproof, the first of many moments to make me smile–into a research facility, and accidentally crushing a human beneath you. You are then offered the chance to back away, or to wear the unfortunate person’s face as a disguise. Reader, I chose the skin mask.

The game then splits your time exploring the facility, seeing the bear through the perspective of the human characters, one of whom works in human resources and is arguably having the worst day of her career (unfortunately, no one makes a joke about the disguise as an aspect of human resources), and flashbacks which are later explained in exposition. The flashbacks for me are the strongest part, with a strong core story about the tension between wanting to find your own way and the weight of expectations.

The pacing for me is the biggest issue. It starts off with a bunch of Dad Jokes and a paced vignette where text appears slowly, controlling the pace of conversation. This is a technique that’s hard to do well, and it requires tight control of the narrative up to and past that point. For me, it only works if there’s little slack in the rest of the story, to serve as a contrast. And in “Screw You, Bear Dad”, there were parts which I felt went on too long, or were otherwise meandering: particularly in the facility.

The facility bit is probably the weakest part of the story, which is a shame because I do like Carla, and Bailey’s puns are great. (The pacing on the puns–click to have a character try to stop them, fail to hold back the tide–did work well for me. And the way profanity is strategically delayed until a suitably dramatic moment is a nice light touch.) But I kept wanting to get back to Bear Dad and his Bear Child. I imagine the purpose of switching to the humans’ perspective is to offer the idea that no one is beyond humanizing or impossible to feel empathy for. And that’s an idea I am very strongly here for, but in practice, it muddies the narrative and drags out the action. A shorter piece would have given those flashback pauses more emotional weight.

The author does a lot of work with link effects in this game: delays, shaking, disappearing and reappearing entirely. These elements  have variable success: I liked the effect of the dramatic pauses, but words that disappear sporadically make me feel like I have to time my click right. That’s fine and maybe even desirable in a game about urgency or precision, but here it doesn’t work for me.

What I expected from the opening was a staccato, surreal, funny beardungsroman, and I did get that in places. And I think the multiple perspectives does support my reading of the game as being primarily about realizing life has multiple surprising and frightening possibilities (anywhere from “I can make my own life” to “a bear crashed into my facility and everything is broken now”) and that the best response to this is empathy. But there’s too much slack in the overall structure and in the pacing choices for me to say that it’s a solidly coherent work. But it’s sweet, and it’s heartfelt, and it’s beary funny. Recommended.

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