Walking the Road to Canterbury

I’ve been back at work now for almost a full semester, the spring term wrapping up in just a few weeks. After quite a rough start in which my kids’ daycare was closed for most of January and half of February, it’s been sort of normal lately — I’ve had stretches where I’ve actually been able to work the full week. Like starting in the morning and ending in the afternoon, beginning with Monday and then repeating every day through Friday. I haven’t really done that for three years! As I get more into something like a normal routine, I’m able to get some perspective on what was an incredibly trying last autumn, seeing more and more what I gained in the relationship I have now with my son. Plus, I got to read some cool stuff that’s shaping my current research outlook.

The previous semester, which I was very fortunately able to take off for parental leave, was difficult. My son was very, very attached to mom for the first several months of life, and really only reliably slept when nursing. So when mom went back to work and I was at home alone with him, it was a tough transition for everyone. Having now gone through 6+ weeks of working while having both young children at home for the start of this semester, I can appreciate in full the benefit of having been fully off work right after my son was born.

But he did sleep whenever I took him on walks. Even if he was crying and near-inconsolably cranky (a pretty static state for him for the whole of the fall when mom wasn’t around), he’d settle into the stroller, calm down, and doze off soon after we set off for a walk. So we walked a lot.

We got into a routine of two and sometimes three walks a day: one in the morning, through Willowbrook Park and around the concentrically nested streets of Parkview and Circle Drive; one in the early afternoon, to downtown, stopping at the comic shop (picking up some dollar comics, lots of 90s Vertigo books, Animal Man in particular) or the library; and sometimes, a third walk, an abbreviated one through the arboretum and over to the daycare to pick up his sister.

I rekindled my love of comics with those walks, reading the dollar issues and graphic novels checked out from the library in the evenings. I was able to read stuff on my phone while pushing the stroller, but I’m not a huge fan of digital platforms for reading comics — especially not on a phone screen — so I wanted to find something else to while away the couple hours a day that we spent walking. Of course, I often just enjoyed taking the walk, looking around and breathing deeply, but that time walking was also my limited opportunity to get a bit of intellectual stimulation in a day otherwise spent with an extremely cranky baby.

I had a major epiphany sometime in late November: Choice of Games (the publisher of Crème de la Crème by Hannah Powell-Smith that I wrote about liking a lot in a previous post) has a mobile app for playing their games. While a lot of interactive fiction really needs to be played on a machine with an actual keyboard, Choice of Games stuff translates well to a mobile playing experience. Each lexia is about a couple hundred words and the main player interaction is a choice from a few options. These ‘meaningful choices‘ (which CoG emphasizes as key to their games) can build up to changes in the player character’s persona over time (measured in various stats) or can turn the narrative abruptly (leading to different achievements or more desirable outcomes). In short, this was perfect for me on my walks: reading snippets of well-written, engaging prose punctuated by meaningful choices that I could mull over as I strolled.

Fittingly, the game that I first dove into during these walks was The Road to Canterbury by Kate Heartfield, an adaptation of Chaucer’s literary classic (and one my personal favorite works of literature ever). So I was walking, reading a work about a lot of people walking! While I went in expecting an adaptation, Heartfield’s game is quite a departure from Chaucer, probably for the better since it would be difficult to one-up Geoffrey’s own tale telling. Rather, The Road to Canterbury offers a deep dive into medieval English history, culture, and geography, set in the course of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Many familiar faces are there (including Chaucer himself!), but the tales are secondary in Heartfield’s work and the action of the pilgrimage itself (focused around political intrigue between France and England) is the core of the narrative.

I’m not walking as much anymore, now that I’m back at work and the kids’ daycare is (mostly) open. Also, my son is now a pretty happy 8+ month-old baby who likes to smile and eat real food (a lot). But that experience of reading The Road to Canterbury while walking my own road did solidify my interest in Choice of Games. They’re publishing really interesting work, right at the intersection of games and literature similar to Infocom and parser-based interactive fiction, but in a way that’s both immediately accessible and inviting of deeper agonistic engagement. I played through The Road to Canterbury not really aiming for a particular outcome or set of achievements, but nearing the end I did start to wonder what choices would have led to different outcomes and got intrigued to play through again more strategically. I’m eager to play some more.

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