Bloom: Enduring Experience in Episodic Dynamic Fiction
By Cat Manning
Caelyn Sandel’s Bloom, an episodic semi-autobiographical piece of dynamic fiction about her gender transition, plays with the experience of occupied empathy. It is the story of a specific protagonist, Cordy, and even readers who have experienced dysphoria cannot have the same precise embodied experience that Cordy does. By envisioning Bloom as a series, rather than a single game, and releasing episodes periodically (every couple of months), Sandel creates an experience for her readers in which Cordy’s experience must be grappled with; it cannot be digested in a sitting and then compartmentalized. The game uses first-person pronouns — as opposed to the second-person narration commonplace in IF — to move the reader through Cordy’s experiences rather than effectively ceding them to the person beyond the screen. In so doing, Sandel reminds players that Cordy is her own person with her own agency, and that while a player can experience her story, it fundamentally is not theirs to control.
The episodic nature of Bloom requires readers to sit with painful experiences that Cordy experiences — for original readers, to sit with them for months — and the story refuses to resolve them neatly or quickly. In the early episodes, a coworker, Dane, makes transphobic remarks the player can later cite as one of the incidents that tipped Cordy off that she might be trans. In a later episode, Dane tries to confront Cordy about it, but a player is only given the option to refuse to talk to him, in increasingly creative ways. Later, at the very end, Dane apologizes for his behavior, and due to the episodic nature of the series, Dane’s apology felt more genuine to me, rather than a plot point; I can see him educating himself or trying to apologize to Cordy before this final conversation.
There is an option that suggests Cordy’s internal monologue during Dane’s initial confrontation; it is crossed out. Later on, certain options remain greyed out, inaccessible to Cordy based on how much she trusts Dane and their work relationship. Where Cordy was originally powerless to prevent Dane’s comments, it is now the reader who is powerless to change her experiences. Readers might have access to how she feels, but they cannot force her to say something that would compromise her safety or her sense of self. A great deal of Bloom, in fact, deals with what the player can and can’t control. The introductory epigraphs are unskimmable; they appear, phrase by phrase, with time delays. At several moments in Bloom, the player can try to “make” Cordy take a particular action, only to be told several times it’s not possible for her; if pushed too far, she snaps at the player — a reminder that while you have agency over the story’s pacing, you don’t have agency over the story itself; the reader becomes a character in the story, one who doesn’t have the right to force her to take an action she’s uncomfortable with. Whether a player is cis or trans, they are not inhabiting Cordy’s body, with all the specific, personal difficulties the story lays out; a player can close the browser window at the end of the session.
The fact that Bloom is an episodic, rather than a chaptered piece, contributes further to this. The piece is not only segmented into narrative sections but partitioned in ways that required original readers to wait for the next piece, to inhabit Cordy’s discomfort over a period of time and space. If a reader has followed Bloom since its inception, the wait between pieces creates a kind of space in which Cordy’s story takes the time to breathe. Sandel refuses to provide readers with a narrative that can be resolved quickly, easily, or in one sitting. It’s a particular perspective on the personal, one in which the reader must linger in a highly individual narrative for days or weeks at a time and share their own emotional space with Cordy and her author. Even the end of the current series ends on a note of possibility and futurity rather than a neat conclusion.
[Disclosure: Cat Manning supports Caelyn Sandel on Patreon.]