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I suppose, now that it's the middle of January and all, I ought to start putting away the Christmas decorations. But then again, I like having the Christmas stuff up, and putting it away is work, and who's going to judge me if I chose to celebrate MLK day with nativity scenes and tinsel? A true friend doesn't ride you about seasonally inappropriate interior decorating, that's what I say.
Speaking of true friends and what they do and don't do, click down below the break for my review of AbsoluteAnonymous' The Games We Play.
Impressions before reading: This one comes to me highly recommended for both its mystery elements, and being a shipping story that even non-shippers will enjoy. Well, I'm on board with both of those things, though 140k words seems like a lot of verbage for a "shipping story"--I'm guessing (hoping) that this will be a bit more in-depth and emotionally grounded than your typical "and then they kissed"-style fanfic.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Rainbow Dash is angry when Mare Do Well rescues her from a late-night confrontation long after her friends initially came clean--both because she's embarrassed, and because one of her friends is lying to her about it. But soon, she discovers that whichever pony has reassumed the role of masked vigilante isn't interested in humiliating her, but rather in wooing her. And so begins the titular game: can Dash figure out who's behind that mask before Mare Do Well can change her heart--and her mind?
Thoughts after reading: There are a lot of potential problems with stories which ship the main six together. This story falls into one of the more minor, but definitely noticeable, traps: rampant lesbianism to the point of straining credulity. By the end of the story, there's only one pony in the gang who we know is straight, and several of the story's minor characters are also revealed to be homosexual along the way. This seems to be one of the dividing points between those who enjoy shipping and those who are more apathetic (or antipathetic) towards them: the sheer coincidence (assuming, as here, that it's presented as a coincidence) of the majority of a given group belonging to a relatively small subset of the population like that always challenges my immersion.
However, it's not a critical issue; although I did raise an eyebrow or two at the implied numbers breakdown, I was still able to enjoy the story. And pretty much everything else about the romance in this story was done absolutely wonderfully. Never, in the interactions between Dash and Mare Do Well, did I feel that characters were making decisions solely to advance the plot. Never did I feel like the sole, or even primary, point of this story was to pair up the two characters without regard to comparability or story dynamics. Never (and this is an especial peeve of mine) did I feel like the author was mistaking actual romance for being "friendship plus;" treating romantic attraction as simply a higher form of friendship, and implying along the way that you can't be really be friends unless you want to have sex with someone. No, The Games We Play treats its romance seriously, doesn't take its endgame as a given, and isn't afraid to dive into the drama and strain which the premise revolves around.
Speaking of skulduggery: for most of the fic, it's a mystery who Mare Do Well actually is, though we find out pretty quickly that she's one of Rainbow Dash's friends. Although I imagine most readers will be at least pretty sure they know the answer long before the reveal, I've got to credit AA for managing to leave just enough doubt--just enough wiggle room--to make multiple alternatives possible, right up until the very end. I've said before that a surprise in literature works best if it's unguessable in advance, but obvious in hindsight. But, while I'd hardly call this one "unguessable" (if only because there are basically only five possibilities), the uncertainty and false leads which the author toss out are remarkably effective at giving the mystery side of this story traction.
But Games isn't solely reliant on its reveal; it'd be a poor story indeed if the only punch it could manage to land in such a lengthy story was its climax. The writing throughout is filled with dips into the various characters, ranging from the comic ("How [Dash had] made it so far in life without a set of officially licensed Spitfire and Soarin' shot glasses was beyond her. Sure, she didn't like to drink, but she could start") to the more sober (I really loved the way this fic explored Dash's concept of loyalty, especially the way that it moved around the subject naturally rather than just having a "Dash sits down and thinks about loyalty" infodump). The narration is very "tell-y," full of direct observations of character thoughts and emotions, but this is done in the service of the story; much of the conflict here is internal, and a certain amount of exposition is not only practical, but beneficial, in situations like this. There were times, especially in the it's-time-to-wrap-up-the-loose-ends conclusion, when the narration did rise to the level of exegesis, but this was the exception rather than the rule.
(Speaking of the ending, a bit of secondary shipping there came completely out of left field, and stumbled into several of those pitfalls which the main romance so deftly avoided--not to mention how it exacerbated the whole "everypony's a lesbian" issue. Thankfully, it's a relatively small and inconsequential addition to the larger story, but it still contributed to the relative weakness of the denoument compared to the narrative-through-climax.)
But even then, the story built believably upon the characters in the show, while taking them slowly but surely in a more adult direction. It was clear to me all the while I was reading that the story was making good use of its length to develop the ponies and their situation in such a way that their plight was both relatable, if sometimes frustrating (I certainly don't claim that Dash and/or Mare Do Well didn't do or say head-bangingly stupid things; only that they didn't do any such things unbelievably, or solely for the sake of advancing the plot), but it wasn't until near the end of the story that I realized that the tone had been developed in the same way. When I can read a scene in which Dash and AJ get completely smashed and start talking sex (albeit non-explicitly) and it feels like a cohesive part of a serious narrative... about ponies... that's an impressive feat. And that's the greatest success of Games: it invests you, both dramatically and in its characters, without ever losing touch of who those characters are and what the setting is.
Star rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
I have to agree with the recommendations I received: this story is definitely one that even "non-shippers" can enjoy, and it does a wonderful job of creating just enough mystery to lend a pleasant uncertainty to itself. More than that, though, it has some strong, thoughtful characterizations, and makes it easy to empathize with Dash (and some of the others) without taking her out of character.
Recommendation: I'd feel comfortable recommending this to anyone who doesn't hate pony romancing on principal, and even to some who fall into that latter camp if they were willing to let themselves be convinced otherwise. I'd especially suggest this one to readers who like to be kept guessing (or at least, on their toes), and to those who want to see Dash broken down--in both senses of the phrase.
Next time: As Celestia Is My Witness, by adcoon