If Jim MacBrayne’s previous work, Somewhere, Somewhen, was vibrant but inchoate, a messy attic riddled and riddling with draft ideas, then this current title presents a sculpted revision. The central hub leading into puzzle chambers structure is here neatly iterated into a time travel adventure, where you can easily bounce into vignettes of the past, solve some puzzles, then unlock the next link, all the while accumulating enough inventory to open a Costco.
If this sounds like standard text adventure fare, it is, and the game dives into the cliches with gusto: a letter invites you to your eccentric uncle’s house, so “You push the door open and make your way inside. As you do so it alarmingly slams shut behind you with a grim finality, and you seem to hear an ominous and rather sinister chuckle. / You wonder what your next move should be.” Naturally, you set about searching for items, and the game gleefully ricochets from there through a bounceabout solvearound that defies all good plotting, but keeps you guessing at every description, since most of these environments operate according to a Mystian paranoia, where every incidental detail that seems even slightly cryptic is actually a super cryptic hint for a puzzle whose only connection is geographical proximity. In an unfinished version of the Mona Lisa, a parchment says, “Most men remain loyal, / Most lack real morals.” From this clue, you’re meant to intuit that, when presented with three squares in a nearby room, you should press them in a certain order, based upon the cipher where a word starting with M = Middle, R = Right, and L = Left. Similarly, a note you collect says “When confined, tally, and Let Majesty Remain”; when you discover a secret passage engraved with “Let Majesty Remain”, you are meant to tally the numbers in “let”, “majesty”, and “remain” to set dials to 376. Like in Somewhere, Somewhen, an initially lateral solution leads you down a whole corridor of such logic leaps, rewarding you for paying attention to how the game itself pays attention. When you receive a set of numbered rods, you remember a sequence of numbers on a scroll you got earlier, and the whole puzzle happens very naturally, even though from a distance the puzzle seems a little scattered and vague: you’ve learned to recognize this as obvious, which is a great player arc. This arc weaves neatly back into the game’s general preference for overthinking incidental details, as to find the device you just unlocked, you have to go to a place that, when you first visited it at the beginning of the game, seemed strangely empty: “This is Uncle Mortimer’s sitting room where you remember him relaxing after a day’s experimentation in his private room next door, retained for that very purpose. Surprisingly, it appears now quite devoid of any furniture or decoration. The only obvious exit is to the west.” Now, of course, you have discovered enough to reveal what was hidden there all along.
The same care of progression keeps the increasingly gnarled playspace from choking the bloodflow. Rather than pinball you through mutually dependent puzzles, the game has a relatively directed course. In one layered puzzle element, you use an iron key to unlock a drawer that reveals how to get to the Florentine section, in which scenario you need to use a brass key, so you can use a transmuter you found earlier to make the iron key into a brass key. Later, you turn this brass key into a bronze key, then, for the punchline, cycle it back to an iron key. This clever puzzle hierarchy allows items to be multiuse, so that each tool feels alive with continuous possibilities, without the Zarfian cruelty loop of endless reloading, a design which captures a lot of the romantic puzzley elements of old school intricate multitracking, where you have to reimagine possible compounding routes against overlapping use cases, but without invoking the timesucking abyss of exponential misdirections. While it was fun having only one key which is changed to open new locks, it would have been interesting if other items presented similarly dynamic usabilities; unfortunately, the rest of the items are pretty static, either with an eventually clear purpose or as a simple red herring. Nevertheless, Uncle Mortimer’s Secret does a good job of capturing the old school spirit while using the wisdom of the intervening decades to iterate the design towards a healthier playfeel.
Despite the careful handiwork, the game functions pretty mechanically, with the set dressing peeling under even the slightest glance, much less the environmental obsession it invites. The time travel element, far from dazzling the puzzle jamboree into a series of evocative playspaces, is rusted girder drab. Finding Francis Drake on the dramatic eve of an epochal event, he immediately shuffles us off onto an implausibly mundane fetch quest: “Drake replies, “Yes, these ships you see are of the Spanish Armada which is hoping to invade England. Have no fear, however, as they are far too great in size and will be easily outmanoeuvred by our smaller and swifter vessels without doubt. I wish to finish my game of bowls first, but unfortunately appear to have lost my favourite bowl. After that I will be able to defeat the Spanish fleet.” He pauses then says, “Mortimer was a great help to me. I make the request to you to find my bowl in order that I can get on with my game. If you help me I will assist you thereafter.”” Despite tagging together a rich set of historical characters, mostly the game nods you on with a flippancy that tears at the already threadbare immersion: “As you stand surveying your surroundings, a man walks past and you ask him if he can tell you the reason for the crowd’s distress. He’s obviously very upset himself and relies, “Hello, I’m Abraham Zapruder and the president’s just been shot. I was filming the motorcade at the time, and it’s all in my camera. I just hope it will help the people who will investigate this.” So saying, he turns and walks back the way he came.” The attempts to render concrete the abstract puzzling sequences are often just worse than if we remained lost in the drafty halls of IF’s vaguest catchall fantasies.
Still, the game does manage to lavish some liveliness to charm you along. A particularly exuberant passage flirts poetic: “This is the laboratory in which Uncle Mortimer would carry out many of his experiments. You remember watching him as he would pore over his equipment, clouds of steam and multicolored smoke intermittently billowing all around him and at times all but blocking him completely from view, giving him the appearance of a dancing spectre.” While most of the historical figures are pretty bland, you can coax resonant guilt out of Francis Crick: “We both feel a little guilty about Rosalind Franklin. We did use her experimental results in X-ray crystallography on DNA without her actual permission, and it’s possible we will receive a Nobel Prize as a result. It is also possible that she will not.” And, in a surprisingly sweet, human touch, the password to a computer is named after the game you used to play with your uncle in the garden, showing he has cherished those memories mutually.
These vitality sparks within scattershot logic tinkering are indicative of the game’s general unevenness. The initial historic scenario you enter, Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, is more involved than many others, some of which, like Whitechapel and the Hindenburg, are noticeably barren. And while the game does work up some context about your uncle’s time traveling, including an intriguing plot point of his being imprisoned by mysterious entities, it also bumbles over some headscratchers that could use some additional context, like Mortimer's interactions with Oswald and Jack the Ripper. Like I get the sense that, okay, late Victorian Whitechapel probably just popped up when brainstorming interesting historical destinations, but then the destination isn’t really more than sketched in, and the bit of plot that happens there just points elsewhere, so the unsettling whiplash of this segment again emphasizes the echoing huh?
But if you keep in the spirit of the game and shrug all of this aside, it remains a chipper puzzlefest with loads of cute details, like when knocking on a door plays a soundeffect and the “Knock, knock…” ellipse extends to represent your wait for a response. The game expends effort to keep the player experience fluid, for instance by avoiding annoying backtracking through multiple time periods, and the inevitable “return to the present” mezzanine puzzles are usually well signposted, preventing the tedious lawnmowering such segments usually present. Good quality of life features, like a hint system and a large inventory space, maximize momentum.
Gliding along, you can pursue the sparkling intricacies through the game’s glib affability to enjoy away your evenings with a wry sense of predicament inherited from your uncle: “I have been confined in a sort of ethereal prison and my release will be in one thousand years. Alternatively if one of my own kind can solve the mysteries contained in my house, I will be released at once. I entreat you, dear nephew, to make this effort on my behalf as a thousand years is a long time and I have much I wish to do.” Well then, don’t dawdle, your uncle is doing enough of that, get solving!
When Graham Nelson declared that interactive fiction was “a narrative at war with a crossword”, a group of old school enthusiasts scratched their heads and said, “what do you mean a text adventure isn’t a crossword?” Many who had joyfully puzzled out the rich proliferation of text adventures that, emerging from 70s mainframe mindbenders like Acheton and Warp, persisted onto microcomputers through Adventure International, then developed into a diverse set of professional and amateur offerings via DIY systems like The Quill or PAWs, had grown deeply attached to their puzzleboxes, a connected set of (supposedly) logic problems that could be slowly reduced over days, weeks, months, until an elegantly optimal solution cohered, synthesizing every clue into a satisfying series of interlocking gears finally turning in unison. Each playspace, lightly themed for variety, invited exploration, tinkering, considering, teasing you along its mysteries to reveal treasure after treasure, looping you back through to catch those last little points you missed…
Garry Francis has been keeping that spirit alive with an indefatigable stream of puzzlers perfect to enjoy alongside your morning coffee. Today’s theme: “there’s a rumour that an alchemist in the forest has figured out how to do the impossible and has been building up quite a stash of the shiny yellow metal.” Those of you who have just donned your Hadean Lands hats will need to doff them, as Alchemist’s Gold is an easy, straightforward affair that propels you through a tight sequence of problems with solutions zuhanden. Find an axe, cut a tree. Someone will trade you a map for a squirrel, so you get an acorn, give it to a squirrel, catch it, give it to the shepherd. The workmanlike simplicity comes with no nonsense pride that raises its eyebrows at any player whose hands seem suspiciously uncalloused, as when trying to “roll branch” receives a curt admonishment: “I think you wanted to say “roll broken branch over”. Please try again.” Visiting in from the city, are you? Well.
Still, the game runs swiftly enough with a friendly efficiency that, like its bottle of acid, dissolves obstacles to preserve your momentum. A maze, which can often prove a bit of obtuse tedium, is here rendered as an ASCII map that routes you right through it with jaunty tracery. A final puzzle, dodging the alchemist, is easier to overcome than it first appears to be, and is delivered with giggly aplomb: “Well, it could have been worse. He could have turned you into a toad. You try to explain your actions to the alchemist. “Ribbet.”” Every puzzle is pretty selfcontained, with just enough red herrings scattered throughout to prevent the A->B problem mapping from feeling too artificial.
Alchemist’s Gold, like Monday’s crossword, gets you back into the swing of things without breaking too much of a sweat. Still, veteran puzzlers will be tapping their fingers, waiting for Garry’s weekend mindwarper.
So fragile our lives we fear both sides of the phrase: lives, what makes them ours. Inexorably receding from this ineffable vibrancy contingency lilypadding these cascade whorls haunts us with all the beauties we will sink beneath the see, because not only will it all go on without us, but also, sometimes, so do we, must we inevitably, so composed are we of irreplaceable combinations shared mutually across memories, fracturing in silences we cannot resing. Thence the energy quivering the need to maintain our shared particulars, communicative particulates of the streaming coherence, without which echoes bleed to drones: “When did the loss begin? “Iridescent” was the first lost word, but it was so light, so transparent, that its loss went unnoticed. Then “eviscerate” was torn away from her mind, leaving a pinprick hole, yet it happened secretly, quietly. The vast store of words pushed at the ragged edges of the hole and widened it, and the trickle of lost words became a flow: serendipity, ephemeral, labyrinth, tranquility.” Placing your hand into the stream, trying to catch every concept, dam up and derive, hold the lifegiving babbling “always rushing from her eyes, through the woods, spilling into the creek, so much departure.” If you no longer recognize this place we shared, then how should I? Estranger in an estranged land, sifting through the senses for the assemblance.
The impetus to reclaim, reassert shape from the “shards and fragments” animates a prose which helixes concrete denotations into an emotively synesthetic paresthesia radiating occlusions: “Birds call. They flash bright against the naked branches: cardinal screams red; goldfinch blazes sun.” The lushness of the descriptions flicker with their spilling from delimits, a dizzying motion that slips through the lines you have palmed: “A spill of icemelt trickles over the ledge of rock into a small pool which flows into a stream that runs, runs, runs down and away from the gray rock, the velvet moss. This rock wall weeps water all year, a rivulet that never stops talking as it splashes over the moss, the rough stone, always leaving, seeking the creek below.” You cannot hold fast the flux, thence the bittersweet beauty of attachment: the dignity of failing for just long enough to fulfil a life, make it ours. Fear of the “tiered waterfall that sings in its own language” compels the pursuit of names, certainties by which we can construct the conversations that cohere whom we cherish.
So goes our protagonist wrestling with riddles to wreathe them with recognition. From each spilling sense, you can wrest back concrete poetry, the shapes the words signify. Dozens of scraps of paper whose resemblances can reassemble the meaning: “The piece of paper shimmers and swells, its words moving. They rearrange and leap from your hands in a swift, muscular movement, forming a cat. It sits with its back to you, tail flicking.” The world keeps weaving in and out, abstractions which have now the same strength as the tangible, an interplay that is inherently unstable: “You raise the axe, its sharp words gleaming, and smash it into the white door, splintering it. The pieces of the door disintegrate, the words that held it together fading, falling apart, disappearing.”
The desire to loop back together these disparate elements before their too lateness overtakes their valences leads us to collect all our little longings, isolated significations we must recombine to bring heart back to where the home is. By collecting these fragments to reconstruct the necklace which totems our bond, this final puzzle advances a magnitude, requiring us not solely to solve a riddle by shaping the words but also to assemble the words together, guess what now visibly possibility they imply, what connections we can thread through them, those whom we stored in this shape forever, or whatever forever must mean for us: “Your mother, old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, deep shadows in her eyes. She’s holding a book she can no longer read.” Maybe you can compile all the yesterdays into enough, but it always seems one day away. If we could only hold still the shapes long enough for recognition to spark the embers to warm one more night! “She sees the necklace you wear and her eyes light up, recognizing her lost words. She puts her hand over the heart on your chest and pushes, and you gasp as its edges cut into you, as the heart burns into you. The words are yours because she gave them to you, taught you to love them. You will always carry them in your hopeful, fragile heart; but they are lost to her forever. / You kneel in front of her and put your head in her lap as you used to when you were a child, when the loss was too big to comprehend. / She bends over and strokes your hair and you see a single word, the last of a once-great library, flickering behind her eyes. You hear it fluttering, frightened and alone in the empty rooms, avoiding the blaze consuming the bookshelves. And she lets it go, breathing it out softly against your face where it blows apart and lands like glitter, like snow, like tears against your cheeks: / love.” A word which endures in all of us that you have helped to build.
The delicate melancholy, the clever cohesiveness of every element, the layered conceptual complexity, the munificent playfulness that lightens the austere lodestar to polychromatism, the curlicue vividness of the language, the pitch perfect precision of the ludic elaboration, the exuberant bittersweetness, the gregarious elegance, the baroquely intricate intonation of intent that dapples so much warmth within so much snow, should all come as no surprise in a work signed Amanda Walker, whose palpitationally evocative works have garnered so much praise in so short a time: fourth place in IFComp 2021, second place in Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2022, Best in Show in Spring Thing 2022, and, one has an inkling, perhaps a strong showing in ParserComp 2022. Rarely does the parser feel so fleet that it filigrees invisibly into the poetry, but Of Their Shadows Deep parallels our pursuit, pearling its symbols preciously.
There’s an annoying pseudoclever trend in big budget games where, struggling to be both cleverly poignant as an artistic work and unintrusively fun as a consumer product, they attempt to offload the burden of interrogating received play tropes by shunting the agency out to the player, conflating their control with the diegetic control of their character, resulting sometimes in tepid gotchas, a la Far Cry 3, or extraordinary dissonance, a la The Last of Us 2, often both. Like cigarette companies, these games shrug and say, well, if there are problems, you shouldn’t have kept playing. Games which scold you for engaging with the systems their teams meticulously crafted over years of intent.
The Muse presents itself initially as being about a writer struggling to create, where you are “Seated on some hidden foothold in an infinite darkness,” forced to fix your gaze “on the book of eternal pages that you write with the help of your muse, faithful companion in your grief and sorrow.” Attempts to write in your book spools you through scenes that present some initial condition, like a beautiful sunset in an open field, but which quickly resolve and recede: “You lie back and close your eyes, sinking back into the overpowering darkness that envelops you whenever your muse is with you.” Each place vanishes at the touch, returning you to the obscure inner abstraction of the muse’s endless impetus.
It is here that the ominous clouds signal the turbulent malevolence of the muse, unsettlingly illustrated in grainy drawings that demonize through ethereal white pulses which threaten to brighten to scars. The muse keeps forcing you into new manifestations, which become increasingly troubling: you find yourself “on the battlefield, fierce warriors surround you, armed with swords and weapons of death. Before you stands a dying soldier begging to save his miserable life.” The solution to which the muse urges you is to “kill him with his own sword”, despite his dying cries. The bated violence frills out “the logical achievement of your new inspiration”, leaving you once again abandoned “with a new blank page.”
Canny readers may, by this point, clue into the pattern of these vignettes: we are enacting the seven deadly sins. The gotcha appears: by playing the game and advancing through the scenes, we are becoming stuck into the guilt cycle. In the seventh and final sin, envy, we kill a shepherd, which finally unveils the full context: “The voice from heaven shouts: "What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the earth. That is why the earth that has opened its jaws to receive your brother’s blood from your hands curses you. / A black rain of ash and red of blood gushes from the sky, dragging you into the black abyss. You fall and fall for centuries, plunging into absolute darkness… a darkness only bearable by the beautiful smile of your muse, who gathers you in her arms and takes you back to the book, which awaits your writing. / “Everything ends. Everything begins.”” You are Cain, wandering the Earth cursed, and you must break the cycle of sin by praying for forgiveness: “Again the same voice, now, echoes in your head: “Now you have asked for forgiveness, you can rest in peace, after so many years, after so many sins. Your punishment comes to an end, walk free at last, my son.”” As a high concept puzzle, this is mildly clever, but it relies on a tedious gotcha, where, in order to progress, you have to follow the linear path prescribed, only to then recursively instantiate your punishment, leaving you to restart with the last minute twist of recognizing what you should have done all along.
Progression through the game locks you into doing evil acts, which you are then immediately punished for, as actually you should have stopped playing by using the escape command that builds on context you don’t have until the cycle is finished. Where this becomes extremely frustrating is in its fourth vignette, for lust, in which, to progress, you are supposed to, well, you can infer. Look, I’ve read a lot of books where a lot of bad things happen, sometimes in excruciating detail. I have a certain tolerance for engaging artistically with the unwavering horror of humanity’s infinite capacity for atrocity. I don’t believe it is necessarily useful to impose certain parameters of comfort on yadda yadda yadda. But this just feels crude in a way that is not artistically intriguing. Sure, some of this might be that the selfcontainment of traditional fiction allows for one to undergo a lot of intense transgressions within a specified scope, in which you, immersed, witness, but the roiling internality remains its own engine, sufficient and eternal without you. By demanding your input to bend into the agency necessary for movement, the player dynamic renders the action obtuse, stabbing out at you bluntly, hurting you for turning the wheel that makes the machine function. One so inclined could argue that this heightened level of grossness you feel playing this game as opposed to reading a correlate work is a power generated by the innate conditions of games as a medium, where your “agency” becomes entangled to render the underlying import more tangibly powerful. I don’t really agree; I think it rather emphasizes the mechanical clunkiness of the artistic enaction, a certain evasiveness that utilizes entanglement as an ersatz for a more compellingly considered engagement.
Because, rather than make me feel sinfully identified with Cain, the effect was to render more visceral the game’s flaws. Like, this is a game where the “sin” of sloth is falling asleep in a pleasant field! Why does lust have to be acted at so much starker a level? This is a game whose vignettes are designed as quanta capable of evoking the central prescription: you are in a field, there is a sword, you need to use the sword to kill someone; voila, wrath. Okay, yes, I suppose wrath involves violence. We’re on the same page, muse. You could have just said “wrath”, and I would have learned as much as the vignette affords. So the absolute gall of a game at this level of specification that imagines it is somehow accomplishing anything at all by requiring rape to progress. Sure, murder might have bothered you equivalently, sure, if you were clever enough you could have clued into the escape mechanism earlier, sure, it’s technically you entering the commands, there’s so many ways to turn the blame outwards, but is that dispersion sufficiently compelling to recontextualize the blase brutality into some kind of inverse sophistication?
Not only do I not find this blameshifting interesting, but I also don’t think it actually exculpates itself, given that these issues are built deep into the game’s core, as it recycles tedious tropes of externalizing one’s immorality onto a seductive feminine. You see, your sin is actually the control your muse has over you! It is the muse who compels your evil acts, and the goal of the game is to wriggle out of her influence: “Your once heavenly spirit escapes from within the walls of punishment, leaving behind the beautiful and wicked Lilith, your muse, whose tears for your absence splash on your face, as you fade into the ether never to see her again.” The commonplace of beauty and wickedness connected is the projective misogyny whereby the sickly obsession of the male gaze is internalized in a feminine object which retains the evil in itself, as per the game’s epigraph by Roberto Menendez: “Damn you slippery muse, / you give me your caresses and your kiss / and I join the words together like a possessed, / sinking in your quicksand. / You leave, turning me into ash / and I feel a thick ribbon around my neck / that chokes me with longing for your return, / growing this almost sickly obsession.” The muse’s womanness is coextensive with her evil: “As beautiful as it is obscure, she emanates a reddish evil light that envelops your being and your book, impregnating the pages with blood.” The narrator’s sinful cycling is the result of the fact that “you are by her side and you still love her” even though she is “really your jailer”. Original sin, of course, emerging from Eve, the moral throughline can be extrapolated easily. Given the content the game insists on having, this victim-blaming framework threatens a lot of particularly unpleasant themes.
The gotcha at the core of the game is attempting to get a loan from the player so that it can check subject matter that its craftedness can’t cash. I don’t mean to be mean, but this is a game that requires rape to progress. So yeah, I’m going to hold it to an exacting standard, and it doesn’t pass. I just feel gross and unhappy in a way that doesn’t feel interesting.
The Hole Man is a game of identity theft, as in, “Some thief stole you, from top to bottom, and didn’t leave anything behind. There’s nothing left but a hole in space, where you are supposed to be.” The physicality of the wordplay is indicative of much of what follows, a metaphoric journey of self-discovery that delights in a quirky humor, where a fiddler crab is, well, literally a fiddler, and everything’s a little silly: “This is the bookstore. / Waiting behind the counter is a firefly. / (This is a bit of a surprise, since most people aren't animals in your experience, but there isn't really a way to bring it up that doesn't seem rude to someone who's just doing their job.)”
Like many works that cut a wide swathe through received tropes and which delight in a light-hearted silliness, The Hole Man flirts with camp: “The ominous stone castle in the mountains towers before you, its battlements and towers seeming to be ringed by the black stormclouds overhanging the whole area. / The whole entryway of this castle is shaped like a jawless human skull. Strangely, the front teeth are not the eaves, but the front step: you enter through the nasal cavity. You hope the castle doesn't sneeze on your way in.” This hard commitment to tropes renders the writing cartoony, but it sidles out of campiness with its self-undermining glee, ending up instead at a middle grade zaniness: “What's really weird is that all the furniture is zipped up in plastic vinyl coating. Who lived here before? Grandma? / There is in fact a sort of spooky-looking belfry filled with bats on the property, but that's not scary! Bats are very helpful pollinators and also eat mosquitoes. Having bats on your property is nothing to be ashamed of! / The single scariest thing about this house? No wifi.”
The prose is expeditious, zooming you through candyfloss pastels to focus on action, incident, whirlwinds of content: “At the end of this maze of machinery, mounted in the largest and most intimidating metal cabinet yet, haloed by yellow caution stripes and bearing warnings in every language except the one you speak, you find a single lighted red button, pulsing gently. / Can you resist temptation? Do you have the inner fortitude, the willpower, not to extend one finger and press such a tempting, inviting red button? Can you hold out any longer?” What keeps these scenes from motion blurring into nonsequitor are syncopated detail glistens which keeps the reader tunneled into where they’re being hurtled: “Near the center of the room, a smaller cabinet is hosting some very small and delicate work: the construction of two human hands. This is done with what looks like a grid of clicking knitting needles, each taking threads of flesh and nerve and quilting them together with all the others, layer after layer, until the two hands begin to curl their fingers.” However, this focus on detail can sometimes jar with the wordplay silliness, resulting in several times the joke is explained to you, then explained to you again just to be sure: “You have discovered The Made Man. Or, perhaps more accurately, you made him. / Of all the strange people you’ve met so far, the Made Man has given you the best idea of his appearance, because you’ve literally just seem him constructed, seemingly from raw materials.”
Here we touch on the conceit of the game, which is that you wander the world trying to get yourself into situations where you can locate personifications of some concept, who explain themselves to you, and then you can decide to become that person. This would normally result in a glorified personality test, except there’s a Gotta Catch ‘Em All design, as you’re meant to repeat the scavenger hunt until you find all of the personifications and unlock a special final ending. In this collection paradigm, each new man becomes more like a lesson our protagonist learns, a maximalist iteration meant to be negated and collated into a more fulfilling whole. Here, for instance, is the lesson the Darin’ Man teaches us: “"I study life up here," the Darin’ Man starts. "But the thing about life on Earth, is that it comes FROM Earth. There’s no life that comes directly from the air or space. Everything up here came from down there." He gives an emphatic point downward. "And, unfortunately, everything goes back too." / "The ground is rising up to meet all of us. Some of us will meet it in the form of, say, a heart attack, or cancer, or a traffic accident; others might have something more unique, like a practical joke gone tragically wrong, or falling out of an airplane." He chuckles. "Almost makes you feel privileged to have such a rare opportunity, doesn’t it?" / The expression on your face seems to suggest to him that you don’t agree. / "Regardless of your situation, Earth wants you back, and it’s going to get you," he says simply. "We are in the rare position of seeing it coming. Threats are an unavoidable part of life, but most of the truly existential threats to life move so slowly we never see them as a threat at all." / "What about you?" / "Same as anybody: I’m too busy living to think about dying," the Darin’ Man chuckles. "There’s so much to discover up here, you know? And even the things that have already been discovered, we can still learn so much from."” From the Darin’ Man we gain a bit of perspective that helps us to appreciate life’s brief blessing with a hypercurious verve powerful enough to overcome the ennui and angst.
Not all of the lessons we collect are quite so blatantly didactic though. Many are more openly conceptual, as the Drake Man’s paeon to fantasy as a vital element that can still empower our disillusioned scientific age, for instance through the musical magic of theory-ludic jazz: “"You’ve probably heard the phrase, A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? That’s Arthur C. Clarke’s third law," He chuckles. "There’s a corollary to that, though: a sufficiently transparent engine of magic would be indistinguishable from science." / He reaches over to his boom box and turns on some light jazz. "Electricity was once the tool of gods alone. Even those who called themselves witches and wizards feared it… but we studied it, mastered it, and now it comes in a battery you can buy at the dollar store." / The Drake Man smiles as he watches the giraffe, whose head is bobbing as it unconsciously grooves to the music. "If magic were something that could be tested, reproduced, and marketed, it would be science! Your cell phone would have magic wand functions built right in, your car would have collision-avoidance spells and they wouldn’t even cost extra!" / He jumps to his feet, crossing the room to open the door for the giraffe, who gratefully runs out to frisk in the pink morning daylight. "And of course the opposite is true of science. Magic does have rules, in a way… but they’re literary conceits. No angel investor would touch your invention if, like magic, it was subject to things like dramatic irony, deus ex machina, and the rule of three!"” Yes, oh, I forgot to address the giraffe in the room. That’s just kind of what this game is like.
The scavenger hunt element makes the game engaging, because each man exists in a little rabbit hole down from the central “overworld”, as it were, so you’re constantly exploring the overworld looking for routes into something weird, which is fun. There are multiple routes to some of these rabbit holes, which makes the world feel more porous and interconnected. However, I think you actually have to say No to each man before it counts them, even though it gives you a screen marking your collection only when you say Yes? The collection mechanic is confusing, and means that, to truly appreciate the game, you have to go through the world collecting all of them twice.
Once you do manage to collect them all, you go through a secret elevator, and as you descend you have an internal debate about your identity using all of the lessons you have learned from the various men, coming to the conclusion: “But being yourself is the right thing to do, whether or not you succeed. It’s worth fighting for. It always was.” Having achieved this realization, you confront the thief who stole your body. You take it back, forgiving him in the process, then reappear in the courthouse, with everything wrapped up with the feel good bow of “You wouldn't ever want to be anyone else but you.” If you like your introspection with a dash of speculative playfulness and a little on the YA side, then The Hole Man has a wild ride for you.
Some months ago I was with a group in Chicago, and we went up into one of those skyscraper observation decks, and I was surprised to notice that many of the windows were coated with cobwebs on the outside of the building. There was this entire colony of spiders up on the windows of the one-hundred-and-whatever floor, and I became more absorbed in them than the view, just wondering, like, how are they surviving in the winds up here, which you can feel jostle the building? Do other insects fly up this far for the spiders to eat? How far up do insects fly, normally? Do they only come up here because the building is here? Was there just a set of spiders who one day kept climbing and climbing and climbing, unable to quit the addiction to sky, or have they slowly migrated to this height over generations of ascenders? Do these spiders spend their entire lives up here? Is there just like a kingdom of cloud spiders who have long since forgotten the earth, written their own mythos of the moonspiders that bore them hence? What would happen if one of the spiders fell? Spiders can fall long distances and be fine, maybe they would live, I mean at some point they just hit terminal velocity and the distance becomes arbitrary, like, imagine a spider having lived up here for two years, falling, then having to reimagine a life for itself on a shrub? Would it even know what to do? Would it desperately try to explain to the other spiders, no, you don’t understand, I used to live in the sky? Of course, spiders don’t talk, they wouldn’t feel anything, yeah sure, but isn’t there some level at which, because we can imagine that condition through them, it’s real, in a sense? What makes things real?
This genre of bulbous noticing, its wonder, its sadness, the ease with which it becomes meta and then unmeta, the way it emerges from decay (unclean windows covered in cobwebs) and returns to decay (the spider sundered, lost), how easily it spools out into fantasy, the lack of a satisfactory summation insight to conclude the thought, like you just kind of have to go on living your life with this new datapoint jangling in your brain, forms a complex emotion that I, having read a number of stories and essays by Kit Riemer, have come to appreciate as Riemerian. There’s this rainy curiosity that leads to misty but earnest passages like this one in a review of baseball: “But so anyway, now you know what baseball is, and you know who plays it, and you know who watches them play it, but you don’t really know baseball. The soul of the sport isn’t a tangible piece of transmissible info but is instead more of a shimmering aura, held, immobile, within moments frozen in time, like a snowglobe or post-impressionist painting of many individuals in motion, brightly colored and more graceful from a distance: A tow-headed youth races up the stands, skinning his shin on the way to the hot dog vendor; he throws the man a dollar and sprints back to the top of the staircase to see that a fly ball has landed just below his seat, where a crowd of children gathers, searching, before some guy in his 40s wades through and triumphantly grabs the ball from the throng. An enormous man, the most famous by bounds in the stadium, sits fanning himself in a box, preparing for the moment when he will walk out onto the field to raucous applause, look to and fro, wave, and walk back off the field. A pitcher spits in his glove. A batter, staring directly at him, spits into the dirt. The pitcher spits into the dirt. The batter spits again, and so on. / What are these people feeling? What are they chewing? Why have the watchers left their homes to sit in uncomfortable seats and eat overpriced food washed down by warm, imported beer, all to watch a game with a longer runtime than The Irishman? Why do they know the names of all the players, and those players’ effectiveness at tasks like batting and throwing balls long distances at high speeds? Why all this, when 90% of the game is spent waiting for something to happen? / It’s because, beyond the moments of brief chaotic action, there exists a metadimension, and fully comprehending it requires a lifetime of dedication.” The propulsive salience of the throughline eases the reader through switchback paragraphs that spit you out at an epiphanic sentence which, rather than providing a conclusion, insists that you haven’t gotten anywhere, actually it’s probably impossible to get anywhere, for you at least.
Yes, there are of course a lot of other things at work in the work: technoisolation, sudden swerves into barking prose, a delight in the ability to turn trivia into nervy koans, a janky retrofuturism that reminds one of David Foster Wallace, a chicly subtle wryness, but to me what stands out most is that melancholy before the opaque beauty of the world, an obsessive appreciation of curios that keep reminding you that you’re missing from it, the world they imply. In an album review: “What direction was Tazartès going in, musically, here in 1977? I haven’t listened to a single other thing he’s made, but I’m confident there’s no clear line toward or away from anything. Diasporas is a black box. It contains the sum total of all knowledge that exists about itself. / I don’t know who this album is for. Who could it appeal to?” Rising out of the experience just long enough to murmur, I have no idea what’s happening, where is everyone, is anyone listening?
Curdling beneath its Americana dystopia, this very despair animates much of Computerfriend’s depressive malaise. The eponymous program emulates a therapy session whose dialogic narrative beats syncopate the bric-a-brac. The therapy sessions are mostly trying, poorly, to cajole you into reaching a socially acceptable level of productivity to offload the burden you place on others: "I don't know what's going on with you, $name," $love says. "I've tried to talk to you so many times but you won't let me in. And I'm nearing a point where I don't even care. It's so much work keeping you fed and active, it's ruining my life. I don't know what to do."” (The click-to-proceed function of Computerfriend requires one to open it up in Word to get the quotes, hence the $variables.) Why won’t you just get up and exude the energy everyone else wants, needs from you? What is wrong with you who cannot give what is rightfully expected of you? “Imagine this: it’s mid-morning and you’re in a room with all of your friends. And upbeat music is playing and a few of your friends are dancing, hesitatingly, laughing. It feels like the moment before something else, before you each have to go your separate ways and do what you must do that day. But as you consider this, you find that you don’t mind. You like doing things, you like being productive. It’s why you’re on this planet, it’s why you were given this life: to do things. Not to do nothing, right?”
An inability to medicate ourselves with screens underwrites a lot of the dissonance against a world which, drained of all color, requires them. Bleached of all being in creeping environmental decay, lies America a ruin: “one of Godfield’s ex-trees, ex-lining the town’s main throughway in triumphant shade and greenery until insects and heatwaves turned them into jagged petrified and sunbleached shards.” The lack of anywhere to escape shoves you back into boxes where you suffocate, decay akin: “Life tastes like burnt oil. everything tastes like a panic. like a pan filled with oil on high heat, bubbling feverishly on the stove, one drop of condensation away from filling your face with white fire. one thing you can taste here, right now. you stand with your hand over your mouth. over your mask. it tastes like oil, here. like a vat of oil about to explode all over your skin. it tastes like death coming. it tastes like a horrible panic. it tastes like death. it tastes like panic. it tastes like death.” The urgency remains latent beneath a surface of recomposure, where recycled oxygen, sustainably harvested slimeworms, and a thin array of distractions seem to suggest life where you cannot find it, though you keep searching for it through screen after screen: “At the theater you stand for a moment in front of the marquee. There is no good URADian art anymore. An effect of the environmental catastrophe starting at the equator, the North became more valuable. The skyrocketing cost of living resulted in displaced artists and overwhelming cultural conservatism. You choose the sole non-URAD film. Something from Japan. / You buy the ticket, go inside the theater, and drop into a cracked pleather folding seat. There's no one else here. / The movie starts. It's called Princess Mononoke. In the movie, a young warrior is infected by a dying forest spirit who was poisoned and turned into a demon by an iron bullet. The infection appears as a dark swirling rash on the warrior's arm: the physical embodiment of the spirit's anger at the destruction of its home by an iron manufacturing factory. / The movie is an obvious reference to the world's ecological crisis, but although you suppose you agree with its message, you can't muster up the willpower to care about what it wants you to take away, or do. Whatever that might be. / After the movie ends, you go outside the theater and stand still on the sidewalk looking up at the black-grey sky. You take off your respirator for a few seconds, cough, and put it back on.” Here is a core malaise of the work’s knowing but harrowed tone: you get the idea, but somehow it doesn’t matter, nothing changes. The meta enwrapment makes the suggestion more complex without necessarily eliciting further meaning; like, if the story had us go into a theater and watch Princess Mononoke, that would be a fairly heavyhanded thematic beat; if the story had us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat, that would be cleverly meta without contributing much, indeed taking away from what is there; but, by having us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat but then continue into a quiet scene of isolated awareness that reinforces the beat, you enter into an uncanny layer, where the ideas keep bludgeoning you bluntly, never sinking in, until that never sinking in becomes the space where the idea should live but doesn’t.
Alienated distance from a shiftless morass not innately meaningless but indistinguishably so from your cold detachment sludges the underlying emotional import into a persistent grainy black and white, where “You feel out of time, not like you have none left but as though you'd opened time's door and exited.” Things happen, just without you. To the extent that you muster up the energy to force involvement, the result fumbles into a metalayer of processing power outputting senseless, noiseless noise. This is where a lot of the humor comes from, watching various cultural ephemera morph in laconic mandelbrot perspective shifts, a compression processing of meaningless data which, in its overloaded polysemous state, effects an uncanny silliness. For instance, in a series of headlines reminiscent of The Day Today’s similar gag, we get wordgarble double takes like “Royal Family Indicted After Prince Harry Trepanation Scandal”. But the same process also simmers out the humor in passages that underline how we become buried beneath cultural bloat: “In the 1980s, Sinatra was the most popular musician alive and instead of doing what he wanted to do, he had to record standards, every standard, every Christmas song, every classic. For posterity, or something. Maybe you've heard his version of Jingle Bells. It’s emotionally devastating. It’s the sound of a man’s dignity dissolving. His once-in-a-lifetime voice and decades of musical dedication expending itself on someone else’s banal words. Trying desperately and futilely to breathe new life into them or make them uniquely his.” Despair that rewrites itself into hope, desperately and futilely, as larger sociocultural trends simply reproduce on larger and larger scales, the glitz and glamor that dazzle streetlights as “Metal and disposable cars head downtown toward the Drain. The humidity plasters your thin plastic-fiber top to your chest and shoulders.”
Inability to achieve the genuine seeps down from the world of mirage into your thousand frayed ends: “hey you haven't responded to any of my emails but i thought i would try again. i feel like when you make one single mistake near the beginning of your life it sets off a chain of linked mistakes like dominos that topple no matter what but maybe i'm just trying to shift the blame from myself to the laws of the universe. i miss you.” The incessant compulsion to reach out for largescale, cosmically beautiful explanations for a hollowness not only mundane but mundanemaking is a consistent trait of everyone in Computerfriend, all of whom are working tirelessly to expound some idea or memory or possibility so self evidently vital that it could infuse you with the illusion of vitality, no matter how doomed or fleeting the vector: “In essence, the goal of neural annealing is to change the spiritual temperature of the brain such that it becomes “malleable” to intentional emotional change: reframing of negative thoughts or conditions as positive.”
The alternative, of course, is simply the end, frayed. All these efforts, physical, digital, social, cultural, their messy melange, are part of a prescribed regime intended to reach a conclusion other than what our narrator tried to choose. There is a gap, and everything is constantly gushing to fill it, for fear that ultimately nothing will, the gap will crystallize, hence Computerfriend’s final sermon: “Imagine there’s a source somewhere, it can be a computer or a mouth or an engine and it emits these waves. Lower-frequency vibrations that disseminate information throughout your nervous system. They teach your body general context about the universe. About what’s outside of itself. Yourself. / And then there are higher-frequency vibrations that are much more targeted and specified. Like a laser compared to a flashlight. They illuminate individual points of truth. And if you remove the low frequency waves you’re left with this, like, collection of shrill pinpoints that give you highly randomized and specific viewpoints about existence. Instead of one coherent message you’re bombarded by many disparate ones, and that too introduces a state of chaos, disorder … And then you think that now, if you're absorbing something, you must have been missing something. Because you're filling in empty spaces. And you think, does everyone have so many empty spaces? And you don't realize it but you've spoken this thought aloud. And I smile kindly and I say, "existence is only possible on the basis of a collection of absences which precede and surround it. Existence, then, is not defined by what is, but what is no longer or is not yet."” You are missing, and that’s okay, because that missing is you.
Crowds of images that do not reply, and you’re forced to believe in the stream, because they are on screen, not you, not you, and why not? Why can you not be projected upon the world? Isn’t there some shape of the void unique to your screaming? Less and less of you, it has to be going somewhere, you have to be filling in an absence more grand than this one, and isn’t that a kind of living, enough of a reason to? “You leave your apartment and walk toward the Drain. You're not sure why until you arrive and see them: the thousand foot tall holograms rising in terrible beams, the LED billboards pulsating and shifting. And behind them, bits moving. Electrons. Software. / You place your palm against the nearest display. It's warm / You begin to cough. A spray of your spit condenses on the flat panel, forming beads through which you can discern the individual diodes: red, green, blue, each fired independently but as part of a collective / Someone is pawing at your shoulder trying to give or sell you a respirator, but you want to cry unrestricted by plastic and rubber. You want the surveillance cameras to transmit your glimmering tears. / More bits, more electrons. Maybe it's out there somewhere on the net.” Trying to touch the digital seems to be a recurrent image in Riemer’s work, as are the holograms which continually haunt the effort: eternal recursion ghosts howling the elusive pseudocertainty that at some intangible, unreachable point, there was life. The melancholy of a nostalgia you have to pretend to share. “THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU'RE 'GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS' WITHOUT ACTUALLY KNOWING WHY, AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO FOREVER.”
Reflexive introspection of the encounter: forced into self by being viewed by all the others who make you you, the you you have to bear time after time as all connections decay, and you no longer know how to breakthrough, worse, you no longer know if you should, if maybe beneath the dissemblance lies only its hollows: “Every social gathering is horrific in its own way. Over the years you have learned to adapt, to cope, to survive. The one which you are currently attending, however, threatens to ruin you.” Every encounter with the expectations of those who still, if only out of nostalgia, expect things of you, ritualized into a numbing ceremony where you mutter the expectations that become increasingly distant from your intimations.
Zhao Qiuyi, “a senior in college, a one-time honors student” returns “back home for winter break.” Having gone out into the world on her own, Qiuyi is now being parsed by those to whom she returns: what has she proven of herself, or if she has returned emptyhanded, isn’t that just who we’ve always kind of guessed her to be? “Which brings you to the truly agonizing part of this party. Everyone you grew up with between the ages of 10 and 18 are here. Your old friends and acquaintances, and their parents and siblings and everyone else. People you thought you had left behind, or had left you behind. It's as if every loose plot thread of your life has come together in this moment.” Qiuyi’s social anxiety doubles under the compounding of the mediated introspection anxiety which lurks within a lot of our illusions of familiarity. Not only are you awkwardly just trying to not seem awkward, but you’re also navigating a competitive socialscape, where everything threatens to be contingent upon some external set of values you have to conquer and ingest. You are an adult now, it’s time for the return on investment. “"So what are you doing after graduation?", Aubrey asks. / "Everyone's been asking that..." / Aubrey laughs. "Hey, it's an important question! It's your entire future! The rest of your life is on the line!" / "Yeah, but, it's just... kind of..."” Doesn’t it just kind of suck being young enough to have a future, the way it weighs on you, the way people appraise you each year, gauging how much ROI you might have? Isn’t there a beauty in reaching an age when nobody asks anymore, when you can wilt in peace with dignity? Where you can just be yourself, finally stripped of all external worth, doomed to at least this silence, more precious than a thousand beetley stares? “The conversation continues, with more detailed questions and comments. You smile and answer. Mom doesn't say much. It's as if she's presenting you to her friends, as if you're a project.” You have a responsible to everyone around you to be valuable, so that they won’t feel lied to for all of these years. All of us hurtling whiteknuckle to the grave hoping the ones we love have the answer, are an answer, can answer all the questions teeming in faster than you can pretend.
Your obligation is to risk manage your profile to promise future growth: “You can approach these gatherings mechanistically, orchestrating a series of events that will achieve all of your goals in an optimal fashion, while minimizing your exposure to awkwardness and food poisoning.” The nature of communal smalltalk, with its faux familiarity, offers many opportunities to believe in that familiarity, which is a trap, of course, behind which lies the fatal judgment; you really ought to emphasize distance, swallowed by your distance to the surface they glean. “How was university?” Rhetorical questions which, because they are rhetorical, a ceremony of friendliness, shiver the freezing feeling that your answer is not wanted, that any actual content between the two of you would stammer the show past its pretense, and there’d be the pause that everyone would sit through knowing you caused it. Somehow any authenticity just makes you lose, and everyone not only knows this, but assimilated it, they have made the show authentic in a way that, as you get older, seems increasingly somehow better than you.
All of your peers performing this display with dazzling skill that shames your awkwardness compounds into judgment. People with whom you are supposed to share a rapport, “But outside of some chance encounters, you never became close.” Why should anyone care about anyone outside of the propinquity that forces them to pretend it? “But at some point you stopped doing the same things she did, stopped discussing homework solutions after class, stopped doing the same events in Science Olympiad, even stopped talking to her at gatherings such as these. And the worst part of all, she didn't seem to notice.” The sadness of reunions: everyone, through their own choices, have left you here, in this undead past. You have become the person people smile overloudly at, “Haven’t seen you in ages!” with the incredulous tone that implies it must have been an accident, or, when their eyes glint in just the right way to flash honesty, your fault. Spending the next five minutes mumbling them through a reminder why you aren’t seen. And, of course, you’ve done exactly the same yourself: “Miri was probably your best friend in high school. But until today, it had been at least one year since your last perfunctory messages.” After all, what could possibly replace the false play of familiarity? What does actual familiarity look like? What do people even say to each other, you know, when the conversation isn’t forced? “What would you ever talk about? You can't think of anything to say. It's as if your brain's vocalization system is frozen in place, not an unfamiliar feeling, but never a pleasant one.” All the things you could ask, all the ways there could have been so much more between us, should have been, right? But what could you have said? Not like the dreamthings you say which shimmer with lost emotions, the Deep Question that gets the Deep Answer that forms the Deep Bond. Like actually sitting there, in that moment, ask. Who else could you have been, you who did not make things better? Is it any surprise you don’t just relent to the howl of white noise? “You've gone days, perhaps weeks without a real conversation. You don't really talk to people anymore.” Letting go, until you lose the habit altogether: “You smile, but you're not sure if it works.” And maybe, in some way, that is the final acquiescence to the inexorable: “You see the landscape of choice laid before you. An ocean of choice and possibility, concealing swirling eddies and whirlpools, mines, traps. Which choice will lead to life and which choice will lead to death? Trick question; they all lead to death, just sooner or later. Which choice leads to love and which choice leads to hate? / It's all a trick. Whichever choices you pick, you know that it's going to be the wrong choice.”
If that all seems a little teenage maudlin, then well, yes, of course, it’s hard not to put on a nurturing smile and nod Qiuyi on, go on, get out there, yes it’s a little uncomfortable and hostile but if you can just get out of your head for five seconds you can enjoy the company of others, not everything is a swirling sadness maelstrom about you, why not take the time to actually be interested in other people and learn from them, live with them, share this beautiful moment even if it doesn’t imply any others? Stop obsessing about why people hate you and just radiate the light innate to you, you miracle of this once then never. It’s easy at some level to tap your fingers with impatience and rattle off a thousand little lessons of perspective. But you know what? It really does feel like that, when you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty. New Year’s Eve, 2019 captures exactly the melancholy anxiety spiral that led me, like Qiuyi, to bail out early or mumble my way head down through a deeply draining evening. Even before you get there, you’re spiraling into your own despairs, and it just gets worse from there. Self-fulfilling prophecies that nevertheless perfectly predict their fulfillment, your own lack of it.
Also, the absolute audacity of being the plus one who drops this line: “So, how about that election?”
There’s a lot made of liminal spaces recently, with widely shared images of spaces that were once public, filled with life, which now wait desolate. This feeling of abandonment in a place which should not, we feel intrinsically, be, has expanded into a myriad of vibes, from vaporwave’s various grandchildren to a new meme mythos like the Backrooms. Our architecture is often built with a pompous sense of permanence; their empty rooms like empty veins.
It's precisely that transitory, permeable space of inhabitance that builds the uncanny liminal borderworld of Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, a “motel that used to view the river but now its scenic views looks out on 6 lanes of frequently congested highway traffic.” A place which once meant something drowned beneath the inexorable progress of The Highway, a gutter where old names that cannot match the moment collect and stagnate. The motel, a makeshift home for those far from home, heaves with the exhausted of the world, and in this terror of quasipresence, each stillness threatens hollowness: “He stares forward without blinking, unmoving, only the slow rise and fall of his chest sway the antlers coming from his head that cast long jagged lines of shadow that reach towards the ceiling and every surface. / The more I watch him the more a pit in my stomach grows until I feel like I’m going to cry, I break away from the wall and finally breathe. I steady myself against the wall to stop shaking.”
Nausea of disappearance plays out in the liminality of the motel as a satirical exaggeration of the emptiness and transitory elements of our own normalness, how our own lives are built on presumptions of permanence that are just as vulnerable. At its best, the game haunts in this unsettling calmness, showing a world in which everyone is so quickly slipping away from you and themselves, as in this delicate scene of people being swallowed by the screen: “Peering through the hole in the wall, the room is draped in pitch. The only thing I can make out in the darkness is a slender body on its knees haloed in the hazy glow from the television set as it blares white noise throughout the room. Body twisted so a single ear is pressed to the glass of the screen, hot breath occasionally fogging up the glass. I notice her lips moving but can’t hear the whispers over the sound of the static, her voice blending in with noise and only adding another layer to the dissonance. / The static grows harsher as an electrical tone begins to drone out of the television and fill the room. The figure stops her muttering and her eyes widen, she nods slowly as if each mechanical movement of her head was to convey the seriousness of her understanding. She sits back from the tv onto her knees, arms slack at her sides as the television static blooms in a fisheye distortion. / Orbs of cascading visual noise ripple out from a single pixel of light in the centre of the screen. She watches intently as the ripples move with an increased speed and intensity, tunnelling out from the centre of the screen. It is only until the ripples slow and still on the screen that I see the glass warping, undulating in pace with the ripples. My eye strains to see through the narrow dim hole what could be causing that effect when a limply held hand juts up from the floor and disappears wrist deep into the screen. The other hand comes up and caresses the writhing ridges of the screen before fingertips disappear within it. Hands and then arms move sinuously into the screen as the woman brings her face up to the screen cheek first, dragging it slowly across the rippling static until she pushes her face, lips first, into the noise. The light all but goes out in the room as the remainder of her body contorts and writhes to fit itself into the hollows of the screen, the light returning to the room dazzling my vision as one last pale foot slides into the television. The screen is quickly gripped by blackness as it's pulled in like corners from the corners of the screen, the static quickly winking out in one final sharp white line, before all that is left is the soft glow from the screen and a single white dot still weakly emitting light from the centre.” By using the amplified setting of the motel to render each metaphor starkly literal, someone being swallowed by the screen becomes baroque, and in that ornamented sinuousness finds an empathy that distills the conceptual nod into a resinous gleam. In particular, the oscillation between noisy horror pangs and quietly human details lends the scene’s startling denotation a slightly misty, mutedly forlorn gentleness that perturbs the conceptual simplicity to an uncanny nuance; it’s easy to write dismissively of someone getting swallowed by the person behind the screen, but it’s altogether more deft to write longingly of it, as if we might be a little jealous of the purity of the tragedy. Woven into the man with this screen disappearance, the man with the elk hat, the vampiric woman, even the strangely overscrupulous older gentleman, is the abandonment that has led them here, to a motel forgotten, a transience we keep living until we cannot.
That delicate horror is unfortunately undermined by our narrator’s acidic ennui, whose rampant animus conforms to the base expectation of normality into uncanniness that drives a lot of horror (it’s just an ordinary shift on an ordinary night oh wait oh nooo it’s not aaaa), but frequently exceeds its remit in ways that detract from the story. Variations of “shit” besmirch most of our narrator’s comments, almost a default reaction to any stimulus: “What a huge fucking creep I hate working here, but maybe if shit is weird tonight a little bit of spying might come in handy. Who knows, weirder shit has happened here.” In particular, the narrator’s spite for their colleague Gus is so incessant that the character becomes angry about an issue from every possible angle, despite their contradictions. When Gus complains about the narrator’s penchant for being late, which is understandable, who wants to be stuck at the desk waiting to be relieved when they could go home to their family, the narrator swipes it aside: “I truly don’t understand how some people assume being in the building but not at the desk the instant a shift starts counts as being late but whatever.” But this annoyance at Gus’ annoyance then switchbacks: “Fuck me for not being here the instant my shift starts but can’t ask this man to stay a second past when his shift ends.” If you’ve ever known someone who is just default annoyed, this inconsistency rings true: the stimulus is entirely arbitrary, the annoyance is built in. Indeed we find ourselves annoyed, especially since this trait doesn’t cohere or nuance the more sensitive and subtle elements: it grates with the game.
I much prefer the muted “ambivalently bored” tedium that the game sulks into when exhausted of ire, which gives a more congenial normality that better interplays with the horror. The viscous drainage of hours passing on the night shift fits well with the humbug doldrums stretched out with Knausgaardian detail: “Mixing it quickly I pop a spoonful in my mouth and instantly burn the roof of my mouth. Holding the soup in my mouth, not ready to swallow, I open my lips and try to vent the heat out of my mouth until it's a safer temperature to eat.” The way each action just balloons out of its importance does a great job of showing time passing quietly, too quietly, not quickly enough. You can almost hear the lights buzzing and flickering.
With the semirandom fluctuation of multiple unrelated plots, there’s enough going oozing around in here to reward multiple playthroughs. The game runs on a real time basis which is kind of wonky, for instance there’s a bug where once you trigger the LeAnn ending, all other playthroughs in the same session trigger the LeAnn ending as soon as the shift starts. But as you tap tap your fingers while things go bump bump in the night, you’ll feel that liminal apotheosis, a loneliness which isn’t alone.
We have a conception of ourselves that lives like we do, in the present, open to each new moment, brimming with our mornings, redolent with our evenings. Possibility always afresh a decision away, a self instantiated in each choice. Others have a conception of us that lives like we did, in memories, full of who we acted, bloated with yesterdays, stained with mistakes. Identity as a never ending apology.
Past Present opens upon this desolation desperation, as our protagonist, recently divorced, returns to take their things, as if they can take anything away from what has transpired: “Two years ago, we moved into this old farm house on the edge of a corn field to build a family and grow old together. Now it stands empty, haunted by a few odds-and-ends, dust, and a lot of regrets.” What is left to reclaim? The empty house echoes the answer: “Funny that this is called the “living room,” as it’s now so bereft.” Houses, in which we live, but do we really? At the end, what do we have to show for it? “Built into the wall over the tub is the little soap nook my wife used for all the soap slivers that accumulated over time. They’re all gone now.” Every dream, each anticipation, lies scattered, beaten, removed, an embarrassment of recall recoil: “This room was always a project-to-be for us. When we moved in, we had big plans for it, big designs. As time rolled on, and our ambitions and marriage cooled, we wound up filling it with boxes and old junk.” Relationships, with all their idealism, fade into the quotidian, with the thousand little ways we fail to live each day. Just boxes and boxes of stuff accumulating to nothing, weeks and weeks of us tattering to “the spills and messes of three years lost.”
Regret brings its wistful cousin hindsight, a fantasy of all the little things you could have done different, the present tense person you could be, if you could be back then. Past Present indulges the hope, letting the protagonist slip back into the past, flitter between ourselves as agency and ourselves as story, mending at everything, frantic to fix anything. Each mistake, signified in an object, something you could put in its rightful place, some action you can take to right the course: your wife’s vase, smashed in anger, you can pick up the pieces, “set the vase on the end table. It looks right. A brief rain shower of warm nostalgia sprinkles down inside me.” Destroy the napkin with the waitress’ name on it, annihilate the affair! The “rambling and raw apology” to an argument that you tore up, you can restore it, have her read it. Everything in its place, you can do it, you can be who both of you wanted you to be: “Something clicks—finally, a sense that I’ve made things whole, that I’ve revised our past enough to correct our mistakes and mend the tears. / No cheating or screaming. No early morning stuporous baths. No smashed vases, no discarded promises.”
But damage, cannot be undone, the damage most of all to their son Toby, as the past and present slip into a fugue: “This is the morning Toby ran away from home—after enduring our yelling and arguments and banging on locked doors and late night drunken returns home, daddy sleeping on the sofa and mama hiding her empties in the backyard shed, this is the morning Toby ran away from home.” Finding his backpack in a field, reminiscing on a disappearance which you could not force to disappear, the game forces you to WAIT as the protagonist swallows the emotive upsurge.
Yet we don’t give away our delusions so easily, because those delusions, they are us, aren’t they? All this suffering, as if it’s just a thing you can move past, as if there is again the present tense you can liberated that is freed of pasts: “The vase and flowers are gone. The old teacup has vanished. I’ve nothing to show her. I’ve left her nothing to remember me by other than some foul memories. / Last time we spoke to the sheriff department, they told us Toby is still being treated as a missing person case. I miss my little boy so much. / Some things in this explained world go unexplained. It feeds the doubt in our minds, and we start giving weight to its mystery. We listen to the very voice we should be shutting out. / I’ve seen all I need to see here. It’s time to open this door and put this place behind me. Down the front steps and past the oak, there’s something out there waiting for me to believe in it.” In this optimistic gesture, our protagonist’s solipsism leads them to shutting out the voice that haunts them, assured that they could put all the suffering behind them, find some self “waiting for me to believe in it.” How little we change from what happens to us. We cannot go into the past to save ourselves, because we are still that person. The oddness of being loathed: knowing that someone who knows you loathes you, that that’s a possible experience of who you are. Perhaps symbolically, our ability to travel to the past is described as: “I find myself surrounded by a stifling darkness crowding me out. The only exit I can sense is out.” A shadow you can climb out of. The darkness crowding us out: is there an out? Someone leaving us, the wish we could do the same.
Because, ultimately, all the protagonist’s attempts to fix the past are vague gestures, even selfish ones, aimed more at an embarrassment at failure than a genuine introspection on a broken love: “We painted it once after moving in, and a second time when my wife decided she didn’t like the first color. The paint I bought was cheap, and the first coat bled through the second, giving the fixture a bland dun-colored stain.” You try to fix your mistakes to appease your partner, but the effort isn’t there, the effect is cheap, and the wallpapering peels to reveal what the object now forever signifies, a compromised compromise. The relationship isn’t a *thing* to be fixed, it’s you, it’s them, it’s the innocent people you have hurt along the way. The protagonist’s failure to reflect is the falseness of its ending hope: “One day the cup slipped as she washed off the soap gunk, and it smashed to pieces in the kitchen sink. Her next bath was when she lost the ring.” So the protagonist puts the ring in their wife’s drinking cup, a passive aggressive attempt to bring things back together. But it wasn’t the ring that was lost. It was her. It was their son. And it was, is, the protagonist.
Terseness keeps the rhythm raw: “he was probably handsome, when he had his skin.” Rawness pervades, even as this world that has claimed you uncloses: “it’s been twenty-four days since everyone else floated up. / you haven’t been out since then; Momma doesn’t like you leaving the flat without her, and the effort of getting down the stairs hasn’t been worth it anyway.” But if all you know are walls, how do you learn the horizon? “it is big. it is threadbare. it is forbidden.”
And you know what it is like to be forbidden. An unexpected kiss, unexpected pleasure, leads to immediate reprimand: “do you want to live in sin? is this what you want? She had roared as She dragged you towards the water.” The water which drowns every gasp for air, which seethes over us, sears, sears us: “why does the water have to be hot, sweet girl? / because fire washes away the sin. / that’s right, She’d said, but I can’t wash you in fire because I love you. so this is the next best thing.” Full of sin, aren’t you, isn’t this the cause for all their cruelty? Sinful inescapably, self as a source of wrongness, an understanding of the body only as broken, how they insist we cease, pliable, sermonable, able, just like God’s precious first martyr. How Christian hyperguilt cycles lead to the perpetuation of cruelties, holiness as absolute denial of any self outside a productive blankness: “do you know why you’re in a chair, child? / you shook your head. you honestly didn’t. / he nodded, somewhat sadly, and then he told you. / it’s because you’re a sinner.” Sin as a perpetuation of abuse down a hierarchical chain; the closer to holiness, the more paradisical your removal from the rest of the community: “this is… his private garden? it’s nearly as large as the entire Community farmland. / and the food growing here! grapes and corn and mint and broccoli and… peaches. / as if by God’s own will, a peach falls from its tree and lands directly in front of you. you lean forward and snatch it immediately. when you bite into it, the juice dribbles down your chin. / you briefly ask yourself why Prophet Hunter would keep all this to himself, when the rest of you had barely enough to get by. there’s a revelation somewhere in your brain, but something else blocks it from surfacing.” Those who hurt you and their self-satisfied nonneed to hurt. You too can nonhurt, just smother yourself, dulled to everything, finally holy, indefinably null, numb: “the bottom drawer opens with a rattling sound. it is absolutely full of the same kind of little yellow bottles that Momma’s meds come in. you sift through them. they’re almost all empty. you pluck one out and hold it up to read the label. / what in the world is oxycodone?”
But the wrongness isn’t inside you, it’s everywhere, and you can’t bring yourself to return to the insularity prison of projections, even though “it looks so comfortable, but you just got up. it’s not worth the effort—swinging your body up, manually pulling your legs over—that would be required to lay back down.” Traveling along a map, inspecting everything, a fugue of memories that build and leave nothing there but the bareness: “they are still and cold and silent. / inside, no hymns are sung. / inside, no breath is drawn. / The Beast is laughing. / you wonder if there might be some unspoiled food in someone else’s apartment. / you imagine an icy hand closing around your throat. / you doubt you could make it up the stairs, anyway.” You look for any hint of the holiness that was supposed to protect you, but the thin veneer fails, you peek behind it: “on closer inspection, it’s not a lamb. it’s… something else. something wrong. / it regards you cooly with seven insectoid eyes, spaced evenly around its head. / bony spurs protrude, seemingly at random, from its body. you count 1 before your eyes begin to hurt. / for a moment, your surroundings seem to flicker. you see a throne behind it, and four beasts surrounding it, and a sea of men extending into infinity, watching it.” As you wander, looking for the hope that is not here, you realize it must be elsewhere, it is out there, somewhere, beyond the gate, these memories, this stillness eternal.
If the message is laudable, it is perhaps too determined in its despair to cohere its grays to delve beyond surface severities. Relentlessness of terse miseries with no variations crumbles like desiccated dust, especially as it loops through tropes, with no space for individuality to make the prebuilt circuit sparkle. The bleakness flattens everything, and the story seems almost self-aware of its own predictability, as in some footprints we find: “as unpleasant as the thought is, you know they’re made of blood. what else would it be?” Indeed, what else? The lack of range in the emotions also compresses the scales of expression, such that even a child not receiving a peach wrings the same cords as the bleakest scenes: “you were awash in a sea of grief. the bereavement, the shattering of your hope, it was all too much.” The story, again aware of its own straining to more than strain, tries meekly to emphasize itself at certain points, but doesn’t know how except to mine the same veins: “of all the things you’ve seen today, this makes you go cold. bleak. desolate.”
The brutalities are unsubtle, however, and in those scenes the story excels in its terse cruelties so raw they resist presentation, as when the prophet enchains our guilt once more in a ritual public performance of abuse: “i’d like to thank delilah, daughter of ẗ̴̬̤̲̼͍͙̼̼̟̤̘͗̒̈́ȃ̵̙̲͎͕̯̑́̌́͒̃̅̔M̴̡̻̯͍̖̭̰͒͂̓͌̓̾̆̍̐̑͠ͅr̵̡͍̬͕̲͕̬̩̿̀͒̿͛̏̑̎̓̅̃̏͘͜͜ ̴̛̻̻̣̿̓͊͛̓́̌a̵͔͔̾̅̏̿̀̋̃̄g̸̨̻̹̣̯̱̥͙̘̑͝ͅͅŗ̸͓͉͖͉̲̗͔̠̻̊̍̍̿y̷͈̘͔͇̰͖̓̒͋̌̋̏̍̀͛̈́̆͘͝ͅṂ̶̨͇̲̩̪̫͎͛̆̆͜͜ê̶̦͔͕̪̰̪͙͂̃̌͐̐͑ͅȧ̶̗̈́͊̈́̓͝r̴̡̧͎̝͓̳̹̲̥͕̿̐̍̑̿͋̒͛͊̈́͜ͅ, for bringing these grave offenses to my attention.” The terseness, when used to its maximal effect, slows down the reader’s engagement, jolting physical each passing moment: “it’s a slow process getting yourself down without it—a lot of scooting your rear end down one stair at a time, using your arms to push and move your legs so your center of gravity doesn’t shift too far forward. you stop halfway to catch your breath.” And, in that slowing, we can feel the trickling inklings of how memory fractures into lifetimes of wounds: “when you were little, Momma would spray it with wormwood perfume. the smell is long gone, but you still hold the blanket up to your face and inhale deeply before laying it across your legs. you feel comforted.” Comforted? And there, amidst the relentless bleakness, is perhaps the starkest anguish.