In Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a director, mistresser of actresses, has a vision of some thespian Beatrice that will elevate his existence into a purified dedication to the Art she can safely symbolize for him, angelically neuter of her own content, so like an apparition, she comes to him from the night, offers him a ride home, and he explains an idea of a film, barely pretensed as fictional, of a man’s degraded existence melting like snow before the woman of the spring, a salvation, and she listens with 60s prettiness flair that curlicues the banter, considering whether such a person is capable of love, of redemption, of art, never failing the perfect smile and tone that mercifies the despair, except once, when the car comes to a stop, and he tells her to turn the headlights off: the tension, the stare, the pretending neither.
This tension typifies much of 60s/70s cinema’s aestheticized verselust, perhaps most explicitly in the giallo genre, with its sensuous dissociations starkening in lightning strikes an ultraviolence predation: "I love your work,” a fan enthuses, to which the actress ripostes: “You mean, you love to watch me die.” In the giallo, we drink in absinthe aesthetics, neon sharps equally of glamor and sleaze that pairs “the shadowy interior … a palette of brown wood, blue jeans and purple silk” with the “mingling with the cooing tones of the can-can girls on a break.” Although the game initially feints into a spaghetti western, a telegram summons us into a train chugging through the storm, where we hear the first whispery incantations of a Goblin soundtrack: “You open your hand, and let the storm claim the piece of red silk, as it disappears carried by the wind a second later. (Why? Was that in the script, or was it your idea?) / Outside the gates, rain falls on the canals in silvery splatters.” The police, languid cigarette smoke, credits in italics: “Starring Eva Chantry as Herself….”
As herself? Yes, asserts the giallo’s brazen delirium, oohing oozing into lurid voyeurism where the camera’s gaze surfeits nakedly male desire in its intrusive omnipresence, to entwine the reel with the reel: “Trembling, you peel off your soaked dress. If this was a scene, the camera would be sliding down as you do, catching the goosebumps in your soft skin to emphasize your vulnerability, and ending with the wet heap on the floor … You run a hot bath, waiting until it’s half full to slide in, with a sensual moan of pleasure. Again, if this was a scene, the camera would catch you from behind, lingering on your nakedness as you raise one leg, then the other, and ease into the steaming water. / Does it matter that it’s a scene or not? Only if you’re acting for the audience, as your old teacher used to use. If you’re doing it for yourself, then the camera is always on.” Luxuriating in the bath, but only insofar as the faceless yet ever more pressing audience insists, dictatorial demands flooding in, as whenever you struggle to know what to do next, the hint screen slips you the next bit of script (in)((sin)uating) sensuous headiness invoked into dreamspace: “You close your eyes and listen to the patter of the rain on the windows. Fury and violence without, softness and beauty within. A metaphor for something or the other…” This pane of glass, the barrier between you and the camera, the screen and the audience, is precisely the illusion the metafictional directness of the giallo threatens, suddenly breaking in a torrent of shards, inviting in peacock preens of patriarchal brutality as readily in the fictional layer, “You run anxiously, trying to find a hotel or shelter from the rain, cold and miserable in your sodden clothes. Suddenly, a flash of lighting stops your dead on your tracks. There’s someone right in front of you … Then the light is out, and so is the knife. You fall on your knees, looking at the blood flowing into the drenched cobblestones. The next stab is through your eye, and then you see no more” as in the metafictional layer: “You’re drifting off, when a noise awakens you. Someone is knocking on your door. Again. It’s a firm, masculine way of knocking. Here comes the outside world, wanting in. You get out of the bath and towel yourself dry quickly. Who the hell could it be?” Tension of the masculinized violence of desire latent in the camera’s slow pans equivocates the film, the filmmaker. The constant terror of the indeterminacy of the demon.
That this veers haphazardly into very uncomfortable spaces accords to the unsubtlety horrors of the giallo, where the stylized tropes run so blatantly rampant that the aesthetic judgment lies largely in whether the work’s directness rips its paperthin premise to reveal a certain grinning stupidity that fails to say anything but the obvious or, in the more successful exemplar Suspiria, the semisupernatural dizziness spins itself so wildly that it dissociates into a witches’ sabbath of suggestions that let light in like stained glass. Barcarolle in Yellow threatens both outcomes through its fracturing metafictional pane. In some scenes, like the confrontation with Leona in her apartment, the game revels in its stylish semantic porousness to achieve an apropos phantasmagoric slipperiness: “Before you can touch the door, it swings open by itself. Behind it is… nobody, and nothing. Taking a deep breath, you go in, and climb the spiral staircase, ascending as it coils upon itself, tighter, higher, until you reach the high place you seem to remember like a dream … Your ideas melt in Leona’s presence like wax in the sun. … “Tell me, Eva, how have you been feeling? Do you sometimes think… things are not quite real? As if you were reading a piece of fiction and suspending your disbelief for the sake of being a part of it… or, in other words, acting?”” In others, however, the unsubtleties run crude, which nauseates when handling such intense subject matter: “You open the door a crack, as you often do when you’re about to be murdered luridly. Or raped. Often both: occupational hazard. / Through the crack, dramatically lighted, you can see a vertical slice of face: that of the director! The slice includes a brown, intense eye, an aquiline nose, a bit of smiling lip and some seriously square jawline … His eyes go wide as they follow every curve of your naked body, his voice sounds a little raspier. “Oh my God, Eva… do you always open the door in the nude? You’re amazing. Let me in, baby, I can’t wait to have you…”” It’s hard to recover any of the tensed stylized mood in the wake of such winces, so we’ll simply slip out of the cinema into the pouring rain, where we might regain the shivery extravagance.
By the time an old servant slash formerly the imperial admiral patriarch’s mistress slash secret agent from some fractious Balkan manipulates an empire and its dissident into a war that culminates in a sniper duel between supersoldier aristocrat siblings who are potentially lovers in their crumbling mansion over a feud that consists as much of domestic relations as it does international relations, not much lies out of scope. At its core, Out of Scope wants to tell a suffocating story about how two siblings are torn apart by the different social expectations of gender, but in its attempt to amp the tension to world historical importance, it loses its message somewhere in its reams of political exposition.
With its guns blazing stagesetter, Out of Scope charges no holds barred to flourish a first impression with moody grandeur prose, where the “ceiling rises precipitously, all the way to the soffit of the second floor, letting in a huge amount of light and spiders” to narrow corridors haunted by “Statues. Family members, genuine and appropriated. All stained by a slightly ironic shade of soot.” The rich imagery glimmers in stained glass moonlight to echo through the space a moody nocturne, elegantly composing into phantasmagorical allure with its sudden piu forte into violence: “Bubbles in the glass pane swim before the scene … Seaweed rustles on the hillside and froth floats in the sky. / A gleam of treasure winks at you from a shipwreck … Her eyes are on you … You feel the collision in your memories, then in the constriction of your heart, then going through your side as the window shatters against you and you plunge down against its thick, gouging shards.” Although sometimes the opulence inelegances into the gaudiness of trying too hard, like when “You approach, unsteadily on the igneous plane”, the writing still crackles when the moody veneer is asserted selfsufficient.
But then the story balloons expository, bloating to explain who the Colibrians are and what treaties they’ve made and not upheld, thus this sharpness disappears into somewhat wooden banter, with aristocrats hmmph hmming how you might think they would, with soldiers more concerned with who hazes who than whether the war engulfs them, with your various relations being bores. To accompany this broadening, the cast of characters also widens, most of whom are hastily sketched in with broad strokes: “Uncle Graham, or Great Ham, as you call him, is inevitably at the long dining table, his mouth ingesting from a plate and his ears from the inexhaustible anecdote of Lavinia … Grandfather is accepting tribute from a fug of officers, while Aunt Marion, or Marry On, as you call her, is pointedly ignoring it all”. This flatness saps your investment in any of their subsequent shenanigans, and although there are attempts to provide twists, Aunt Marion is revealed as a skilled sculptor of previous lovers, none of these twists really broaden their remit beyond the eyeroll by which they are initially invoked.
Rather than complexifying the family dynamics through a wider canvas, the intermixing of the political with the personal proves artificial, rendering the latter vague through the interventions of the former. Take this dry bit of banter after Zoe’s mother, the editor of a national newspaper, approves of Zoe’s boyfriend: “”You’re the kingmaker,” you say, citing her nickname in this morning’s edition of Clarion Call, ostensibly in reference to your father’s conquests.” Turbulent emotions between family members loses intimate intensity when printed in the morning paper. Similarly, the supersoldier intrigue between the siblings simply dilutes their conflicted immediacy, as when a heated emotional exchange causes Zoe to remember her “psyops training” before responding. Naturlich, any successful family gathering requires a certain amount of psyops. Most frustratingly, the critical brother sister bond at the heart of Out of Scope zooms out too abstract as its spy thriller inclinations take over, leaving us with salacious descriptions of soldiery rather than their initial impactful solidarity. In the few breaths the story spares for the pair unimpacted by national security, we get more telling than showing, gesturing airily at letters rather than the roiling writings within, which is a shame, because perhaps some of its strongest sparkles exist in their tempestuous multifacets: “Remorse and the thrill of your own power electrifies you, and then together you burst into tears.” There’s a section in the sprawling labyrinths of the unfinished The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil where Ulrich and his sister Agathe dialogue into a heady and equally unsettling intimacy, and some echo of that would I think massively improve the reader’s engagement in the central themes of this work.
When it adheres to its fastest flowing currents, Out of Scope compels, especially with its excellently imperial diffidence to the moral difficulty of much of its subject matter, which allows its complications space to breathe. Indeed, there is a strong attention to preserving point of view, like a great line that translates its scenic lyricisms into a child’s voice with “fireflies playing freeze tag”. But the clean shot this style could take through the story blurs, and we get waylaid by brambling bumbles that add no hues to the bloom. Even the story’s presentation, a spatially exacting Prezi, overthinks the premise, adding little beyond Twine beyond dizzying clicksickness. The author displays much promise, but in this iteration, alas, the wayward breezes stray us from the target.
If I had to rank genres by personal interest, then “sex comedy” would rank pretty near the bottom, a fact which has proved surprisingly relevant this comp. As a resident Gijsbers scholar, however, I am dutybound to report on this newest addition to the oeuvre. Although lines like “He tries to escape from your hug, but you’re not going to let him. “Come on, mister So-Crabby-Tes,” you say. “I know what you want. You want to feel your little Xanita real close to you, don’t you? Real close.”” tested my resolve, sapping my will to click buttons, with a little assistance from my friend Pouilly-Fuissé, I performed my scholarly duties.
Beneath exhaustingly thorough banter about cows and infidelities, the dominating tension in Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates is between the Person Who Will Die and the people who tried to live. Socrates’ world historical commitment to persona, the totalizing symbol of his perfectly poetic election of death, clashes with his mundane obligations to those who shared his world: “He becomes animated. “A great joke! A joke for the ages! People will still be talking about it when…” / “When my name is forgotten and my bones turned to dust?” / He sighs. “Okay, look.” His tone is apologetic. “You have a point. But, see, it just went with the role.”” The disconnect between person and Purpose doubles the underlying gender disparity, that Socrates’ memory is built from His liberty of bickering round the town, while Xanthippe is remembered as any femalifying stereotype one might like to attach to the Socrates story. Of course, given he must bear it for only a few more hours, he’s perfectly willing to commit to the burdens of his role: “He raises his moist eyes to find yours. “No,” he says. “No. Even though I know I’m losing you, and you’re losing me, and although I know you don’t want me to go – see, I had to do it. I had to stand there and show the world what philosophy is. What it is to choose truth over everything else. It’s not some role that I played. This is who I am.” But this gesture, alchemizing an authenticity worthy to adopt, brutalizes Xanthippe’s grief, substituting the loss of her husband with this preening simulacrum. Her desperate attempt, in this last night, to beg from him some true connection, not with the Socrates who will die, but with the husband who once loved her, listened to her, pledged a life to her, draws out the embarrassing facticity of his humanness, gross and inadequate before the stylized portrait so soon he could assume. The silence between you grows; the philosopher doesn’t know what to say. “Your husband eats little, but he drinks all the more. Perhaps it will help him face the hemlock. But it definitely won’t help him face you.”
But is that really what you want, from the end of all things, to be some daunting reckoning which he must face as steely and certain as the one that comes with dawn? Isn’t there room, before all the lonely nights, for one last togetherness? Just the desire to be desired, is all, nothing so momentous, why should it have to be, isn’t the simplicity of your existence enough? Not before the one who chooses Death… wasn’t always like this, “he made you feel wanted. / And not just your body, but you, really you, with your desires and fantasies … And now that will all come to an end. He’s sitting before you, his face badly lit by the flickering oil lamp, and for the first time he looks vulnerable.” What can you rectify in a single night that took so many to wallow here? Is there any peace you can make stronger than utterly the grief, the end of things, the end of all your trying? Perhaps you have to accept fate, the fine ghost he will make. “I have a task, Xanthippe, and I was never free to desist from it.” You watch his resolve dissolve him, and you’re not sure that it wasn’t always this way: his path wherever it leads, your privilege merely the chance to follow behind. “He seems more than a little dead already, that husband of yours, huddled in a corner and neither moving nor speaking. Only soft, inarticulate grunts escape from his throat. His breathing comes heavily. He keeps his eyes closed. / You smile tenderly.” At least it was a journey, that’s more than most get.
Defeated, but refusing despair, you accept your husband for who he was regardless of you. “No more thoughts about death, then. We’ll celebrate life.” And, if it’s any consolation, some residue of your existence can endure in his carefully crafted immortality, the human remains of where he will not admit you: ““Don’t be sorry.” Socrates takes your face in his hands. “I’ve always loved you. I’ve loved you more than I thought I could love anyone. And, you know, maybe I shouldn’t say this… but without you, Xanthippe, without your love, your support… I wouldn’t have had the courage to walk the path that I did. To stand up to the people of Athens. To choose death.”” So your vow ends, an us merely a part.
So I was always bad at arts and crafts. As a kid, the things I made were noticeably worse than what the rest of the class made. Let’s make a little pencil case, they’d say, walking everyone through the first step, then encouraging us to start onto the second step ourselves, usually it was simple enough, but the third step, written so succinctly on the page, would balloon into multiple connective actions, all of which need to be operated in a sequence obdurately abstracted from the mishmash jamming of your increasingly desperate attempts to approximate what you’ve been told, until by the fourth step you’re forced to admit the irreconcilable gulf between the instructions and the wreckage in your hands. Step five: start crying until the bemused teacher rushes over to placate you by doing it all themselves as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
Finally someone recognizes the existential terror of the alienation between your consciousness and the world that DIY assembly inevitably entails. This game gives you an instruction booklet that seems simple enough, but slowly seeps in the terror as you notice “it does look a bit wrong upside down, like a turtle stuck on its back”, but you carry on until suddenly you realize something is terribly wrong, and the object becomes unstuck in fixed space, a sprawling ungainly realization of the ineffable Object that your hands could never construct, and as, desperately, “you reach towards the DÖLMEN, something shifts and settles in your mind, and you understand — it’s not a table, but a doorway. And the door is opening — / There are no words in your language for what happens next. There are no words for the way the world seems to come unstuck and peel away, though later it will remind you of the way an opening door shifts from a solid face to an insubstantial line.” Through the blur, probably of tears, possibly of tearing spacetime, you recognize that what whispers from the page is impossible for your representative comprehension to approach, an infinity of void which may as well be eldritch.
Assembly runs with this insight or joke or shocked dawning of a shivering fear or whatever you want to call it, throwing us into a hazy IKEA nightmare replete with cultists and noneuclidian geometries. With an inspired bit of banter, the narration rapidly unspools a cheeky backstory that resonates between its comedy and its subject matter so harmoniously that the result is postsatirical twilight of the gods panache: “In the beginning, the barrier between your world and the world of the gods is thin. You can’t quite tell who first learns to shape stone into the sacred forms that open the doorway between the worlds, or to perform the rituals that give the gods the power to step through: only that it happens in the northern corners of your world. And since humans are so quick to worship power, these rituals spread quickly… and the gods grow strong, then stronger still, until their hold over your world is absolute. / An age passes, and then another, and the faith of the people begins to wane; the rituals fall into disuse, the sacred monuments into disrepair, and the gods weaken and vanish from the earth. Some go peacefully, but others rage against their loss — and swear that, if that doorway were ever to reopen, humanity would not escape their control again. / Then, finally, a new age: an age of infinite repetition, of unbounded mechanical reproduction, of forms iterated out beyond imagination. These gods, and the few who remember them, have found their chance — for a ritual copied blindly from an instruction booklet, or a sacred ratio embodied in fibreboard instead of stone, still holds the same power.” You could build an entire Cragne Manor on this gag.
Though, alas, Assembly doesn’t. Outside of its occasional storybeats, Assembly stays pretty terse, focusing on its puzzling, which consists largely of hunting down gizmos to graft to your gadgets. You gotta mix and match parts from multiple construction sets like a frustrated Lego builder. Rather tellingly, there’s a section where you need to enter the darkness to teleport, which surely must be a reference to Andrew Plotkin’s So Far? So that kind of evocative setting as an excuse for tinkery inventory management seems to hit pretty much at par. There’s still some nice touches, like this line that plays nicely on the game’s core humorous recontextualization: “Some experts consider the term “henge” to only properly apply to an earthwork with an inner ditch, or apply it only to specific monuments in the British Isles… but your language supplies no better word for this wide, circular bank. The henge is piled up to about waist height with a colourful array of goods and other remnants of the market hall.” But most of your time will be spent looking at booklets, fiddling with screws, and wandering nauseously across a deliberately unintuitive map, all of which sounds quite thematic, but in practice proves mildly boring. There’s also a few elements that don’t add up to all that they could: like the first thing we need to build is called a DOLMEN, or a megalithic tomb, so you might think there’s going to be this sort of double entendre where the furniture we’re building is actually terrifying Lovecraftian whatevers, but by the end of the game we’re just building a WILLIAM? Poor little Billy, who’s going to tell him that he’s a cosmic demon altar?
So a lot of the richness of the concept lies tossed to the side like spare parts. But when it does push hard on its core idea, the results can be compelling. There’s probably no better description of the futility that I felt in those arts and crafts classes than this perceptive despair: “One by one, you dovetail each of the wardrobe’s side panels with the base. As you reattach the second panel, the space between them seems to twist away, as though rotating on some higher-dimensional axis, and the void fills with a profound darkness.”
Usually at IFComp there are several entries that laugh off the time limit and refuse to apologize for the scale of their ambitions. I like these entries! I wish there were more! How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title partially qualifies as a representative of this trend: it certainly has laughed off the time limit with its ambitious scope, but it does take a moment to apologize, offering a two hour intro sequence to the judges as a sampler of things to come.
This ends up being a mistake, because much of what makes the larger game shine fizzles under pressure. In its opening setting, the game opts for the low road in its brow, stakes, and fantasy. In the rush to build rapport, each of these qualities gives off a poor first impression. The low brow humor, when it needs to come flying out of the gate for its two hour showpiece, jesters into the childish: “In times past there was Boldog the Corpulent, whose exceeding ponderousness caused the throne upon which he sat to crumple and give way under him, sending him rolling ingloriously down the steps of the dais in full view of the court and certain foreign emissaries. His retinue loudly blamed the carpenter responsible for the throne’s construction, and posited conditions of dry rot, but the people knew there was just too much man on that throne.” Likewise, the low stakes and low fantasy, which scurries us onto a fetchquest for rutabagas, charms no novelty from copypaste text adventure shenanigans. If you play this game through its first sequence, you may come away less impressed than a deeper dive affords you.
Because the size arises not out of epic bravado but rather out of a porous ludicity that overfills the playspace into a meandering creativity. When the game can sprawl out and relax, its spirit makes better use of its low aesthetics. The silly humor squiggles in many optional commands that paintbuckets color on every noun, like when we find a horse: “You perform an elegant bourée with the horse, bow to each other, exchange compliments, and resume your previous occupations.” Quisborne delights in finding little opportunities to wink at you with a same wavelength camaraderie, be it either a haystack which of course means you need to find a needle or a bucket that you just know has a quip hidden behind kicking it. The glib cartoonishness provides a reasonable peppering of jokes that keeps the mood lively when the puzzles slant too serious: “You look up at the clouds, and there is writing in them! It says: “The answers will not be written in the clouds.””
Serious puzzles which are indicative of the grounded fidelity that makes the most of the low fantasy, inviting us to engage more deeply with the process rich physicality of the medieval setting: we travel to a blacksmith to hammer a groover on a horseshoe; we woodwork a mattock on the lathe to dig up carrots for a horse. Through these craftsmanship simulators, Quisborne firms up the world you explore to prevent the silliness from loosening our engagement into superficiality. No matter what jokes lay in wait, the certainty of place is sustained through a finely textured verisimilitude: “From where you stand, a frozen lake stretches away north into the hazy distance, majestic and mournful. The lake is very narrow in proportion to its length, and steep, dark-treed slopes carpeted with snow rise to considerable heights directly from the water’s edge, making the lake into a deep and snaking valley. The lake runs upwards of two miles to the north, appearing there to make a bend to the northeast and disappear behind the rising slopes of the valley.” Combined with the low stakes, where you’re simply wandering around trying to figure out how to scavenge items that can overcome obstacles, like your horse’s low traction on the ice, Quisborne succeeds as a summery adventure that always has something else to do, somewhere else to go.
That voyaging about, however, starts to spiral the game out of its comfort zone, and before long we’ve sailed past the low fantasy to mile a minute hijinks. No longer are we trying to craft horseshoes, now we’re summoning a chimera skungaroo to stinkspray a gargontosaurus or using a hot air balloon to carry Rapunzel along far enough that you can climb up her hair. At one point, as we enter a wizard’s tower, the diegesis breaks down altogether, and the puzzles go entirely abstract, tasking us with binary arithmetic or a strange stairstep letter puzzle that even the game struggled to explain. Rather than work out how to block a cistern, now we have to solve a captcha and realize that the word it spells is a series of directions that guide us through a labyrinth. As the crossmap puzzlechains gnarl ever more elaborate, Quisborne skates off pure momentum, blowing its tone scattershot. While this can be fun, with characters like Dvakred sizzling off the page, unsurprisingly some of the pellets miss, with the characterizations of the Tuttarumbish or Azhgalothis leaving a little bit of a sour taste.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a game this long, Quisborne manages to reverse the impression it makes on you several times. Does it manage to bring it all together in the end? Alas, it is not for me to say. My game broke down just after clearing the passage west across the landbridge, prompting this error message on every command: “We are truly sorry… we try our hardest to comply with your every wish, but sometimes we just find ourselves getting mixed up or confused. It’s highly unlikely that what’s happening is of critical importance to your mission; nonetheless, we must confess that the last turn may or may not have been fully carried out as intended.” At this point, my dominant impression was just tired, so I left it at that. One hopes, though, for Quisborne’s sake, that everything ends up more feckful.
So on one hand, this game gestures wildly at everything: our dramatis personae draws from history a la carte with random appearances from whomever seems like they could plausibly fill the role – there’s a French ambassador, may as well be Napoleon – so you get a strange eclecticism where Cleopatra chats with Rasputin about Audrey Hepburn; the plot sizzles with international intrigue, as multiple nations potentially engage in espionage over a Raytheon-led military project shrouded in secrecy, all the while snarled up with tawdry DC gossip a la the Petraeus scandal; there’s a multitude of meta levels that enjamb each other, like Antony and Cleopatra solve cases but then there’s also a TV show with the exact same premise as the real life duo, or how every historical character is both themselves and not quite themselves; and bizarre little details constantly unsettle the flow, like an offhand reference to a character wearing a Noh mask or the deliberately loose way that a foreign head of state seems interwoven with a classified state investigation.
On the other hand, however, rather than slosh chaotically between competing stylistic pressures, the game’s flat affect smooths over these discontinuities to make a mild matter-of-factness that equalizes every left turn into a neutral paste. Madcap juxtapositions merely provide the pretense for straight-as-you-go transcripts laying out a series of facts, not really building up to anything you could call a testimony, which you judge against the others. Characterization consists largely of wikiskim vibe approxies, though many interactions do not attempt at all to summon the historical person, using their name rather as a de facto placeholder, including our protagonist duo, who make little impression. The metonymy of the tone occurs when we visit a suspect in Alexandria, and there isn’t some grand attempt to capitalize on presumably-a-golden-reason-this-bizarre-combination-would-even-exist pun between the Virginian and Egyptian cities. The resulting flatness, beyond making you thirst a little pizzazz, also undercuts the two-player conceit, because neither perspective really accomplishes much that the other doesn’t, and the only real variable, a few moments where you can change the tone of a question based on who asks it, could easily have been achieved in a single player design.
Mostly the game persists with the weightless superficiality of a madlibs murder mystery, listing resinous references without their manifesting narrative consequences, although a few witticisms are peppered in to make some use of the setting, like this great line: “While you don’t necessarily have any issues with buying diamonds or gems with blood, as blood is an essential part of statecraft and a Queen cannot avoid it, Antony kindly explained the implications to an American audience.” Additionally, a few strong characterization lines help you parse the lineup, like this bit which purposefully ignites your suspicions: “His handshake is laser built to convey trustworthiness, vital energy, and a good-natured affect.” So electricity does carry down the line, even if it never sparks the story to life.
As the game ought, being so well engineered. The experience runs seamlessly, with live updates between clients, and a few interaction-rich collaboration points. The one bug we did encounter, a momentary disconnection from the server, ended up providing a positive moment of appreciation for the underlying systems, as we just clicked a button and were instantly right back in the thick of things. Presumably a lot of hard craft went into making the play experience so effortlessly smooth, and it’s hard not to be impressed with Twine as a platform in the wake of innovations like this.
There’s so much potential here, and the technical accomplishments of this game go a great deal towards establishing a solid foundation. As it is, though, the narrative on top doesn’t quite justify its expensive chassis.
The last several days have been upsetting, so I was attracted to this game’s “cosy” tag. The vibes were, as advertised, lovely. It manages to make a high stakes situation (I personally would be very anxious getting thrown into running my grandparents’ small business) feel, well, manageable. Felicity Banks deftly mixes in enough uncertainty and spice to keep the sunny pleasantries from glazing over into saccharine kitsch without overflowing into frustrations that might upset the mood, and the purling stream of minicrises keeps you flitting about ever so slightly frenetically to disappear the time as swiftly as a week in paradise. Add in a cute but not overpowering backdrop of romance, and you’ve got enough here that, when I reached the finishline, I wished I was only at the halfway point.
Given how swiftly the time escapes you, the game is well served by its fleetness in characterization. A small choice, like how you make your way through a crowd, leads naturally into a bit of insight into a character whose importance exceeds their screentime: “Granny nods in approval as you make your own path through the scrum. Going against the flow is certainly a family trait.” An easy economy that evinces the tightness of the design without drawing attention to itself. Our player character also comes across as having a distinct personality, even though they are largely a composite of our choices, because your choices always feel conveyed through the character, such that they can undertake your impulse but fail to embody the choice in a grounding way: “You spin around, almost falling over in the process, and half-scream, “What a beautiful morning!” / Sharon Dazzler rears back as if you’ve thrown Machupa at her. She gathers herself with a visible effort. “Hello?” / “Sorry,” you say. “It’s my first full day.”” The chagrin feels earned, because the choice makes us confront the fact that we’re trying to act in a way that doesn’t come naturally to the narrator, which is a fascinating path towards resolving characterization dissonance in a Choicescript style game. Sometimes, though, the game gets a little too glib in its quickness of character, leading to stereotypes that seep in some unnecessary bitterness. Surely it is possible to typify a teenage girl more thoughtfully than this: “A teenage girl who wants to catch the best photos and videos, and will cheerfully put her body on the line to get more views.” I get the mild eyerolling natural to the staff that have to cater to richer people at a resort, but this just felt a little unfair.
Still, the characterization does work its magic to forge connections between you and the characters in a vanishingly short amount of time. Like, I felt genuinely happy when I helped the Chinese family who were nervous about the language barrier to relax and have a great time. And the whirlwind of activities are designed with similar swiftness, able to capture specific moods and then immediately move on, like the nervous dauntedness that arises when you try to recall how to videos on tasks that feel way harder now that they’re real and in front of you and this has to work out: “If you’re going to convince a team of Health Inspectors that four cats in a B&B kitchen is a good thing, then you probably need to make sure that they’re not inclined to attack humans. You vaguely recollect seeing an adorable video of a foster carer changing a visibly diseased and furious stray into a loveable house kitty in a neatly-packaged seven-second video. It mostly seemed to involve lots of towels and perfect makeup.” Why do your memories about a thing seem so much more distant when you’re suddenly right in front of it?
Thus, even though the moments rush past, they still seem to linger, like this lovely line which gives us a sleepless night even though we click immediately to the next day: “He pulls back far too soon and looks at you as if he’s seeing a starry sky for the first time.” The sadness I felt having to slip away from this world coheres very nicely with our narrator, returning to Australia after their week abroad. As tempting as it would be to demand more, perhaps it is magical precisely because it is fleeting; stay any longer, and you might start to recognize you’re working a job. Better then to “quietly fade into the background, leaving Granny to deal with them all. It’s not your responsibility. / Not yet.”
So easy to hate. Orients your entire world. Gives you something to hold onto as you slowly lose everything. Because it’s deserved. Because you know what it is to suffer undeserved, so you have to believe in, if not justice, simply gravity, inescapable crushing weight sucking us all down. So easy to hate, because you no longer trust love, that there is even such a thing, colorless gaze of simply decay, nothing behind it but parasites.
They found your brother, “A bloated, rotting corpse. A parasite-ridden body. A centerpiece for nightmares. I’m sure you have enough of those already, her eyes say. When was the last time you felt safe in your own skin?” How you’ve, not always, you can’t stop thinking about then, known him. How you’ve snapped pencils in your hand wishing he would see in the mirror. How you’ve shocked awake at midnight. What you’ve wanted to drown, that there may emerge some part of your soul not sunken. “I don’t have to do this. I can go home right now, call the station and tell them to cremate the body. It’s not my fault he’s gone. / And I don’t need closure. I need him scrubbed from my memory with bleach and steel wool.” Don’t need closure, don’t need closure, need to believe there is a me that can still open up…
Looking at him, no, the text corrects you, the body, “There should be nothing left but venom.” But you want to be more than venom! You were never like this, you have never liked this. What if it is true that in the revulsion there is pity, in the hate there is, there is, what it overwrote, what you want to cherish like honesty, “Because I do miss you, but not you, I miss the part of you that taught me how to tie my shoes or drive a car. I miss when you were sweet to me. When you pretended to be. / And it’s not a question of mourning. Because you’re my brother. I’ll always mourn you, there will always be a piece of me that’s missing now that you’re dead. Maybe that means you aren’t dead at all. / And it’s not a question of love. I love you more than anything and anyone in this world. It’s unconditional. It’s maddening. I wish I could rip out the love I have for you.” Because at the end of the cycle of crying, your body loosens, your breath deepens, you remember the, you’ve forgotten it felt like this, desire to embrace, to love through the.
Because everything else is buried, why must you this inclination? Why is there never a gone that hurts you less than everyone else? Just because we desperately want to go doesn’t mean we want everything to go, just like that. “Age 18. I’d gotten accepted into a big name university, scholarship and all. My chance at freedom. (Three months earlier, Mom got diagnosed with lung cancer. You argued we both needed to be there to support her. And maybe if things were normal and nice, I would’ve agreed. But they weren’t, so I didn’t.) / She died before I could visit, so I never did. If I never come back, she’s not really dead. / (Well, I’m here now. I took too long and now everyone but me is gone, but I’m here.)” You are here, and everybody else just leaves, how is it fair they keep taking part of you to the grave, yet you still remain haunted by all you cannot, will not bury.
Not closure, but a shoulder, that tears might bloodlet in the warmth, keep your blood from freezing over. Because it keeps freezing over. Because it is so easy to hate, gives you someone to hold onto as you slowly lose everything. “He is dead. I am no less alone.”
The play within the play’s the thing to cache the context of the sting, so The Library of Knowledge nests its narrative inside a haunted echoarium. A library, with its trove of closed stories, offers an uncanny mediation in which the narrative’s desperate incantations can curl into a place outside of time, the breath between the storm: “The candlelight wavers, and then recedes, like an ocean flattening before a tsunami, twisting and turning through ribbons of bright emerald and heavy black smoke. Suddenly, it disappears, and you are cast into inky tenebrosity. You feel your breath exhale in the bitter, uncomfortable air.”
In this narrative layer that retains the immediacy of our engagement, we encounter the ancient spirit of Shaanxi, a primordial knowledge god, and beseech its library for answers to our questions, which, for a moment, are suspended unknown in the mist. If this sounds eldritch, as liable as Hermaeus Mora to opt into tentacles and terror, then The Library of Knowledge adeptly presses through the tropes to cast the scene to stronger, more compelling emotions: ““Sad?” Shaanxi gazes hazily away. “It did… for a long while I felt… lonely. I’d read every love story ever written, every ballad, every sonnet, but… I knew I’d never truly understand the ecstasy of being seen, the warmth of being loved. It was all just letters on a page, a vibrant world observed behind greying glass.” / “What changed?” You inquire. / “Well I suppose I realised something… Just like a mother loves her fresh-faced babe, I too love these small, funny, vibrant little worlds… And just as that newborn child will stare back at its mother, not being able to comprehend the vivid colours of her face or the workings of her brain, or how, when its older, it might call her cruel for not bowing to its every whim and whimsy, that child still loves its mother, its creator… in its own curious way. I do not need to be recorded in paper, for paper too will one day fade, but I am content if even tiny fractures of my existence remain in the memories of those who are worthy.” This touching combination of fear and heart pervades the library scenes to give it a lustrous sheen supernating the substance beyond tepid renditions of shadows upon shadows.
The strength of that combination supercharges when rilling through extravagant passages, like this one that builds nearly baroque in its transliteration of one sense into another: “Their piercing, visceral choir is constantly shifting… one moment it’s a harmony of wordless whispers slipping across oily scales or burning snakes writhing in agony, and the next it’s hundreds of mice scurrying across wet stone, and then it’s… is that laughing? Is it screaming? Is it weeping? The cacophony crescendos into a violent shrill that penetrates the deep of your skull, threatening to split your skin from bone.” Given how physical sound is, how you can feel music reverberating within you, this passage plays upon a twilight synesthesia primed to resonate within us. As with any combination, though, you have to remain careful, because it can easily trip too far in one direction and clatter the delicate mood, like this offnote joke from Shaanxi: “Hmm… ancient civilisation… world creation…doomsday…cheesecake recipes… Ah! The world of Elandris. Now, what specifically do you want to know?” But when it works, The Library of Knowledge enrichens its shadows with subtle shades of black in an oilslick rainbow gradient.
Which queues up the primary disappointment in The Library of Shadows, that this layer is just the uncanny mediation of nested narrative layers which prove not nearly as striking. In Shaanxi’s library, we read from two books: one about the world and one about the narrator’s life. The world book is just a loredump about a lightly fictionalized China and a heavily fictionalized Europe, a wiki summary made more egregious by the fact that most of this exposition ultimately holds zero bearing on the rest of the story. Like the provinces of the ersatz China are literally just Xinjiang, Jiangnan, Guangdong, and can stand in for themselves, while most of the original bits, like the Roselith empire, prove little more than backdrops. The entire world book could have been excised and you’d still more or less intuit the details.
As for the book of the narrator’s life, the strengths of the mediation layer’s prose rust, blunting into backstory blandness: “Over the next two months, Doi and Setsunai travelled by foot to reach the western border of Yanxia; the pair hiked over the winding waterways of Zhejiang, past the abundant rice fields of Jiangnan, through the blistering sands of Zinjiang, and into the rich coastal region of Shandong. / After some investigation, Doi concluded that the area most likely to facilitate her voyage would be the small town of Kowloon, which sat nestled in the Shandong caves. Due to the town being hidden away from nearby cities, and the convenience of being situated close by to the Spectral Ocean, which separated Yanxia from the west, the town had become a safe haven for criminal activities - specifically pirating and smuggling. / First, Doi visited the docks, and asked around for any spare work, citing their previous experience as a deckhand, but the townsfolk were suspicious of foreigners; they took once glance at Doi’s bright white hair and ignored her. So instead, Doi went to the tavern to play mahjong with the locals. She played precisely and shrewdly - winning enough to break even and then, as the locals began to complain, would fumble their next few games. Doi laughed alongside the locals as they all counted their winnings.” It feels more like someone’s relaying to me a story than telling me a story.
Given that these nested layers make up the majority of the story, ultimately The Library of Knowledge sags. Nevertheless, when it revels in its immediacy, The Library of Knowledge can spark out highlights that make the journey memorable. Even within the nested layers, pearls gleam that remind that, if the muddled whole remains inchoate, care and skill still enchant its turbid trundling.
A murdered god wanders Ancient Egypt to inquire of gods and royals the mystery of his death. Sound intense? Detective Osiris does gesture towards its stentorian drama, like when sky goddess Nut muses on the strained symbiosis between humanity’s voraciousness and the gods’ creativities: “When we first created the world, it was tiny. It was so small, but it had everything we thought that people needed. / And, try as we might to provide everything, the mortals just kept expanding their efforts. They wanted more. More land for farming, more troves of natural resources, more things to discover, more knowledge of the world around them, and its limits. / So we kept making it bigger. We added more forests, then deserts, mountains, the ocean. Before long the people began to divide into countries. Sumer first, then Elam, and here in Egypt. / Shai tells me that one day, many summers and winters from now, humankind will set their sights on the sky itself. By then, they’ll scarcely even believe in us, only in themselves. So they’ll seek to conquer the sky with elaborate machinery, forged of metal. When that day comes, we’ll have to move even further away, and build more, for them to explore.” As an apotheosized mortal yet to develop an aspect, this polytheistic cosubstantiation through ideal and iteration offers a dizzy array of thematic jewels to inlay in Osiris’ reckoning with the divide between earth and sky.
An array that quickly proves too dizzying, as Detective Osiris retreats from its scope, modulating down into chatty ditziness that builds color through silliness rather than through a sustained tone. So we’re assured that Anubis is “a very good boy” and that Geb, an earth god, is “laying on the surface of the sky, face down, ensconced in a cloud of smoke. I recognise the scent: Cannabis.” Any heightened urgency posed by the setting melts in conversations like when we ask Maat, goddess of law and justice, about our murder: "Osiris, you too are now a god. There’s no need to bow, silly … I cant do anything about it other than be annoyed and wait for the guilty party to die. Or I have to go begging one of the more powerful gods to intervene and, y’know, do a plague or something. In normal circumstances. But, your wife did some magic, bingo bango, you’re back as a god.” Despite this weightless levity, the game also never really settles into comedy either, unable to transmute cheeriness into humor. The few times it does go for a joke, the results aren’t exactly electric: “Geb rolls his eyes. “At night, I could be watching sex. So that’s what I was doing. When you were killed, I wasn’t looking in the right direction.” / I’m beginning to see some of the attraction in watching the mortals. For the first time in the afterlife, I truly grin.”
Despite its many tonal jumps, Detective Osiris never truly surrenders its ambition, particularly in a few passages of lyrical descriptions that flourish a lovely dazzle: “The crystalline surface of the sky is hard underfoot, and the air is thin. The sprawling country of Egypt is visible through the floor below. Ra gently guides his solar barque, carrying the sun, on an adjacent pellucid river. The celestial light douses the world below in light and warmth, but the temperature here is fresh, and the baked glass mezzanine sky smells like hot stone roads cooling in the night air.” Rather, the game is just kind of jittery and unsettled. Take its historicity as an example: there are some solid hits, like a shoutout to the much underrated Elamites or how Egyptians counted on their hands, and then there are some glaring errors, like mixing in Ptolemaic Alexandria with the clear Old Kingdom stylings. Sometimes these errors are so obvious that they likely are an intentional part of the silliness, such as the Sphinx’s joke about H always being in the middle of “akhet”, which is the transliteration of a hieroglyph. The result is an unevenness that never seems to settle into itself.
Whatever plays upon the surface, however, the underlying gearbox has no hesitations. The gameplay structure manages a clever magic trick of gently guiding you through an ever expanding playspace, keeping a firm control on the pacing of your journey without making you feel railroaded. No moment drags on too long, and the twist ending starkly reinterprets several of the characters you’ve met along the way. In this consummate craftsmanship, Detective Osiris manages a grounding that its narrative never quite achieves.