Continuity of place records the fragments we scatter within it. Though we can never create a complete picture of the peopling into memory, still it retains a frame, a reel of rooms we were in years ago, of streets we drive each day, of landmarks we never visit but which loom over us as if we belonged to its enduring, though we know we do not, and we find ourselves some place else, doubly alienated from the gone and the begone: “"I could never have left while there were more stories to hear, to learn, to catalogue and archive. Stories are so fragile, perspectives so ephemeral! They disappear and leave the world poorer for their absence. It doesn't matter that the void left behind will be filled by some new telling (which I will always also crave, and devour); must those stories be lost? Must there always be forgetting to usher in imagination?"”
The struggle to catalogue a lost place, and everything that was once possible in that place, animates our struggle against the obscurity of memory: “Even now I sometimes struggle to recall the actual events of that meeting and not the hundred ways in which I have told and retold the story in the five years since: to my friends and, later, my editors; to the research librarians and cryptobiologists I consulted in the dodgy underbellies of the academic-industrial complex; to the glittering glitterati of the donor class, those brahmins of the City whose funding feeds the fringe-work (performance, poetry, painting--even it turns out, mythohistoric research), fattening it up until it can pass as avant garde, or perhaps--if you're lucky--even "cutting edge."” Contextual fantasization of the known lost allegorizes the elves into a wistful wishfulness for what the past could have been like. Elves, as we learn about the wild idylls in which they lived, are ghostly redolent with elegance, an edenic majesty of sylvan urbanity. For example, the signage that litters our cities with lights is amplified in the elven fantasy as an ornate grandeur of authentic engagement through a rich tradition of textile artistry: “Three times as tall as they are wide, (which apparently made for a pleasant reading experience, according to the stranger) each panel had embroidered upon it a fable, folktale, history, or family story of the elven people. These were stitched, by hand, upon their homes and businesses, their temples and brothels; decorated the façades of every theater and every warehouse. They were the responsibility of the owner or caretaker of the building, and their upkeep was considered a civic duty. / "The embroidery wasn't pure Elvish script, you understand. Instead it partially converted the logograms you would find in the history books back into their originating imagery, which made for a more illustrative retelling than the written words. The creative process of doing so also allowed for a lot of artistic imagination: commentary upon and reinterpretation of those histories by the textile artists of later generations was not just permitted--it was expected, demanded, and depended upon."” The rigorous specificity of recall, giving us the dimensions of the panels, grants us the archival certainty upon which we can found a conjectural fancy, imagining the colorful whirlwind of centuries of compounded artistic tradition. The elves, in their heightened aesthetic, decorate the city with the ways that historical reinterpretation of one’s place within a city could stitch together the people who dwell according to those lines, who come to embody where they echo, a public celebration of creativity and identity of which we, bombarded by advertisements, might prove envious. Glancing around our own pale imitations, we can appreciate any illustration that paints their gaps.
Absence sustains fantasy through alterity, finally drifting free from the decay that defines our own relationships with place. The story of the elves appears from a stranger who emerges just at the point that the city of the present breaks down, fails to blind us with the lights that could outshine other ways of living: “Yes, that was it: a stranger met on the Night of Candles, when the runes and wards holding back the weight of the earth had collapsed, crushing the delicate pipes that snaked down from the northern reservoirs and cutting off the supply of gas for the City's lights. In response, the Guild of Engineers decided to use the recently-completed electroalchemical power plant, first of its kind, to relight the lamps winking out across the city. Overtaxed by the sudden increase in demand, the electroalchemical plant caught on fire, plunging the city into darkness for a second time.” Informational density sputters entropic through prose hinting at scenery only to burn it down, a series of details that matter and then don’t matter and then are replaced by other ephemera which matter, don’t. This cascade of replaceable things is ruptured by a dream of irreplaceable things, “a living gloss on the staid, hide-bound histories--more colorful and contradictory, fluid but also fragile,” a vitality that imprints upon the material, but which cannot be preserved, remaining only through traditions that persist from interpretation to interpretation, accreting substance and sensibility, a legacy whose self-referential loop reinforces their daised deserving: ““The elves held memory and history in the highest regard. Elven historians and scholars of archeology and anthropology were unparalleled; the archives they left behind are to this day considered paragons which every human library and museum aspires to match.” Curators of longing, their each attribute lovingly pinned by lepidopterist trivia endless teasing you through library stacks until you’ve finally forgotten where you came from.
The elegiac obsessiveness pierces the initial mystery of memory at which the story gestures, opting instead for a detailed civic engineering tour: "The elven architects were a bit different in training than our own stonemasons and master builders. Their tools certainly included the triangle and compass, but also the loom and the needle. They were mistresses and masters of knots and stitches, drapes and pleats. / “Each wall was made from many individual panels of fabric. These panels were of a fixed proportion, three times as high as they were wide. Toggles held the panels together, but could be undone to create doorways where needed or desired. Once a year, to mark the height of spring, every closure of every panel wall in Wild Idyll was undone, and the wind blew through the city unobstructed, blowing out bad air and spirits, blowing in the petals of flowers and pollen of new growth.” Before long, you realize you are being given a lecture, and it’s here that that obsession with lost elegance becomes reductively comparative to the present, a classicist sneer in Carrara marble against all the barbarians milling below, the refined traditions and courtly excess of the elves an ornate display with clear import: “you're not wrong about the preoccupation of Elvish with indicating status. Overall, that is exactly how the language behaves, and many newcomers to Wild Idyll found themselves in situations both ridiculous and tragic--until they gained a better grasp of the Elvish tongue.” The yearning for a past more perfect mimics the unidirectional polarity of majesty beyond your ken, with each superlative laurel of elvish culture forming a complexity that elevates the individual only through assimilation, with judgment scouring away any skeptical pull away towards the present: “"But you're right to notice that the simplicity of variants for 'hello' are a notable exception to the Elvish language generally. The vocabulary for 'goodbye' is unusual as well, but in the opposite way." / "In the opposite way, how?" I inquired. / "Well, where there were just three ways of saying 'Hello,' Elvish had 497 different words for 'goodbye'!" / "497? Really?" I said, skeptically. / "Give or take a dozen, I suppose, depending on how persnickety you're being." Their stare was expressionless and unimpressed by my skepticism. "Regardless, you must admit it's a lot to learn, and certain to be confusing." / The stranger steepled their fingers in front of lips pursed in thought. "Let me explain a bit further."” Unimpressed by your unwillingness to learn, the explanations resume, avalanching more details that absolutely will be on the final exam. When, reformed into being a better student, you start intuiting the next lesson with your questions, you receive converse praise: “"You are very perceptive indeed," they said, "and what you say is largely true."”
The vertex of a past whose loss is rhapsodized in fantasy and a didactic unipolarity of complex adoration appears, unsurprisingly, in a kind of colonial selfinvolvement: “"The last farewell of the elves was bigger than any one person's ending; it was reserved for marking the death of whole worlds."” A farewell to everything coincides with the disappearance of the elves, a farewell that we learn “is nothing less than the very name of this great City in which I live, this city of humankind, christened by the elves with their final farewell.” The death of the whole world, sighs the elves, as they leave a world which goes on without them. The perfected disappeared overloads the imperfect present into a selfevidencing symptom of degradation in which the humans, in their lessened aesthetic, become coextensive with the disdain that our companion holds for the loss of past grandeurs: “Their voice, when at last they spoke, was hushed at first, yet leaked bitterness. "Goodbyes are so...violent. So final. I hate goodbyes. I hate all 497 ways of fucking saying fucking goodbye. But especially the last one. I truly despise that word, because all it is, all it embodies is...cowardly despair. And when the time came, when my parents and sisters and brother and all the aunts and uncles; my friends, my colleagues, my lovers and ex-lovers; my queen, my lords and ladies of estate, the temple priests who taught me to read the history of the city in its fabric walls, the teachers from whom I learned everything--when every single one of them uttered that hateful word and left the world behind, left Wild Idyll behind, abandoned their--our--city!...”” Thus our stranger endures a stranger in a city no longer ours, the power of their history no longer power nor history.
The loss of the ours isolates the individual into a togetherness they have to share as a loneliness, a series of stories that have lost their binding, as when our companion recalls the noodle shop where he listened to the stories of his patrons is “Gone in the way that even the places you deem most essential--its greatest institutions--can disappear in a city. And that was how I learned a very important truth, that everyone learns, but each in a different way: nothing is permanent. That in a city, even more than the countryside villages and farms where I had lived before, change was the only constant; and the only way a city could stay alive was for it to constantly reinvent itself.”” The world’s going on becomes a death not just of you, but of us, of every specificity by which you were conceived, by which you could conceive others. “When a world dies it is so a new one can emerge, screaming, from its bones and blood.” And they look back on you, but you were never here.
Richard Holeton, John Barth of the Eastgate Systems era, is known for Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, one of those pioneering twentieth century elits which elicit as much effort even understanding what it is you’re reading as understanding what it is you’re reading.
If you’re confused, then good news, this work is based on the Winograd schema, an attempt to improve the Turing test by layering anaphora to charge meaning through intuited referential connections, a method of attempting to rigorize the metaprocessing of sentience. The problem consists in presenting a sentence with an introduced ambiguity that produces two semantically valid parallels, where only one selection is preferred by normative linguistic thinking, a la the original example of “The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.” The pronoun “they” can mean either the councilmen or the demonstrators, and each can be applied a proper verb: feared for the councilmen, advocated for the demonstrators. The normal reading that most people would intuit is that “they” represents the councilmen, so the supposedly correct choice would be to select the verb “feared.”
Like a lot of twentieth century futurism formalisms, the idea is conceptually entertaining, if not necessarily applicable, which means that it provides a perfect pomo playground. That The Winograd Matrix is structured through a series of Winograd schemas while also being about people attempting to create a narrative called “The Winograd Matrix” that describes the very process that the reader undergoes to read the work is all very much par for the course, leading inevitably to shall we say slapstick discursions on penises and winkwink punning from a Beau Drillard boy friend to bother the boyfriend.
Much of the writing whirls densely around polysemous references, internesting associated links that sometimes get four, five, six steps deep. Rather than obscurantist whirligigs, the prose notes the notches and mostly goes for jokes it also painstakingly notes, as per this riff on a Newton’s Cradle: “Drillard had given me the “executive toy” when I began my Double Home Confinement (following my so-called assault of Cofú the Intern) in order to, he said punningly, help keep me grounded. / “Executive Toy or Cradle Toy, Bo,” Jenny had asked Drillard, “—it’s certainly not for babies?” / Drillard quipped, “It rocks, baby!” Trying to be cool. Despite our being old friends, I’ve never liked the way Drillard winks at Jenny all cuddly and hairy like a bear. Less so since Jenny and I moved in together. Meaning I like it less so—he seems to do it more so.” This quirk of constantly interrupting flow with grins to the reader stacks up the clausal complexity with a ludic disdain for whether the whole thing should collapse or not, as when “it seems like the whole building shakes or shudders (Drillard would call it a structural destabilization)” intersplices images with abstractions generating conceptual distance in anaphoric twists.
When not going for gags, the order of the day is divorcee mundane: “Things started off pretty well. Jenny complained that I spent too much time in the bathroom (using it), or too little time in the bathroom (cleaning it); I noted her difficulty discerning which substances were proper vs. improper to put down the garbage disposal. Of course I brought up the hair clogging the bathroom drains. / The annoyances quickly escalated. “Speaking of hair [uh-oh!], have you thought about trimming your nose hairs?” Jenny said, and after a second glass of wine went straight to, “Were you raised by fucking wolves?” / My rejoinders (e.g., regarding her Chronic Inability to Take Out the Recycling, “Do you have a goddamn broken leg?”) were not well received, and in short, our Happy Hour Sharing Time went down in flames after only one week.” The clack of trivium trivially pursued stifles the emotion in piles of plastic waste that dulls us into a twittery anhedonia kept thrumming along Winograd forks by DFWesque jargon plasticity pileons: “My Double Quarantine means I cannot (a) set foot past my front porch into analog AmbiZone space, or (b) co-locate with another human in any public or private Holospace, without setting off my PanoptiCuff® GPS ankle monitor.” Arguing with your partner about petty grievances during lockdown serves as a basis for traipsing williesnilly through modernity (though not Modernity) dizzies, which provides the true core animation for much of the work, even though seeking a path through those dizzies towards restorative, gracious trucemaking remains the assumptive goal, chasing after the promise flickered briefly in lines like: ““Here’s to picking up the pieces,” Jenny says. She looks at me, and I look back into the deep pools of her eyes. I realize these three seconds or so are the longest we’ve looked into each other’s eyes for all these months of confinement and tension, suspicion and crime.”
Indeed, the razorthin relationships buried beneath nonrecyclable ephemera gets chapter and verse DeLilloan: “”Extruded polystyrene foam is 95% air, not biodegradable, and emits toxic fumes when burned,” I say as we extract mangled slices of pesto and pancetta pizza, flecked with Styrofoam, from the table cleavage.” Where the difference emerges is a semihopeful ethos of resistance, that sees the informational pressure as a zugzwang oppression in need of an extracontextual nonbinary flight, hinting at a devious compulsion of the Winograd presumptive choice: ““Multiple oppressive narratives that we’re complicit in co-constructing…” Jenny starts to say with exaggerated gravity—parroting Drillard, or parodying him, I can’t tell which. Then she shrugs, as if suddenly overwhelmed by the cumulative weight of it all. / “But you can resist,” I say. “We can resist, right?”” Not really, as when discovering a nonbinary choice spills out of the framework to simply end up spilled out: “In the end, I tear off my PanoptiCuff® ankle monitor and run down the street … I feel vindicated, but I end up alone.” Well, back to square one, I suppose; or, if you’re feeling generous, a “time-reversal symmetry” to the starting node of a Twine that interrogates the linear modalities of power structures as reproduced by a constructive agency in which we etc etc.
So, a whole lot of Stuff, certain to fill out some pleasant peer-reviewed riffery, but I don’t know that we need a Rube Goldberg Machine to tell us that moving in with a partner can be unglamorous. In many ways, this work echoes a lot of the tropes of academic-facing elit that I find annoying, in which there is more effort spent on conceptual innovation posturing than on the actual content. Because, as much as we can discuss the formalistic cunning of The Winograd Matrix, most of what it actually is is a series of super dated dick jokes; well, depending on what your definition of is is.
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.
You live in a city and it’s expensive to eat and it’s expensive to get around and it’s super expensive to live even though your apartment is a bathroom stapled to a bed but you’re glad at least you have it because when you went looking for places at your price range you were shown a room with a shattered window glass all over the floor and the guy said oh don’t worry we’ll repair it and there will be five people who live here and if you sign the lease today I’ll give you ten percent off rent um um um so you showed up to another place that looked like it was condemned and when you called the landlord who said he’d show you around he said the visit was cancelled as if he didn’t even know who you were but you have only a few weeks to find a new place and you feel like the walls are closing in in the way your smile overwrites when someone asks you how much you like living in the city oh you live in the city how is it what a wonderful opportunity there is so much to do in the city and i visited it once and we just loved it yes yes it really is a nice place i enjoy it and maybe at some level you do enjoy it even though most nights you come back from work with a paycheck that seems by the deductions and the work expenses to shrink each period and you should save money and go out less and everyone loves all the things to do in the city and really a ticket costs that much and maybe you should save by eating less but food is often the only pleasure you genuinely feel like the one moment you as an animal are satiated you like to eat but the food you’re eating is fast food it’s trash full of salt and fats and you don’t know what and your health is declining you don’t quite feel like you used to but you just like if you could just order a pizza several times a week that’s all you want is just to cuddle up and feel physical pleasure so that you’re not just sitting there alone in your room bathed in your phone’s blueglow staring at something in the darkness something in the darkness is more alive than you and knows more about you than you and night after night you converse with it this ambient hum there’s always the hum the hum of traffic night and day cars whining through your dreams and the hum of the grumble and whinny of the bus and the hum of chatter and the trains and the airplanes and the elevator and the bike bells and you once got out of the city and what shocked you the most was the suddenly earpopping veinquelling quiet.
““I really like Aegis-Liora,” you say. “The weather is nice and there’s interesting things to see…I could imagine myself staying here for a while.” / “Wow. I never thought you’d become so comfortable in the city! I’m glad you’re finally starting to like it. What have you been up to?”” Oh, just joined a new biotech firm: “Running programmed simulations all day is not the life you would have chosen for yourself”, but then again neural networks get a billion iterations and you’ve just this one and anyway this firm is great, you’re doing fine, you’re not even terrified or frustrated when your boss singles you out, more just kind of depressed, and anyway you kind of agree with him, maybe if you’re good enough he will like you: “Tobias is right; your proposal still has a long way to go. But the day will come when he decides there is enough room in the department’s argevan budget for a new funded project, and you are determined to be the first person he thinks of.” Everything is fine. Your boss asks you to follow them into the basement: “If the upstairs elevator resembled a crystal box, this one would be compared to a rusted cage. It clearly hasn’t been maintained in years; as it lowers you into the earth, its flickering light skims over the rocky surface of the elevator shaft, just barely illuminating it. When the elevator stops, you find yourselves on a suspended walkway.” It’s good like that’s fine this is a startup, gotta disrupt the industry, gotta be dynamic, everything is fine, just remember that your coworkers are not your friends and you cannot confide in anyone and just keep your head down and everything is fine and it will all work out and you really just need at least a few years for the resume then you’ll have the bargaining power to get a more comfortable situation and “Below you is vast rippling shadow—a shallow lake. The surface of the water is draped in a grid of stars, each purple point a ripening gem. It extends in all directions until the cave walls carve it a dark, jagged hem … / “Where is everyone?” you whisper. The faint outlines of dormant machinery hang silently above you; this cave is devoid of sound except for the low, distorted echo of faraway chambers.” And you’re not really sure about your company’s business plan, you think maybe, I mean you know we have to make a profit and all but “there’s no denying how unprofessional this setup is compared to the rest of the lab. You wouldn’t trust the machinery to stay attached to the ceiling if you had to work here every day. The air is tolerable for now, but the accumulated fumes from these argevan colonies could easily suffocate you given enough time.” But what are you going to do? Tell people? Who? “Your cousin Miriam is like an older sister to you. You could tell her anything. But you haven’t been yourself these past few weeks, and you couldn’t bring yourself to pick up the phone when she called, no matter how many times she tried to reach you.” Why would you choose to humiliate yourself by showing the mess you’ve gotten yourself into? This is all standard industry practice, every business is like this: “The underground employees have been trying to unionize for years, but every time they show signs of getting their act together, the company steps in to purge their leadership.” And besides you’re only “a lowly research assistant” so you have nothing to say about the company’s strategy, you’re just here to clock in and clock out and have an apartment and food and the hum.
“The lab is on fire. Most of the building is obscured by dark billowing smoke. The helicopters circle the scene, trying to put the fire out, but at this distance they look so insignificant, like flies hovering around a wounded creature. The smell is making you sick.” Um. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. “Under normal circumstances you’d never contact a stranger for advice, but from the way Miriam describes her, Rebecca seems to know her way around tough situations. I’m sure she would know how to respond to something like this. You find her number and send her a text” and get the heartswallowing reply: “who’s this? miriam’s cousin?” Oh god, oh sorry yeah, sorry, I was just wondering, but um thanks, never reach out to anyone, never reach out to anyone, it’s all just super embarrassing, everything is fine, you can learn to love being alone, and “As you go through the motions of your old morning routine, however, you feel that things are starting to return to normal” and “You read the signs hovering above the mass of protestors. PROSPERITY IN AEGIS-LIORA IS A LIE. YOU TOOK OUR HOMES FROM US. YOBEL IS BLEEDING OUR CITY DRY” and “we are an institution. We follow procedures, and we come to rational conclusions. We do things the proper way. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good” and “Wait, don’t I need to renew my lease by tonight?”
It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re okay. “You nod slowly, letting his words sink in. “That sucks,” you say. “Well. At least we have these sandwiches.” / “Seriously,” he says, taking a bite. "Eat your sorrows away.”” Your friend asks you why you first moved to the city.
On the first day of the Decameron, in which the storytellers engage on the theme of the social structures of religion, one story relates the tale of two friends, a Christian and a Jew. Of course, the former tries to convert the latter, and the latter promises to go to Rome to study the new religion. The joke is that the Christian immediately panics: if his friend goes to Rome and sees the absolute debauchery of Church leadership, there is no way he will convert. Boccaccio obliges his Christian audience, however, with a comfortable out: returning from his trip, the Jewish friend does convert, reasoning that if a religion can prosper when so poorly led, then it must be blessed by God. Boccaccio affirms the power of individual religious devotion as a power unblemished by the inevitability of corruption of religious organization.
Bitter Karella’s A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat denies this hope, trying to directly tie an aesthetic repudiation of Catholicism to the naivety and complicity of the believer. I emphasize aesthetic, because, besides nods to hypocrisy or institutional cruelty, the brunt of the ire is aimed, not towards any concrete element of Catholic belief, but rather towards a phantasmal essence of decrepescence within rigid hierarchy: “A wail goes up from a gang of nude flagellants to your left, their bodies oozing black and red, as one of their number slaps a studded whip across their backs. / To your right, a clot of pilgrims chants a Gregorian hymn, their voices merging together into one dull drone.” Straightforward associations of devotion as violence: a gang of self-harm, the stagnation of being into community. Position within religion blunts individuality, a pseudonatural harmony of roles with a prelapsarian absence of the human, where “a steady stream of priests” leads inevitably to you being “swept along with the throng.” An endless motion carried seemingly of its own accord, throwing bodies this way and that, Dante’s punishment for lust writ large. Industry on a mass scale, in which roles are inhabitation of velocity, a way you move through the world, and yet never truly is it you moving: “Priests and officials, many carrying stacks of scrolls or stone tablets, constantly bustle in one door and out another in a never-ending flow of activity” as they slowly build: “No man alive today will live to see the completion of this basilica. The construction will take decades, possibly centuries, but when it is done it will be a monument to the righteousness of the faith …” The underlying threat of all this motion is that if, for any instant, you stop, if your office no longer pertains to the maelstrom, then your role will drag you down to some subterranean terminus, where you shall officiate over the nothingness, as when we find one unlucky bureaucrat as a skeleton: “Presumably this WAS the administrative official in charge of the Imperium department de Lucifugia. It doesn’t look like anyone’s checked in on him for a while.” Stripped of individuality in a brutal, bodily process, you are replaced with a decay of officiation, in which your agency is repurposed as a tool, as when we affirm that serving the Church is equivalent to serving God: ““Well said! They ARE one and the same, aren’t they? So when you work in the interests of the church, you can do no wrong, right? And when a man can no longer work in the interests of the church, then that man can no longer serve the interests of God. Isn’t that right?””
The higher up in the process you are, the more you decay, yet the more privileged of the mire you become, as in a character lucky enough to receive a name, Henricus, whom we meet as “A tall, nearly skeletal man, dressed in white sacerdotal robes caked with black soot” with “a long sour face with rheumy bloodshot eyes above a beaky nose and a fringe of stringy white hair around his ears”, and just in case we didn’t get the point, we’re told “His face is smudged with ash.” He then informs us that St. Peter’s is not open for pilgrims, so “If you have a pennance [sic] to make, you can deposit your payment at any Mammon kiosk in the city." This is a nearly smothering level of camp, relishing expectations as they cavalcade, as when the payment to Mammon results in a rather unsurprising reference: “Below the imp’s mouth is carved the word INDULGENCES.”
The anti-Catholic tropes rattle off with such aplomb that one would envision some sort of Protestant jeremiad, were the story not at pains to connect its criticisms with a wider judgment of Christianity, as in the cat, who cites a number of unsettling verses about sexuality, regularly reminding you just how much weird stuff there is in the Bible: Onan, unsettling and dense Torah commandments, a hadithesque involving circumcision. The real target of criticism is not the literally monstrous clergy, who are machinelike tendrils of corruptions, but the true believer, whose quest dovetails with ours, as when we first meet him, and he enthuses: ““Can you believe we’re finally here? In the very beating heart of Christendom?” / God, this guy. He’s so annoying. You’re glad you won’t ever have to see him again.” However, we do see him again, deep beneath the Vatican, near the Pope: ““To think, we’re about to meet the pope himself,” says the true believer. “What an honor! And to be able to give the ultimate gift to God’s ambassador on Earth? What Christian could ever dream for anything more?”” After feeding his blood into the Pope, being literally consumed by the religion, he continues to babble pieties before being led away. The message of the story is clear: don’t be that loser! Which seems to me an unserious dismissal of religious devotion.
The story can rage itself into over-the-top condemnations which lose contact with substance and become aestheticized screeds connected to no particularly tangible criticism, for instance in the description of the Pope, surviving on the blood infusions of the faithful: “From this position, you can see the pope lying in his bed. He is so thin that even the soft feather bed bruises him, large purple welts spreading across his back and hips, across skin like paper stretched tightly over bones. His eyes sunken so deeply into his skull that they resemble empty black pits, staring sightlessly up at frescoes of cherubs and saints. His dry blackened lips have curled back from his teeth, leaving his mouth an open hole of blackness. You would think that even know he was already dead, but the physician in all his wisdom has detected the faintest intake and exhale of breath. The body is connected to a network of artificial tubes, plugged into incisions along his arms and chest, extending up to be lost in the gloom of the domed ceiling. Dark fluid circulates through the tubes, doubtless part of the physician’s plan to help the pope cling to life.” This visceral distaste swirls the story into heady fumes of recrimination, so that our cat begins to cite strange heretical verses: “You feel the cold of this place in your bones. You wonder if there something about this place, about being at this depth, about being thing close to the very epicenter of Christendom, that might be causing the cat to… / pick up signals that it shouldn’t be.” The disdain that drips through these descriptions culminates in the story’s final sentence, the nail in the coffin: “The pope has nothing to say.”
I’m not here to defend the Catholic Church, although I think the story comes from a place of dismissive incuriosity, which renders elements of its emotive verve jejune. Calling chants “dull drones” for instance ignores the beauty and intention that has been poured into a rich tradition of music; like, listen to how beautiful and sincere this is. However, the deluge of resentment spares no one, resulting in a rather distasteful application of the monstrous aesthetic to sex workers: ““Welcome to Our Lady of the Evening,” says the procuress, her piggy eyes gleaming. She licks her cracked lips eagerly, leaving a slug-trail of spittle.” No humanity exists here, not even for victims, who are, unfortunately, aestheticized in the story’s usual camp: “Upon the mattress is a slender young woman naked other than a scandalously altered yellow samarra cloak, decorated with red devils and dragons and cut so that you can see… most of her flesh. The left side of her face is disfigured by severe burns, her flesh scarred and blackened and oozing, her left eye a milky white. The flaming red hair on the right side of her head falls over her right shoulder like a crimson waterfall; what little hair grows from the blistered left side of her head is brittle and wispy.” But no, she likes being this way, delights in it, making sexual interplay about being burned at the stake: ““Tell the pope I DESERVE the pyre,” she says as she shoves you out the door. “And this time, tell him to make the flames hot.”” That this is an insensitive treatment of a grave historical circumstance is an understatement, but very well, there’s room for that in art, yet the dehumanization really seems to exist for its own sake: “her talons lightly trailing against your skin to raise goose pimples”, a whisper “hisses the whore”, it’s all a bit tasteless. The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended? I did not see what happens if you select the “virgin” rather than the “whore”, and I do not seek to find out.
I think these problems arise in part because the engagement with Catholicism seems driven less by polemic or emotive engagement and more by the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the caricature stylistics. The game seems to think of itself primarily as fun in the way that a haunted house is fun. Enter into the spoooooky Vatican: “You pass though [sic] another gate, this one carved to resemble a hellmouth, an image in bas relief of a grinning demonic mouth chomping sinners between its teeth.” Religious terror, it’s a carnival ride! Catholic traditions, like the release of differently colored smoke to indicate the status on electing the next Pope, are ripped out at random as set decor: “Great plumes of black smoke are visible from behind the walls; occasionally a sudden burst of new smoke is accompanied by a cacophany of inhumanly high-pitched screeches.” All the appropriations create a successfully disturbing Catherine’s wheel, but perhaps with a bit more patience and curiosity, rather than only a suffusive delight in plasmatics, the animosity could be channeled more purposefully. As it is, we have a German Expressionist nightmare, in which you can choose whether to delight or despair.
The hardest part of the day is the alarm, the moment when an internal world shatters under the invasion of a contingency of compromises, obligations, alienations, austere actuality in which what is hidden is suppressed, in which what matters is imposed, is erased by the imposed. After you manage to stir out of bed, then momentum takes hold, you stream down the river, unable to hold onto anything, you are thrust towards an endless depth we know will one day swallow us, but there, before all the fractious and fracturing, in that serene moment you lie where dreams still suffuse about you, you can almost believe you elsewhere awake, spared in the glossy otherwise, commingling of toucheds, what is more powerful than a dream shared?
Fandoms create communities of possibility out of a shared passion, in which we can exist more real than real, hyperreal. Enter into this new world, the Shadowverse, in which new powers take hold, truths denied in the silent austerity of other communal interpretations of reality can flourish. “You scroll through your dashboard for a few minutes. Nightblogging has begun. People all over the country, all over the world, all connecting for a few brief moments to revel in their love for a certain media franchise.” Strewn across continents in isolated pockets, far from friends and family, we craft little homes on an internet so vast and inhospitable, dreams we inhabit long into the night, a life more real than the moonlight stark machinery of living.
You fill your home with stories, a framework in which life can flourish afresh. Fanfics create characters as avatars, inviting you to inhabit their world, with physical attributes like hair color being worth repeatedly stressing so that you can identify yourself in a representation: “the blonde boy”, the girl “with raven black hair”, where do you fit in? Take a “Which Nebulaverse element are you” quiz to solidify an identity in the terms of a shared communal referent. Who am I in the context of this fandom? How do the stories told herein create a language in which I can be told? When I get a “Stone” result, perhaps I can see it in myself, it almost feels true, I can reach through the arbitrary shifting layers of fandom lore to discover some underlying seed (totes a Stone thing to do obvs #StoneArmy #StoneAugurs #QuizLyfe #Shadowverse). Immersion in fandom as a kaleidoscope by which to grasp unexpected elements of your generatables. “You know what you are, deep inside. You contain within you a seed, the germ of an entire story, the story of your life and the stories of your world. It will take root one day, and it will germinate, and it will change not only you but all those around you. You will become someone…” In a fandom, the community builds, story by story, a liveable fantasy, dreams intersecting, even in contradictions, an artifact which grows deeper, more real, more human, more capable of your humanity, the more you lose yourself within it. This is a real place, with real people, with its own digital landscape: “Online weather report: vibes steady. Chance of callouts: <1%. The blogging equivalent of a bright, cloudless summer day.”
The fantasy recasts itself back on the real world, granting us the terminology to rephrase the terrifying and chaotic contingencies of history into a cohesive storyline: “Does anyone else think that Gali’s character arc in Book 4 is a metaphor for the Obama presidency? Think about it: the heir to the empire sacrifices the Administrator (academia) and betrays Astra (social programs) in order to suck up to the fascist dictator Ariel (the GOP), who feels an irrational loyalty to the Demiurge (Reagan), a figure whom Ariel does not truly know or understand. / Gali then goes on to confront Tycho (the increasingly dispossessed and disillusioned middle class) and Bruno (Bruno), and is increasingly becoming distant from the Creator (true leftism), who nevertheless has an unreasonable amount of trust in him despite his failures at enacting the Creator’s goals. / It just makes too much sense.” It does make too much sense, but isn’t that why we need to believe it, out of fear of the other option, that it all just makes no sense at all?
But, more importantly, the fantasy recasts ourselves into the real world, as one fanfic writer discovers: ““Are you okay, Gali?” asked Astra. “You haven’t spoken this whole time.” / “Y-yeah,” she replied. “I’m okay.” But the secret weighed heavily on her mind. No one knew that Gali wasn’t a boy anymore, but they would find out soon enough.” Using the comfortable and familiar as a way of processing the difficult and unknown. “What is the “true nature” of a person, anyhow, Gali wondered. Was there some essence that made her, her? Were there alternate versions of her?” Using the colors of a new world to paint ourselves anew, to discover portraits we cannot see mirrored in old containments. Possibilities furnish us with vibrancies that seem to thrum stronger than our own pulse, a system of magic powerful enough to capture our most arcane vitalities: “Astra pulls you by the arm, from the library you found yourself in, through the sunlit corridors of the academy, to the labs where she always seemed to make her home. Metal magic courses through labyrinthine machinery, illuminating the otherwise bleak surroundings in a dazzling prism of color.” And yet it remains virtual, both fragile and powerful. In a message between you and Luna, you briefly discuss real life, come to disappointing conclusions, then swiftly retreat back into the safety of the virtual. You’d rather speak the language of the Shadowverse.
But you can’t hide there forever. Is there any way to inhabit alterity inside the numbness normative? Our intrepid fanfic writer seeks to discover it, writing a fic in which the Shadowverse characters enter the real world, experiencing it as a strange place, an uncanny flicker of the escapist dream struggling to reintegrate, to find some way to approach the real world with the identity constructed in the fandom, hold together the power and meaning of a community as it glitches out of its phantasmal surface, creeps into the way you interpret your own world: ““So, how do we get back to our world?” you ask. / But before anyone can answer, then you begin to taste cherries once more. You feel a falling sensation. The two girls disappear from view. It, whatever “it” is, begins again.” What is it we are immersed in, and why is not us who are so immersed?
The real world is creeping into your safe harbor. You wake up and log onto your fantasy world only to see that it has fallen apart in your sleep, you sift through the shards, try to put as many of them together as you can. Waking up again and again, day after day, trying to subsist on the new content, to feel real within it finally, even as you see others disappear, as the world seems no longer to open up through the fantasy, the fantasy is collapsing, you are simply in the world again. Nothing is real, everything is simply real. In the despair, can you cling to each other, rebuild safety between each other? What happens when the online world proves as dangerous and hateful as the real world? The fandom shatters as, a la Rowling, the creator threatens the canon with their flaws. We watch Luna panic: “So I got called a brain-dead degenerate by gtm. Fun fun fun fun fun I’m fine I’m doing fine I’m doing fine I’m okay I’m okay” The virtual is always contingent upon the terms under which we are allowed to participate. The ability for others closer to the heart of the fandom to nullify our participation, to cast us out as a deviation. How our real world status continually reappears even in the depths of escapist fantasy. All of these painful ideas are doused in gasoline and set alight by the weird obsessiveness of online hate comments, the way such messages feel almost unreal, demonbabble of some gremlin latching onto your consciousness, how so impossible it seems that a human being would actually write something like that to someone else, and yet it happens en masse every single day on social media, that terrifying mediator, in which are we constantly gauged as products: “You’ve gained 1 follower and lost 2 followers, for a current total of 109 followers. Your top ship has been inconsistent, which might have lost followers. You haven’t been reblogging enough posts, which might have lost followers.” Social standing as marketing. The extent to which your brand appeals to consumers. What does it mean when a foundational element of human connection is the Like? Every statement measured by the extent to which it wins us approval. If they don’t like you, they will turn on you. You will lose everyone. You will reach zero and be judged deserving.
As the digital too denies her, we follow Luna’s confrontation with the lies that have overwritten her, as she tries to reclaim the self she constructed in the terms of the fandom, even as the fandom dissipates its power, becomes a hostile noland. Our own fanfic empathizes, as at the end of an adventure, a character says, “Yeah, Capella told me about what happens with you wanderers when you find yourself in a world in which you’re no longer needed, where you don’t belong…” We understand that we must be able to survive this shattering, that we must become more than this place: “Capella stares at you. “Sometimes I wanted to stay too. Sometimes there was a place that seemed good. But it was always too good to be true. I don’t know how I ended up here, but… something felt right about this place. Maybe you’ll find a story of your own one day.””
And yet, how do we sustain ourselves without the magic that once empowered us? Born into a new name, yet struggling to reframe: “@icemoongirl: sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about without the n*bulaverse fandom stuff like, providing a guide.”
Who can speak, when the language is lost? We can only follow our passions one at a time, as in that first album by Lorde that this story delights in referencing, a fragile beauty that has never quite been recreated by her subsequent albums, yet which can still sound within us eternally, remind us of a time when this passion gave us the life and color we needed to make it just beyond the riverbend.
Neural network image generators, with their dreamlike quality of semi-figurative outputs that have been processed through deeply uncanny layers of inscrutable mediations, the genuine beauty of something produced without intention towards the beautiful or the genuine in objects which never cohere, impressions that give an impression without having been left by anything, raw data composed into vector graphics, the feverish feeling of plumbing it deeper and deeper but never quite reaching anything; there is no there there; the map is not the terrain.
Universal Hologram delights in this vibe, not just in its AI-generated images, but in its refusal to underlie its vibes with coherent aesthetics or commitments, a purplish nutrient paste that has some ideas or whatever, and I mean that whatever literally, here’s how the story frames its climactic moral choice: “Gen wants you to take our little simulation-container and remove it from the grid. Then, they want you to bestow that Terminal grain of yours back into the simulation, like an inheritance, so the folks inside can move in the matrix and visit other simulations or whatever.” Yeah you know man, just like, you can change the universe, if uh, if you’re into it, or…
Most characters are like this. During a heady conversation about astral projection, dialogue like ““No, dipshit. You’re a rudimentary sentience in a computer simulation experiencing a facsimile of a fake ancestral phenomenon.” / “Oh, that’s right. We live in a highly realistic simulation, and everything we experience was programmed by someone in the actual real world.”” syrups into ethanol, a simulacrum of human dialogue. Basically every serious conversation is a weird mash of Big Ideas and a slacker ennui that assures you that it’s so post-post-ironic that it couldn’t possibly care, as in this expositional shrug: “Here’s the state of things: in the original, actual, material universe (let’s call it U1, or ‘universe one’), that is, the universe that is currently simulating our universe (U9), there were some morons who imagined it was possible to project their spirits/souls/astral bodies out of their physical bodies and into the energy plane or spirit plane, and then they could float around and look at stuff and shit.”
That’s not to say the characters necessarily need to take anything seriously. The game’s vibe works to the extent that it effuses its computer hell tone, with gleeful distortions of familiar inputs, like this description of gun-soccer: “Soccer was a video game popular among foot fetishists. / A gun was an L-shaped piece of metal that produced a loud noise and the death of one or more people.” or this hilarious description of paper: “Our ancestors on Earth used to harvest a renewable resource called “wood” and smash it until it was basically two dimensional and then dye it white. The resulting substance was flat, smooth, and capable of lacerating human skin.” When the descriptions wheel free of all earthbound concepts, it can become delightfully machinelike, truly synthetic synaesthesia: “You float peacefully, drifting slightly on the Z axis in the astral breeze.” and “At each point when a U-level is breached, you hear a brittle click and watch yourself rise up and out of a series of brackets. Each function containing other functions like a fractal, onward in each direction: too tiny to see where you’ve been, too enormous to comprehend as you move further toward the outer edge.”
However, the game’s thrusts towards the serious feel clunky precisely because they clatter into the miasmatic eyeroll of images. This is not exactly elegantly delivered exposition: “Dion sighs and gestures you into their room. They drag two battered chairs over, and the two of you sit. / “Gen is our universe’s messiah. Without Gen… well, it used to be called the ‘Simulation Hypothesis.’ Now it’s confirmed fact. Gen proved undeniable truths about our reality, and then also gave us an entirely new way of experiencing it: through the Terminal, and later, when that become inconvenient, through astral projection.””
The result is like if you took Brave New World, used it as an input for a neural network text generator, then collectively had your Discord channel edit the outputs into a Twine. We have some similar concepts, the idea of minimizing suffering through the technological attenuation of existence to mere basking, but interlaced with a surfeit of cyber-sorta-punk internetisms. Thus, some of the disconnect is intentional, as grand philosophical gestures like ““Well, for example, there were huge protests on Earth when wild animals were chemically sterilized and allowed to die off. The amount of potential suffering in a wild animal’s life is enormous, of course, but there were many who felt that there was something inherently good about the natural world.” / “Something inherently good about suffering?”” set up our narrator’s childlike inability to process these thoughts: “Dion, that story was a massive bummer.” So we have the stage for a character arc, which sort of happens, as we have our consciousness digitally overwritten to be capable of entering an underlying digital layer. But for the most part, the story relishes its condemnation of our accelerating naivety: “Light, please, uh. Stop emitting light.” An inability to conceive of light except as a command, a variable to turn off and on. Our narrowing band of experience compresses us into binaries, even as we glimpse the grandeur that lies outside: “Your mind springs out of your body, rocketing forth past whirling clusters of stars and technicolor twinkling flecks of astral energy. / In the distance, beings made of pure light and pure darkness traipse between constellations.” There is so much noise and color, and if we could just find a way to navigate the between, enter into the place where “The door opens on an expansive, brightly lit room filled with humming white boxes. Simulated worlds inside simulated worlds inside simulated worlds.” perhaps we could entune all this chaos into genuineness, contact, humanity, something transiently biotic in the endlessly replicating machinescape kaleidoscope: “The tingling, searing sensation fades. You take your hand back. The residue of the gel leaves a wet handprint on the plastic.”
Universal Hologram, in that mode, scintillates with an urgency that it shunts off into nervous laughter. “The light goes dark, and inside Dion’s room, you hear unintelligible screaming. The Internet communicates differently with everyone.” And if we could, as a tone poet, reach through that communication, render the screaming intelligible, there’s a chance, not for redemption, not for healing, but for a transformation not merely translation, an escape from the cycle of rebirth. The story stands as a touching testament, a story that can reach through all these mediating layers and achieve it, the touch, touching, the chance to connect to someone other than online.
In this fragile world, how can we cling to our seams, hold everything together? Falling to pieces in the absence of the smile that used to hold everything together. Lives are built by those who fill it; how do you rebuild in desolation? Not the same life, not the one that rings in your mind memory after memory, beams that glimmer through your sinews so briefly you barely have time to register the rusts.
There you are, immersed in the economical dreaminess of the child’s eye view, hardcoded networks we lose as we learn to stitch together the world as adults: “The front yard is green and has lots of grass, but you’re not supposed to play there.” Everything latches together effortlessly, the world overgrowing always with new thoughts, new rules, simply Russo and Liz as they wheel out into ever opening possibilities: “Her legs are longer than yours so she catches you and makes you it, and then you’re too slow to catch her so you don’t feel like playing tag any more now.” The way children apply inflexibilities, certainties that as things are, so they must be necessarily, in the core of their beings these things entwined. Things just are, as a pagoda that defies the reader’s capacity to imagine it, which just is, as if there is no reason it could not be: “The pagoda is made out of concrete and looks like a little temple … It’s maybe half as tall as you are.” A toy pagoda made out of concrete, like a garden sculpture, but one that’s half the size of a child? Maybe the disjunction of a dream, the way our memories overload with presences, as in the aside ellipsised from the quote earlier: “(“pagoda” is probably the fanciest word you know right now, though there are lots more to come).” Your memory is flickering, things are appearing which should not be there, as when we try to GET ON SWINGS: “Wait, there wasn’t a swing set yet when this happened – my mistake.” The future is invading; there’s something wrong; we feel a sting.
There you are in the bay tacking to the wind, Russo and Liz deluged in a turbid stream of sailing terms immersing us in the quiet industry of movement, a ballet gauntlet of cues demanding poise, demanding you ride the stream as if you were generating it. Movement that can’t be explained, that supersedes every action, an orchestration. We are plunged into the unspoken connection between two twins who are in the sea both unified and utterly alone, an elemental dialogue. “You play the sheet out an inch or two, loosening the jib. Liz sees what you’re doing and adjusts the mainsail to match.” Everything rushes forward, you cannot hold on, the linear progression of the game, its mercurial and impatient parser, feels like its racing along without you, annoyed at how you’re slowing it down, and yet the momentum is too much, you cannot let go, you cannot let go, electrified suddenly with the sting, you try to heal it, but still the world comes back together in a light voice: ““That’s salt water, genius,” Liz says.”
And yet the world pulls. Liz returns from France, and Russo takes a moment to explain how much he missed her. She half laughs it off, again excitable Liz against the trying to be gracefully perpetually dismayed Russo, who, “as Liz has never tired of informing you, you are lame, and after sixteen years you’ve finally learned to embrace it.” And yet the world pulls. “Since summers stopped being sailing in Nantucket and started being bussing tables on Long Island, you’ve stopped liking them nearly as much.” Soon, Russo will be cast again upon the whirlwind zeitgeist in which across continents we are stranded with only a phone to communicate with those whom our hearts hold closest, though we admit this bridge does not hold, with Russo supplying reasons why he cannot call anyone on the phone, how he, jolted with the thought of Laura, decides to let the silence swell.
To fill the silence, as Russo gets older, the prose starts to presuppose the listener, reflecting a growing selfconsciousness, a nervous enmeshing of everything in a skein: “Liz’s stuff is a) hers and b) honestly pretty boring, just clothes and jewelry and that sort of thing, while her room is almost always c) a godawful mess, so you don’t see much reason to go in.” Things have to hold together, there has to be a way to fill in the world with details, details that stay where they are, that do not vanish, per this sentence which tries to ensure the reader’s brain buzzes with connections: “There’s no reason to go down into the basement. It’s small and unfinished, crammed with boxes and pieces of furniture that your mom couldn’t find a place for, plus the laundry machines. The only interesting thing about it is that it gives onto a crawlspace running under the rest of the house, which you spent a bunch of quality time in when you helped your uncle install some security cameras last month (the neighbor kid was sneaking in and stealing cash).” Russo’s repeated assertions that we should not pay attention to the basement collapses into his breathless attempts to fill it in with details. Everywhere a story to be told oozes glue between seams, and yet they widen just as Russo reaches a story so poignant, one he relishes being able to tease Liz with forever, we feel it, the stinging, the fraying, and the reader finds themselves in a house unwelcoming, with furniture that holds no stories, not for us, a place in which we feel like a stranger, in which Russo’s thoughts are, much like House of Leaves, “jammed into a space too small for it”, a house so much emptier on the inside than the outside; is it so strange, then, to expect the sting, to see it coming, to simply put on a sweater first to protect as much as we can? And the voice rings true from across another distance, even as it falls into silence: “There was an awkward minute when she asked how things were with Kaylee, and when you said “fine,” she got a little intense and asked if you were really happy. Even you could tell your “yes” was unconvincing, but while Liz can see through you as easily as you can see through her, she didn’t call you on it, just said a couple times that you deserve to be happy, and then let it drop.” The way we overcompensate for distance with sudden thrusts of intense emotional intimacy…
And the memories cannot hold, we find Russo in a post-pandemic world, and yet there is something the present holds: “Since last March, there are fewer cars and more people in your neighborhood, which is about the only thing about the past year that’s a change for the better – well, you revise your thought after glancing down at Paria’s belly, maybe one of two.” Russo goes through some names, deciding why they all don’t work. Paria and he go for a pleasant walk. And yet there is the bitter sting, but this time the world does not fray with the sting, the moment holds on, the memory holds together, because there is something to build a life with, and you can see it there, already filling up the world with stories. There will be someone to tell this one.
Putting together a resume is soul crushing, literally, it crushes your soul into one page of paper which in ink which may as well register parish burials dissects you into places you have been, titles you have worn, activities which once you tried to pretend to yourself that you did. Your time is eaten, your life elided, and what remains is sheer time, what to the machines all this sound and fury signifies. “The days all run into each other these days, and it’s hard to distinguish time, at times,” Laura Paul writes, muddling expressions with definitions to merge them in a haze. From this month of that year to that month of this year you held this title: because what else, where else could you have gone?
Jackson hears in himself a call that he chases, never reaches. Every freedom sought seems in its own way a constriction: watching others swimming naked, Jackson grumbles, “I’m supposed to just strip down and expose myself to these perfect strangers? Maybe if they stay away from me for long enough I can endure this.” The freedom you cannot have and do not want. This commune, high in the Black Mountains, seems alive with possibility; several times the novella links you to Wikipedia, inviting you to immerse yourself in the endless interconnection of knowledge forever floating within this web in which are we enmeshed, teasing you down lanes you can pretend leads you to a story that will make you feel less alone, though time and again you feel more, more, ever more alone, as every home reminds you you do not belong. Greeted with a bit of hospitality, Jackson immediately reaches its limit: “Standard’s kinda been peanut butter sandwiches and brews around here, but it does the job.” An invitation that puts you on edge, reminds you that your presence is provisional on your ability to provide, as indeed Jackson feels always upon the limits of what this place can provide: “I thought it’d be a bit nice to get established here, but now I’m not so sure I want to contort myself to fit into this place, and my fate is definitely not going to be dependent on whether or not I earn a college degree.” The specters of freedom loom their constrictions, with the futures you cannot project upon such space, with the fear that you are fleeing something you cannot always escape, because, perhaps, you are this very fear: “Part of me wants to run and flee and drive away again, an old me, a deep reflex hidden in the shadows of my heart. The person I couldn’t accept, the person I no longer want to be. I leave the door open, unlocked, and let whoever sees me see me and whoever finds me find me and I am what I am. A man with irrevokable [sic] visions, one of the thousands, or millions, that the system forgot. I won’t run this time though. I’m going to stay. If not with this place, then with these people.” Commitment to continuity despite the disjunctures inevitable; desire that something, anything remains of the dream, that it is not all just waking up on another tomorrow, that it will not end up dry ink on dead tree, that anything exists into which you can slip, discover some other way to live…
That the story does not find an answer is germane to its cigarette jitters vibe. We get a notional hope unwavering: “We’ll spread, we’ll head in opposite directions, alternate directions, separate paths. We’ll keep going north until we end up at the bottom of the world. We’ll keep going as long as we need, until we maybe end up right back where we started. We’ll convene again.” Yet this is but a Pynchonian entanglement of karmas, with its hope for futures, with its understood pessimism that they shall not coalesce. To some extent, this very despair through hope seems almost the theme, as we might surmise that our Jackson upon the cutting edge of 50s American abstract art is, perhaps, someone we already know, perhaps a Pollock to whom such a statement might seem apt: “I pretended there were no hallucinations, that there were straight and firm lines between real and imagined, what was perceived and what others told you—and I found that there wasn’t.” That Pollock dies in a car crash, that he finds only death in his wanderings increasingly drunken, well, at least he painted it first, how many of us can say the same?
Still, one wishes perhaps a bit more stability from this work, that it might not so easily shiver off the hook. Every sensation, every concrete attachment to the world, is doubted: “I’ve made it to Texas. At least that’s what the signs say.” Insofar as there is a bit of roadtrip propulsion behind it, this jitteriness can work out well, as in this sentence that manages to anxiety its way into an impactful thrum: “But after driving through both sunrises and sunsets, there’s a tunnel, no light but a tunnel, and then there’s light, there’s the light, the trees, the leaves as I speed, I speed on down 40 to someplace Jim calls home.” When, however, the momentum sloops languid and sentences double back on themselves to no avail, the result tends towards bumbling ramblers that trip and stumble and stagger and splat: “Bluebird hasn’t been showing up as frequently though, from time to time I don’t hear from her at all. She doesn’t call out my name anymore, I don’t hear my name. That’s why I have to write everything down now. I have to write everything down now to find her, to remember what she said, in case her voice has left me for good. I think she hasn’t shown up now for almost twelve days, at least that’s what the scribble on the back of the discarded receipt in the glove compartment said the last time I checked. I need to review everything I wrote down to make sure. I can’t help but think she’s disappeared completely without a final message I can hold onto.” At the core of this is an efficient subtlety, but the writing is too committed to a confessive effusiveness to apply the red pen. The novella is bloated with such sentences that do not quite achieve their effect, for instance: “Other times, I’d be sleeping, but sometimes I’d be awake.” which doubles us back onto an idea that perhaps does not require elaboration. The novella’s structure itself commits to this impatient effusion, as when we suddenly deal with the possibility that the college could close down despite never having attended a class. Lines like “I had just come to terms with myself here, the ultimate shape shifting of my mind” ring false when basically all I’ve done is refuse to skinny dip. A bit more patience could really help to sell many elements that feel tacked on, like our partner Ashleigh or the hallucinations of Civil War soldiers.
Yet I did feel worn down through the story, matching with Jackson in how little, by the end of it, we could harbor any desire to trace another road, to seek in a destination all we will never there discover. How so much roadtrips remind us we would wish for nowhere other than home! Fear and anxiety overload the reader, as in the razor’s edge exchange with the gas station attendant, as in Fielding slipping away only to appear out of nowhere to offer you a beer; the fear of the open road, the anxiety numbness that cakes up within you from constant threat assessments. You are not safe; you are not welcome; you are not anyone; you are only motion, and yet motion is perhaps freedom pure, the jinn that cannot be captured in any stability, as when Jackson admires more the flight than the foundation as the college disintegrates: “But it wasn’t that I had never found happiness, it’s that I never found the end.” And, for us at least, it is the end. The wandering has to be enough. There can be no line to the page to contain us when we are the quill.
“We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” – Seneca the Younger, Epistula LXXXIV.
Passion is the rain that has kept this garden flourishing. Interactive fiction could have long since desiccated, forgotten save for a footnote, a subject suitable only for archaeology, and yet we live in the midst of its glistening fruits, a victorious riot of life and color that seems to defy the surrounding desert: whether the Promethean fire of Inform 7, in which this work is written, or the tireless work of volunteers who have kept competitions like ParserComp alive, in which this work was submitted, the story of interactive fiction dramatizes the quest of an ever fluctuating community to preserve from the entropies and centrifugies of a chaotic digital age this delicate and beautiful artform we love.
One of the most human and touching contributions to this quest is Brian Rushton’s ongoing project to meticulously document his devoted and meandering journey through huge swathes of interactive fiction past and present. IFDB currently has nearly 9300 reviews; 2244 of them were written by Rushton. No matter how far afield you wander on IFDB, stumbling upon games by obscurity long since swallowed, you will still see a flicker of life, a fingerprint of a wanderer before you: Rushton’s careful, thoughtful, and gently curious review. Isn’t it poignant for a game released decades ago on a platform no more to an audience no more by an author no more to have its spirit captured in conversations afresh, stirred by the industrious Mathbrush, who, like a guide through a ruin, points out to you each artifact and how it worked, what it meant?
A curious evolution of this pursuit is the way in which Rushton has allowed his love for the medium to guide his own creations into a surprising but satisfying metafictional bent. Whether it is last year’s The Magpie Takes the Train or this game, Grooverland, we find his works increasingly incorporating love for the medium into their own warp and weft (warp especially, in the case of Grooverland). In this melange of Chandler Groover’s vivid fantasias, Rushton places us in a Groover-themed park that grows increasingly sinister as the night deepens. His games have been transformed into amusement rides that terrify and, if necessary, delight. We have an Eat Me cake, a Midnight. Swordfight. laserfight, a Three-Card Trick three-card trick, and, of course, our trusty pal Toby from Toby’s Nose. These attractions invite the player to dwell not just in the particulars of each reference but in the lushly bleakly ludic mood that pervades the entire paresthesia symphony. We’re forced to consider the invisible sinews that tie these games together into a cohesive whole, a play of light and shadow that grows increasingly fraught until we no longer seem to be playing.
The shifting amalgamation of locations and play patterns can loom overwhelming, but Rushton introduces a clarity of purpose in the orderliness and smoothness of the design that makes the dizzying delightful. The map is laid out on a central road, which keeps us oriented through the park and allows us to switch through multiple attractions with ease, as many puzzles require. A plethora of neatly sorted hints keeps us from getting lost (except on the occasion it tells you to get lost). An exhausting amount of polish eases the player through the entire experience and makes exploring and dallying enjoyable. Rushton clearly has spent a lot of time and energy to make this game shimmer.
That sheen proves rather necessary through some steep puzzles. The Midnight Laserfight sequence was deeply confusing, with so much to track, so little of it explained, quite a bit of clutter, and a throughline that would terrify Euclid. While I understood after the fact what I had been doing, I confess I had to cheat a little off Mike Russo’s transcript (you should read his transcripts by the way, he’s got a wonderful dry wit), since the hints here got locked up. Some of the puzzles require you to go through multiple locations to succeed or require you to have sought out and noticed objects you might not have noticed, so the nudging about when to keep trying versus when you need to be doing something else entirely was very much appreciated.
Some of the puzzles were really clever, like when you have to play the creaky house like an instrument, but some of the puzzles did feel a bit perfunctory. I felt the menagerie puzzle, where you just wander around, read signs, then crunch some numbers, to be a little unengaging, especially when you have such theatrical creatures all around you. Like the skull scraper, about whom the menagerie keeper jokes, “He likes to get in your head. Don’t let him.”, is a very evocative element, but you don’t really engage with it, you just look at a sign that plainly informs you what kind of food you should give him. How much more fun this puzzle would have been if these animals were as interactive as the petting zoo animals from across the way!
A lot of the writing can feel equally perfunctory. When we ask Dad about the pipe, we get this sentence: "Sorry, Lily, it’s sad the pipe is clogged and we can’t see the rest of the park.” That’s pretty much equivalent with “I don’t have anything to say about that.” Similarly, when we ask Wade about David, “He just points to David, who’s right in front of you.” While that is nice state tracking, nevertheless it feels like a missed opportunity. Given the nightmare jollies that Groover’s oeuvre oozes, the fact that so many characters seem muted and mechanical creates a disjunction that flattens the experience. I get that the sheer amount of dialogue written into this game makes it impossible for every line to zing, but I think the lack of technicolor pizzazz is the vital element that keeps this game from truly accomplishing its ambiance.
That’s not to say that Rushton doesn’t pepper the game with some great quotes. I particularly enjoyed the silly but sinister response when you ask the jelly man about himself: “Jelly is my name and jelly are my ways.” This quick quip belies so much depth that makes this incidental character rivetingly enigmatic. There’s also a fun subtheme about Lily taking a lot of silly classes: when we try to burn something, “You promised your competitive barbecue coach that you wouldn’t burn things outside of competition.”; when we try to attack a character, “Your karate instructor made you promise to try to find a peaceful solution before attempting violence.”; and, the funniest of the lot, when we try to take something from a character, “You promised your pickpocketing teacher that you would only steal in class, and mom’s present list seems to belong to Mom.” We also get some great descriptive lines, as when we get lost in the corn maze: “You travel for what feels like minutes, but the sun is already setting. Then the moon rises, streaks across the sky, and sets again. The sun comes up again, then down, over and over. But it isn’t the same sun. It has grown fat and swollen, ready to burst. The moon crumbles. The stars fade. You close your eyes and run until you find yourself at the demon again. Such is fate.” There’s something so enchantingly weird and hallucinatory about this paragraph, yet it also manages to come across as exhausted, drained of all color. That’s a difficult combination to achieve, but Rushton does it here masterfully. Finally, there’s this line when we enter the creaky house, which makes great use of surprise italics, then pairs it with a punchy understatement: “You can hear something howling outside. It might be the wind.”
When the game comes together in an otherworldly climax, the intensity of its atmosphere pressurizes with an emotional punch, as Lily must sacrifice the last remaining vestiges of her family in order to try and preserve something, anything, from the imminent collapse into pure paradoxical nonness. One by one, Lily’s sister’s bracelet, her mother’s present list, signs of the love in which she was once immersed, are devoured by the dream, and we instead must confront the violent denouement of our inability to hold on. While I would have appreciated a bit more emotive verve in this last section, Rushton does a good job handling the underlying philosophical stakes, and, while not eliding it entirely, he does evade some of the more boring Manichean tropes the game threatens by adding nuance to the roles of the Mirrored Queen and Scarlet Empress. Moreover, I appreciated that this central conundrum pertains to the rest of the game, that we feel that their battle is actually present in each turn we’ve taken along the way.
If Grooverland is a game that is simultaneously ambitious and perfunctory, then it is in keeping with the conflictions innate to such a work, so animated by the drive of passion as it careens through the frictions of creation. Beneath the writing, the puzzles, the polish, we get a sense of Rushton as both charmingly starryeyed and inordinately weary. Perhaps, in that, he captures here the very dichotomy that underpins so much of interactive fiction’s history: dreams of enchantment underpinned by the exhaustive labor necessary to keep the spirit alive as everything threatens to fracture forever.
For all the mystery of the terminal, for all the mindboggling puzzling, perhaps Zork can be best captured in a dream: the homebrewer designing dungeons digital, an infinitely malleable systems engagement through which we like archaeologists wander awed at the dizzying gauntlet of implementations lovingly crafted by capable hands day by day, week by week, feature by feature. Architects without bound, homebrewers build and build, until the building itself becomes an act of worship, passionate and moonmad adding wing upon wing, floor upon floor, baroque cornices of night after night of dreaming what ifs, achieving what ifs, and if MacBrayne’s Somewhere, Somewhen seems lost in its own momentum, ornate spires shooting spectacularly out of metal frames, then it is this, not the lamp, nor the magnet to get the iron key, nor the maze, nor the inventory limit,nor the heady interpolation of magic and tech, nor the brazen disregard for continuity of place, that most evokes its Zorkian lineage.
This game, our author assures us, “was written just for fun in QBASIC64” with a parser that, it hastens to add, “is fairly sophisticated”. I agree, it is rather impressive for a homebrew, with some sophisticated possibilities for multitier commands, with only a handful of oddities (you can’t examine an object until you TAKE [IT] FROM [CONTAINER]) to have survived the rigors of implementation. There’s also some really nifty but somewhat extraneous features, like a variety of reassignable function key hotkeys for common commands, which is exactly the sort of rabbit hole that can easily drink hours and hours of a homebrewer’s development time. The game also bends over backwards to ensure the player has a smooth experience, boasting not only a set of in-game hints (both implicit and explicit), but also a complete set of maps and even a walkthrough.
It is perhaps unsurprising that all this homebrewer enthusiasm for systems polish glistens over a game that is frequently jarring and obtuse. Some of this is just the map: we have a central hub that gives way to six scenarios, but they’re not really scenarios, they’re just areas, there’s really not cohesive themes to them. That would be fine, except that traveling between the hub and the scenarios is confusing and tedious: you have to say a spell to unlock one scenario at a time, which then only has one exit, which is hidden in often confusing ways, and you must loop through the one way trajectory in order to traverse from scenario to hub to scenario. If, say, you accidentally enter the wrong scenario, just the headache of trying to find your way out again makes you wonder why moving through the hub needs to be so clunky and difficult! Compounding this frustration is that you do need to frequently travel between scenarios: like many IF games, you’ll build up a list of unsolved puzzles and go spelunking elsewhere to find the items that might solve those puzzles, but there’s also an inventory limit, and there’s many more items than are actually useful, so you’ll constantly be backtracking, which means going down the well, crawling through the hole, saying the right spell, wandering back through a spelunk of rooms, then tying a rope to a hook, climbing back down into the hub… you get the idea. Over the course of the game, you’ll build up a veritable arsenal of leftover items in the hub location, looping endlessly back and forth and back and forth as you try items J, K, and L on puzzle H. Trudging around this game is actively disorienting and disheartening.
Which is a shame, because the puzzles themselves can be rather clever. I particularly like the musical puzzles, which start with a light concept, but then build in complexity to a satisfying climax. For instance, you find a tuning fork set to C, then you find a door labelled C. Get it? Hit the tuning fork, and the door unlocks. Later on, we find a note saying “I NEED FED”, which is actually an instruction for playing a nearby instrument: play an F, then an E, then a D, voila. It’s always gratifying when a game trains us to think in a certain way, and then actually rewards us in multiple situations for thinking that way. Several other puzzles require some enjoyably lateral thinking, as when we’re given the password hint “Male bovine’s visual organ”, which seems like it might have something to do with the witch’s brew of ingredients we’ve been assembling, until you realize the password is just “bullseye”!
It’s good that the game has several charming puzzles, because the puzzling is clearly the intention of the game. There’s not really a plot: out of the blue our nameless adventurer is whisked away from “a deserted country road” to a “hemispherical chamber”. Why? Just to do some puzzling, of course! A voice informs us “we have sought one who could help in our time of need, and you alone have demonstrated the required intelligence and skills”. Finally, my PhD in the humanities is getting the respect it deserves! They want us to return an artifact, but when we find said artifact, an examination garners the response that “There isn’t anything notable about the Ibistick.” So like, don’t think about that, it’s not important, just get to puzzling. There’s also not much of a world to inhabit here: the rooms are a fugue state so mercurial one gets rather mistyeyed in nostalgia for Silent Hill.
Moreover, the prose, while chatty, is usually focused on providing the player with the information useful for the puzzles. This is kind of counterproductive for a game that’s happy to stretch out over a large amount of unnecessary rooms with objects that serve no purpose, it’s not like the game is going for a graphing paper aesthetic, yet nevertheless the game cheerfully motors along, giving us a number of rooms that are described as “spartan” except for the one or two interactable objects. The prose, where descriptive, generally focuses on neatly ordering the gamespace. Sometimes, however, the prose gets perhaps a little too chatty and clatters through redundancies with indefatigable aplomb. We watch a door “undulate and become almost like a fluid”. We find ourselves “at the southern end of a tunnel which therefore passes northwards”. In a rather egregious example, we find ourselves in a Cramped Room: “The light from your lamp demonstrates that this chamber is so cramped that you feel quite claustrophobic. The walls close in on you, and the staircase which is right in front of you, leading the way up, tantalisingly beckons. Beside you there lies a red herring.” Counting the title, that’s five times it tells you the room is small, thrice it nods you up the stairs, and for the coup de grace a literal red herring. What makes this description even sillier is that a different room tells us that “The walls and ceiling seem to cram in on you, and it’s fortunate that you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.” This is either a mistake or some incredibly advanced state-based character arc subtlety!
Despite these stumbles, the prose can prove charming. When we encounter a hovel guarded by a keypad, our protagonist finds it “a little bizarre that high-tech mechanical sophistication such as this has been installed in an attempt to protect such a down-market and tumbledown construction.” I quite like that phrase “down-market and tumbledown construction”! It rolls off the tongue with an aptly tumbling momentum, slyly flashing fangs acerbic. I also liked this little line, which adds an enchanting flourish to the waving of our wand: “As you wave the wand you are almost immediately enveloped in a bright cloud of mauve-coloured mist in which little sparks of fairy dust scintillate and dance all around you.”
The game has a pervasive disjunctive jauntiness that pleases even as it perplexes, refusing to make sense, but never disrupting the whimsy dreamy puzzle befuddles. Somewhere, Somewhen embraces its weirder threads: for instance, the game splatters magic and machinery together with a deliberate delight in how they conflict. One puzzle in particular, where we have to dress as a wizard, fake beard and all, in order to fool CCTV into giving us access to an inner sanctum, is joyfully idiosyncratic, blessing this bizarre line with a middle school theater kid’s ebullient confidence: “Thank you for requesting entry to our inner sanctum. Before being allowed to proceed, your identity as a wizard must now be confirmed. Please look at the camera directly and remain very still as the scanning takes place … The scan has now been completed. Your identity as one of our brethren has now been confirmed.” It’s actually kind of adorable.
That offbeat charm ends up giving the whole experience an exuberance that blunts its rougher edges. Perhaps that’s par for a homebrewer’s passion project! We get plenty of cute details, like ASCII graphics for doors and books, including one sequence where we have a keypad that actually displays the numbers we type into it, as well as many items being ACME devices. It can be easy to get frustrated with Somewhere, Somewhen, but it’s hard not to forgive its wobbly weirdness when it is delivered with such sincerity and with an admirable amount of polish. The joy of the homebrewer who builds and builds is to take the player by the hand, lead them through their project’s winding corridors and lavish follies, lead them right into its heart beating with the devotion and affection that kept them going through months of grind, then turn around, smile, and simply share somewhere, somewhen.
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I think one of the reasons people are so nostalgic about 70s/80s text adventures is just how inexplicable they were. Alluring magic of the poorly lit room deep in the recesses of a university far from your hometown, where glowing terminals, buzzing and beeping, linked to impossibly complex networks of wires, built into a Stongehenge metallic, promise the intrepid student a strange array of secrets, some of which you surreptitiously at 1am log in to play, files mysteriously apparating from the nonnet, from who knows where, written by who knows who. As you play the game, you’re forced to surrender your normal common logic, your usual language, instead communicating with a dense and rigorous system of life and death, where success lies tantalizing behind obtuse, opaque inference matrices…
Entrancement of the inexplicable beguiles us through this strange, spartan affair. Based off Marko Kloos’ Frontline military scifi novels, which appear to have a reputation for being light on plot but heavy on events, Return to the Stars offers a no nonsense prison escape “puzzlefest”. I use quotes here, because you’re not solving puzzles per se, rather the game experience mostly comes from trying to figure out what set of commands propels you forward through the rather compact gamespace. It’s exploratory, even sometimes gently so. Like for example here’s a puzzle: you’re in the control room, and you need to find a keycard for later in the game. The main scenery in the room is a control panel: “The walls are plastered with screens showing video feeds from throughout the facility.” That sounds like a wall-mounted display above a panel featuring a few dials, right? Well, it’s not, it’s a desk, and you need to look under it, which rewards you with the keycard. This puzzle asks you to look at your surroundings, and most of the puzzling comes from the fact that it’s described in a way that might prove confusing. Here’s another puzzle: you’re presented with several switches with alien labels. You might think you need to pull them and then explore to see what they do, right? Well actually you just need to go to a storage room, get your armor, then return, because apparently your armor translates the alien language. (How does that work you ask in vain, imagining perhaps a slight buzzing in your sternum as you suddenly just know what gthyunibekzuut means.) If you flip the switches without knowing what they do, you get no result, but as soon as you can read them, now they have an effect. Again, you’re not trying to figure anything out, you’re just exploring a space and seeing how it changes as you acquire more items. These aren’t really puzzles so much as they are progress gates. While in theory such a system could work well for a military thriller, where you’re trying to catapult yourself through a series of rooms at high speed, tension always building, there’s not really any tension here: the prison is mostly abandoned, you’re exploring at your leisure, the only time you encounter the aliens is near the end, where you engage in a brief shootout, then you’re right back into exploration.
That exploration is where most of the puzzly nature of the game comes into play, as the pathways in this game are complex and disorienting, though not necessarily for any hypergeometry alien lore reasons, but simply because of the mercurial construction of the gamespace. You climb into a pair of vents, crawl into an installation room, where you climb a ladder into a control room, but then you go south along a corridor and end up right outside where you started? And if you want to turn back to the control room you just left, rather than going north like you’d expect, you actually have to go west. Then, when you manage to get out of the prison block, you’re in a place where, besides a few buildings, “You are otherwise surrounded by water,” though when you examine the water, “You can’t see any such thing.” So you go down towards the water, where “A small dock extends into the water, away from the rocky shoreline. The shore, populated with buildings, lies a few hundred meters to the north.” But when you examine the shore, “You can’t see any such thing.” Confusing! But perhaps we’re meant to understand that the shoreline is a C shape, and we’re swimming from tip to tip of the C? But then why plunge into the dark alien sea? Like I think I prefer a stroll along the beach to fending off whatever may lurk beneath the surface? But no, you dive into the water, then walk through the darkness north for several turns, then voila, you’re now on a different part of the island. Shall you realize that you forgot the keycard in the prison block and need to return, then you can climb the cliffs to get back to where you started? I suppose that’s what you get when you employ Escher and Moebius Architects to build your prison.
You might think from these points that the game is frustrating or dense, but actually it’s rather laidback and genial. The plot consists mostly of your objective. At the beginning you’re told “it has been three days since your captors last fed you – or given you any attention, really. If you are to leave this planet alive, you better find a way before you starve…” So you get the sense that maybe something has gone wrong, and the base has been rapidly abandoned? That sense builds as you wander around more and more of the area and find no one. But then there are aliens, just like, there, in a room. So you’re not supposed to worry about where the aliens are, don’t even worry where your comrades are, don’t think, soldier, just move. Indeed, a slightly garrulous military mood is perhaps the connective tissue the game presents: our primary flash of character is an offhand comment that “In all your years of military service, you’ve never felt a desire to move up into the officer ranks yourself, even though there were plenty of open spots in the newly-unified military.)” So I suppose our protagonist possesses a master sergeant mentality. But you’re not meant to suppose that, the game mostly shrugs off every question it raises, who’s paying you to think, give me some PT soldier, hup two three four! Again this game stresses a certain tension and forward momentum, there’s even an oxygen limit and a timer which decrease ominously on your status line, even if perhaps you’re not immediately threatened or compelled to make progress.
The gunmetal gray aesthetic extends to the prose, which gives us the thousand yard stare on its finale: after finally commandeering a ship and making your daring prison escape from this alien planet, our master sergeant stays focused: “You push your doubts aside and follow the pointers provided by you armor’s computer system. Half an hour later, you have safely left the atmosphere and have settled into a stable low orbit.” Shortly thereafter, we get our victorious denouement as we at last return to Earth: “Despite the prospect of hours upon hours of debriefings from all levels of command, and probably military intelligence as well, you are glad to be back.” Epictetus would be proud.
I have to admit that, rather than being put off by all this head scratching uncertainty and flatness, I actually found it sort of endearing. That’s especially the case because the game was clearly built with love and care: we get an author’s note describing how they’ve dreamed of making this game for several years. We get some lovely little details, for instance if you destroy the camera in your cell, then when you examine the control panel, your action is remembered: “One feed is missing – presumably yours, considering that you broke the camera in your cell.” Several synonyms and alternate constructions are smoothly implemented, and the parser does point you towards the constructions it wants on several occasions, so I never felt like I struggled with the parser. The hint system is really excellent, with four to eight hints per puzzle all arranged neatly in a menu. Welcker wants us to enjoy our jaunt through this tautly crafted military escapade, and who am I not to oblige? Like the IF aficionado of the 80s, holding a diskette mailed from across the world, seeing text appear on my screen, living suddenly in a computerized world where simple sentences are enough to energize my imagination, I cannot but find myself entranced by the inexplicable…
“They’re a funny lot over in those parts. Superstitious. Someone’s hiding something; don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.” The English countryside, where something always seems to be lurking. Wander far enough afield and you find wicker men burning. The thin facade of modernity breaks down as the first “roundbarrow” emerges from the South Downs mist, the lands become primeval, its inhabitants tied to the earth in mercurial rhythms you have never learned in your airy palaces of dissociative steel. You encounter these worlds as did the first Romans, from whom the outlandish stories of wicker men are derived. You are an outlander; in these people, who were sufficient without your existence, who intend to remain so, you encounter your presence as a stranger thing.
It can be easy, of course, for us to act like the Romans, or those descended from the third Troy, and fear the other, be convinced of their attachment to the past as a malevolence towards the present, as many of these stories do, from The Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz, yet Merriner, with vulpine cunning, twists the story into something more thoughtful, less judgmental. First, Arthur internalizes this disjunction rather than phobically externalize it: we see him entering the village with the sneer of modernity: “He drove through, enjoying the gawping of the villagers (whom he assumed, rather condescendingly, weren’t used to seeing such a fashionable motor vehicle)”, yet over the course of the game his self satisfied bleeding edginess must be worn down, through the encounter with the supernatural inexplicable to his certainties, to realize how much he doesn’t know, how much he needs to learn from the locals. Tellingly, it’s this very point of arrogance, his pride in his car, that receives a due comeuppance: Arthur needs to travel around by bicycle, but it’s slightly busted, so he has to sheepishly ask the groundskeeper to do a trivial repair for him. It becomes rather apparent that Arthur, rather than parading hotshot hauteur to the awe of the locals, is a bit of a bumbler, with his desperate attempt to meld in with the locals in the pub proving sufficiently disastrous to dredge up your own suppressed memories of extreme social maladroitness. If Arthur wants to succeed on his quest, he must first surrender his superiority, seek humbly the wisdoms he has lost. Second, rather than the English officer of the law coming into town to suppress anything that cavorts a bit too Celtic, we get a story of a vicar whose new age appropriations have caused havoc, forcing Arthur to work with a local folk healer to reset the spells of old. This story is a celebration of traditions and cultures in a world beset by the whirlwinds of modernization, and we come to appreciate the elaborate histories which help Haelstowne cohere.
Haelstowne, both Nether and Old, the villages in which the vicarage resides, are patchworks of time, redolent with the scars and marks of eras that have swept through this place in the centuries it has through plague, famine, and war persisted. The vicarage, like the pub, like the church, like every building still mustering the courage to stand, contains the bones of predecessors: “The dining room was a scarred remnant of the oldest vicarage, variously modified, maltreated and improved by succesive [sic] owners over the centuries.” In even the most incidental details, the past suddenly rears up and looms over us, as when we’re told the kitchen table is “a heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak.” The kitchen table is, in its own way, the grave of an old way.
If the small details remind us of the whole they once constituted, then the largest structures find themselves divided, a mosaic of moments of making and breaking. The pub is almost a bulwark against the temporal waves that batter it: “The Myrour, like many a village inn, had dug in its heels and refused to budge when each new century threatened to drag it forward in the name of progress. Consequently, the interior had changed little since the 1600s.” The church retains its pride of lineage though it lies scarred and vulnerable, with high and late medieval woodwork and pews and early modern graves and Puritan effacements and some Victorian shutters and a noticeboard with the stories of a life still ongoing. Even the names, St Wilfrid’s, a saint venerated for converting Sussex to Christianity, at Haelstowne, which derives from Aelfstow, or elf-place, point to histories which still hang over this place, which play out in the present with a vicar embroiled with the Faery Queen.
The 1920s setting gives this temporal tension a heightened relevancy. We’re in a period where people are, after the twentieth century’s first great crisis of transformation, trying to blink their way back into an Edwardian mode that just doesn’t fit anymore. The culture feels like it doesn’t know how to either move forward or backward. Merriner’s writing helps sell this disjunction with evocative dialogue and a careful recognition of the social tensions of the period, especially deft in the deployment of a lively juxtaposition of characters. We see the confliction appear in Edna, our surly housekeeper who seems to resent us more with each day our irruption fails to dissolve, trying to impose herself as a chaperone on our seance with Ottoline, whom we meet as such: “A tall, striking woman with rather sharp features and dark hair wrapped up in a silk turban. She wore pantaloons and a jacket and blouse in a style that Arthur, having little experience of such things, assumed was rather fashionable.” We also get a veterinarian who has both country pragmatism (she’s got a gun cabinet) and modern flair (she rides a motorbike, and indeed her derring-do rather reminds me of George Mallory riding a motorcycle up Snowdonia), with a long history in the region (her ancestors are the Molyneux). This attempt at keeping up foiled by a historical pace that defies keeping up fills this game with nuance that makes its setting feel crucial and considered: a line like “a rather grand shopfront in that distinctively showy turn of the century style that now, three decades later, seemed rather passe” seems especially poignant given the period.
That enchantment with the processes of time creates an interesting parallel with two of the more intriguing puzzles: developing photos and casting a spell. Both puzzles are veritable immersions in the rhythms of the past, forcing us to look around ourselves with new eyes. We find a late Victorian or Edwardian camera, and we find two sets of instructions, and we have to literally follow the book to carefully step by step take a photo, develop it, and print it. This is a game that wants you to wind the camera, to unspool the film, to immerse it in fixer, to wash it, to hang it to dry, to press a negative to print it. Whereas most games might handwave the process of taking a picture, here you are reminded of what taking a picture is like, what it means, how it used to be a complex intention, nearly a mystical ritual intended to capture the sun. Merriner emphasizes the magical undertone of early photography with a catching line: “Nothing was visibly different but the air felt suddenly charged, the shadows cast by the wavering candle flame seemed vividly alive and Arthur had a strong sense of presence. Something caught his eye: a movement, it seemed within the very surface of the film strip itself. Impossible.” A photograph is a tool intended to capture presence, that impossible elusion, and Arthur marvels at the spell he’s cast, one as profound and arcane as capturing gossip in a bottle. If the first chapter forces us to encounter the magic of technology as a physical immersion in the impossible, the last chapter allows us to revel in how that physicality leaves us more grounded and human, with Arthur having to pull together the ingredients and the energies of the world around him to meticulously step by step brew a potion and cast a spell. Thus, the game is bookended with two intricate enmeshments with the natural world, one Victorian, one early modern but rooted in the ancient, both of which require our protagonist to learn from books the secret rites of a magic past.
The game’s obsession with the tactile allows us to viscerally inhabit a space that, with its openworld and somewhat modular design, invites us to slow down, notice the little things, seek out what’s hidden just beneath the surface, if only we will care about it, if only we can see the stories interwoven with the land. I wish the game was a bit more thorough in describing its incidental scenery, since I think that would have played well into its strengths and themes. It seems a little disjointed for a game that wants you to examine the little things, like the ivy or the shrubs, usually responds to examinations of even quite significant scenery details with an “Arthur saw nothing particular noteworthy” message. This makes the experience very gamey, with you not trying to experience the space, but instead merely pixelhunting for items. I was shocked, for instance, when I needed to examine a church which was listed only as a directional heading, whereas in a different game that’s exactly the sort of meandering action I might have done.
A similar issue that prevents the exploration and puzzlesolving from feeling fully grounded is how wobbly the systems are. Often the parser is, where not finicky, persnickety. The game tries to get you to adopt a formalized logic particular to this game, where for instance you might drop an item instead of using it, which is fine enough, except that again it undercuts itself by sometimes forgoing its own logic. One puzzle, which is clever on paper, falters in practice: you need to put a chair under a doorknob to prevent Edna from interrupting your seance, but solving it necessitates the use of precisely the kind of complex command construction (WEDGE CHAIR UNDER DOOR HANDLE) that we’ve been discouraged from using in similar puzzles, like ascending the recess to open the window. Similarly, for the whole game we’ve been instructed to POUR [liquid] INTO [container], yet when you need to empty the witch’s bottle in the sink, you need to EMPTY WITCH’S BOTTLE, which was frustrating. Some other concerns, like custom verbs that could really have used some more synonyms or some more forceful cluing (one tries many constructions before managing to GOUGE PLASTER or PRISE FRAGMENT or STANCH WOUND), contribute to a constant sense of uneasiness, like visiting your aunt who has wrapped her sofa in plastic and who insists on meticulous tea decorum: no matter how lively or lovely the conversation, you’re never allowed to become comfortable and enjoy yourself. I wasn’t surprised when, struggling with the spell, I suddenly realized that instead of trying to stir the brew counterclockwise, I really ought to be stirring the brew widdershins. What a faux pas! Such a mishap falls straight from the pages of Henry James!
Moreover, the game stutters several times with bugs (or at least pseudobugs) that emphasize the wonkiness of the parser. During the development of the photographs, I once got a false positive on hanging the negatives, and so I was confused as to why I had suddenly been gated from progress; many thanks to the patience of Mike Russo, who guided me through several muddles. Some of the bugs are quite silly however, as when I TOOK ALL at the village pub and got Jarbell and Customers. Who says Arthur can’t make friends? Except then I took Jarbell down into the pub cellar, only for him to merrily reset the keg I was holding, which held my completed brew. So I got locked into a state that would have required tedious replaying, and might even prove unwinnable, had I not immediately reloaded a save. So um, that’s the last time I’m putting you in my pocket, Mr Jarbell! Load of good you’ve done me, and after the turn I’ve done you, rescuing Ash!
Despite some annoyances, you’re pulled through the game by the clear and compelling writing, which seems descendant from Charles Williams, with its fanciful thriller thrust modulated by a wry and dry English manner. Faeries of Haelstowne can be quite witty, with evocative characters unflinchingly hitting the right notes, some of which really sing, as in these two exchanges: first, between Ottoline and Arthur: ““Anyway,” she continued, “the fact is, I fell in love.” / Arthur began reflexively to say “I’m sorry” but managed to stop himself by sipping tea.”; second, between Peldash and Ottoline: ““So I … learned the rites both of summoning, and of banishing – for I was not so reckless as to take no precautions at all. Then I went to the wood and performed the ceremony.” / “And then,” said Ottoline, “all hell broke loose?” / “Ahem. Quite.” Peldash looked apologetic.” Merriner has a humor that, while never stepping out uninvited from the evocation of era, nevertheless runs through the game, occasionally with a mischievous panache, as when we examine the shovel: “It knew its place in life and desired to nothing greater.”
While the game lacks Williams’ supernatural flights of intensity, Merriner does supply us with a clarity and efficiency that makes its dramatic setpieces sparkle like clean brook water, as in these two stormy passages which further emphasize the parallel between the photography magic and the spell magic: first, after successfully developing the photos: “Arthur felt a sudden violent change in the atmosphere, like air rushing in to fill a vacuum. Whatever invisible bubble it was that had sealed off The Vicarage from the outside world shattered, the sense of neutrality and calm evaporated, and the air was suddenly prickling and alive with things unseen. Arthur looked at the images on the contact sheet and saw things moving, impossibly but undeniably, beneath the photographic emulsion. He felt the dead hand of terror close around his heart, every hair stood upright and for a few moment [sic] he remained rooted to the spot. And then, thankfully, the fear abated, the charge in the atmosphere faded and the pressure lessened as though an equilibrium had been reached.”; second, after successfully casting the spell in the grove: “Above the roar of the wind, he heard a tumult of voices, high and inhuman, shrieking in fear and rage and growing ever closer as though drawn against their will. From between the trees came faeries, kicking and screaming, clinging on wherever they could to try and resist the invisible force pulling them towards the grove. Arthur cried out in terror as the first of them appeared, hurtling towards him before being sucked into the keg; presently, the grove was filled with hundreds of faeries, rushing onwards to meet the same feet. The wind grew yet stronger, the tortured cries louder as the faeries were drawn back into their own world. Arthur could stand it no longer; he closed his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears, praying that it would stop. And abruptly, it did.” Both scenes employ a strange vacuum effect with clinical precision, with the writerly eye unfolding its theatrics with a studied organization. One would not be surprised to hear that Merriner has had experience as a technical writer, that logicality of progression and smoothness of development reigns the aspect for most of the largely “correct” writing.
That writing carries us along on our deepening mystery into a world replete with mystery and magic, with answers that cohere nicely with the wider contours of the work. I especially enjoyed the climax, where the Faery Queen (about whom Peldash warns me needlessly, having shared with Woolf the self destructive tendency to read it) rides anew into the restored medieval village, time threatening to rip this place asunder forever. The game thrums its engine into final gear for a racing finale, with us desperately dueling the Faery Queen, rescuing ourselves from the fate foretold in the tapestries of transformations into wild beasts (Peldash was briefly turned into a newt, but I am pleased to inform you he got better). We unleash our final foray of ancient magic, and out comes the healer of old, Richard Travais, who undoes the vicar’s meddling and reforces the wards, sealing the faeries afresh. We have learned the ways of the wold, and in so doing, have learned how to stray from the world’s gauntlet savage. In an epilogue, Arthur returns to the town in the 1940s, where the roads, which once “would have resounded with the ring of horses’ hooves, the rumble of carriage wheels and the voices of those travelling on foot” are now pockmarked with pillboxes and hedged with garages, and yet “how little changed this part of the country seemed.” Like with every age to have come and gone before, Haelstowne holds on, secure in its ways, rich with its secrets, ever yet the home of “the immortal Crackers, still perched within his iron cage.”
In its carefulness, patience, and roundedness, Faeries of Haelstowne achieves with dashing faculty a compelling conceit of interactive fiction: that we can, if we can just immerse ourselves in a place, come to understand it, live through it, make sense of the strangeness that surrounds us. A game of ambition written in the nostalgic Adventuron system, Faeries of Haelstowne leans towards the past, teaches us to cherish its hidden enigmas and specificities, yet with a clear eye towards the future, how we might yet innovate new ways of knowing, new gifts to bestow upon the altar of the cathedrals of time.
Daddy’s Birthday is a pleasant and adorable collaboration between a girl and her father, written to celebrate the eponymous Daddy’s Birthday. You can play through the original story as written by Ruth, but it leads to an UNSUCCESSFUL BIRTHDAY, so you’re encouraged to try again and ascertain where exactly you went wrong and how you can help Daddy avoid his tragic fate.
Our author, who quite possibly has a bright future ahead of her in the medical profession, helpfully clarifies the problem with Daddy’s birthday experience: when he falls from the rocking chair, we’re instructed to DIAGNOSE the problem, consider the symptoms (his head hurts), then issue a prescription (he should put some ice on it). Daddy’s also given some keen advice: in the future, try not to rock in your chair, you’re apparently not very good at it.
Another problem that must be overcome is that Daddy doesn’t seem to be the life of the party, as when his daughters surprise him with a birthday celebration, his first instinct is to WAIT and then SIT ON DECKCHAIR. Poor daughters! Perhaps a good present idea for next year is to get Daddy some coffee. (Speaking of the deckchair, we get a slight issue here, in that the walkthrough doesn’t quite line up with the required play pattern: you need to examine the cake first before Mummy brings in the deckchairs for everyone to sit on.) He also forgets to say thank you to his family after they give him his present! Maybe he really has hurt his head!
The one place I really sympathized with our tragic hero is when Daddy attempted, like Orestes fleeing the Furies, to escape the cruelty of his punishment ineluctable, only to be ever tormented by whispery impulses reminding him that “The urge to rock on the deckchair returns…” No matter how far Daddy fled, even unto the precipice of Mummy’s Bedroom, whoops I mean the Big Bedroom, still he yearned for the solace of finality, for he knew no matter how far he roamed his house wild and confused, still “That urge to rock on the deckchair just won’t go away…” At last, broken before the intractable demand, as even his daughters turned against him and suggested “Daddy, why don’t you sit on the deckchair?”, Daddy decided that you just can’t have your cake and eat it too, that with every gift must come a price, that this tie about his neck, much like the albatross of old, hung upon his neck as the symbol of his struggle, thus in despair he attempted to illustrate his conundrum by cutting a slice of the cake and leaving it uneaten as he surrendered to his deckchair doom, a parable by which his family might perhaps learn from his mistakes, but, the moment the cake was sliced, as if by some strange miracle, deus ex machina, everyone gathered around and ate cake and had a SUCCESSFUL BIRTHDAY. So all’s well that end’s well!
As does this game, which glitters with creativity and humor (such as when we find a banner that reads “Happy Birthday Daddy, 21+ today!”), and I’m sure the opportunity for father and daughter to work together and build on each other’s ideas to bring to life such a lovely and thoughtful game is the best birthday present of all.
A commonality between the successes of Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and Minecraft is that many of us, scattered across continents in thronging cities with a throbbing consciousness bleeding anxieties and responsibilities, desperately long for that quiet industriousness of the countryside, its serene solitude, that silent immersion in nature where simply being seems enough, where all our emotions and thoughts meld into a landscape teeming with its own self sufficient rhythms and vibrancies.
Snowhaven’s stripped down monochrome aesthetic produces this precise feeling, offering us several emotions that we can blend into a connection with the earth: joy, sadness, and terror. As the protagonist goes about harvesting ingredients for a stew, he reminisces about his past, his expected guest, and this tiny patch of earth where his memories reside in rivers, in trees, in boats, in graves. This isn’t just a jaunt through the woods to gather some berries, but a tour through your world, its happiness, its heartbreak. Pixelated scenes guide us through our journey as we constantly travel between seven locations, so that by the end even the player starts to recognize each little nook, what’s hidden in it, and what has happened here. Thus, the multiple playthroughs offered by Snowhaven really accentuates its charm, as we get to work on a new recipe much as the protagonist might, whirling through the seven screens about which we know every little thing, pausing only for a memory.
Unfortunately, only the first two playthroughs are available. The third playthrough, the Sinister version, is, rather evocatively, hidden behind a password, as if there is some terrible secret locked deep in the heart of the game. The game suggests that you can email the author for the code, but I don’t know, something about “email me to get into the secret Sinister part of the game” feels a bit intimidating.
This password protection for the third playthrough adds to Snowhaven’s sense of wobbliness. There’s some clunkiness when it comes to preparing ingredients; the list of commands suggests a HINT command, but it produces the result “This game doesn’t use hint.”; the help menu doesn’t list basically any of the necessary verbs besides the very basics, which seemed like the purpose of the menu; occasionally the game would double back on itself strangely, such as “You take a few carrots out of your store of frozen vegetables. You can’t do that.”, or telling me that “You can’t leave the cabin without soap” while moving me out of my cabin; and, speaking of soap, you’re given a brief quest to find some, so I went searching through the map to figure out where I could acquire soap, like maybe I can use the pine wood producing a good smell or get some mint maybe or even get some animal fat or whatever, only to realize I’m supposed to just type “find soap” in the cabin, which seems a bit like typing “solve puzzle.”
Despite these issues, the game has a charm that delicately threads the needle between its muted aesthetic and its emotive core. The writing helps with this, as each memory seems gently remembered, we get a soft black and white photo feeling of these experiences, and yet, just as the game threatens to be a little blurry and saccharine, it goes for the throat:
“You wish you had buried your wife in perfect condition, so you could imagine her eternally resting as the beautiful woman she was. But it took you days to find her body on the river bank. You have so many questions about those days that can never be answered. You can only hope she is resting peacefully.”
Snowhaven thus tries to capture the ambiguity of nature: we get nature as peaceful and beautiful, wandering through the forest with our dog to harvest some mint, but we also get nature as brutal and survivalistic, with you having to distract a bear so that you can hunt some rabbits, decapitate them, skin them, gut them, and cut them up. Likewise, the characters, without ever needing to speak, are filled with stories that seem to overtake them at every turn. The result of this Janusian uncertainty is that Snowhaven alternates between light and shadow like lying beneath a maple tree as the late autumn light dapples through the leaves.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are eaten by a grue, it seems, in the latest work by Robin Johnson, the author of Dectectiveland (2016), and, it should be noted, Hamlet – The Text Adventure (2003). A homebrewer with a ludic retro edge, Johnson gives us Gruesome, a riposte to Zorkian (and Adventurian and Wumpusian) tropes. In Zork, you are a chaotic plunderer with a wit keen enough to manipulate everything around you until you master the dungeon, though in a sense (literally at the end of Zork) replicating the dungeon as master, becoming its very spirit. No wonder so many Zork players set about creating their own copies! Johnson undermines this acquisitive mania for control by showing that our prospective masters-to-be don’t understand the dungeon (our twisty little passages all alike are actually “a network of sensibly designed access tunnels, all easily navigable.”), don’t respect its inhabitants (our concern that we are likely to be eaten by a grue is countered with a message that appears when the player does try to eat an adventurer: “Please do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes about grues.”), and aren’t adapted to its terrain (the power which the grue uses to outflank and outwit the adventurers is that its eyes are adapted to the darkness and theirs are not). Thus, Gruesome invites us to reverse the perspective on Zork entirely, where a grue, rather than an obstacle programmed as an ad hoc retcon for an implementation issue, is actually the being that facilitates the adventurers’ progression and ensures their safety whilst they roam the dungeon they’re seeking to rob and rule.
The gameplay reasserts this opposition by being all about actively protecting the adventurers from themselves and each other. You optimize a path around the maze to ensure that you are always one step ahead of the adventurers as they haphazardly career towards mutual destruction. One is reminded of the soothing effect of conspiracies, which assure us that someone in the shadows is guiding everything, that we’re not all just bumbling aimlessly towards our collective demise. This heroic grue who challenges its representation and who challenges the representations of the adventurers begs the question: can you make a postcolonial Zork? Gruesome feels kind of like Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King’s subversive inversion of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
However, despite the highminded themes, for the most part Gruesome is content to play out its concept in silly and lighthearted referential wink winks. The game is packed with references to both 70s/80s text adventures but also a TAKE ALL of nerdy pop culture from yesteryear. Thus, Gruesome’s tone is only sometimes Zork reinvestigated, with the rest of it being broad strokes silliness regarding received narratives, a la Monty Python’s films. For instance, we’re given an orc “wearing a T-shirt that reads “Green & Nerdy” and playing with miniature figures on a game board”, so we get a Weird Al fan playing Dungeons & Dragons, except of course the fantasy dungeon for the people living in the fantasy dungeon is Bosses & Bureaucrats. This inversion between the fantasy and the mundane operates in so much of Gruesome’s logic, yet often the game adopts an eager to please persona that’s ready to whirlwind you through cleverly reimaginative puzzles, so you’re only occasionally asked to do anything other than be amused at how silly this all is. I do think some of the really flippantly gamey elements undermine what Gruesome creates, as when the orc, after you beat her minigame, simply says “Take anything you want as a token of my gratitude.” Great, well I solved The Puzzle NPC, I’ll be taking all your treasure, thanks so much, ta! Isn’t this just Zork again?
Despite its cheery countenance, Gruesome delights in its dizziness, with gameplay that sometimes feels like herding sheep through Omaha Beach. Because the game is time sensitive and wants you to perform things in a specific pattern, I wish Gruesome had provided a bit more feedback about when you had done something worthwhile, especially signalling when waiting for something is worthwhile so that you don’t feel compelled to run off to do something else while a sword charges. Although technically your score ticks up when you Do Things, it doesn’t draw your attention to each addition, and the score in IF is never a particularly reliable marker of progression. An early example: I found the barbarian in the room with the lamp and gave it to him and was immediately beset with several questions. Was I now in an unwinnable state? Had I solved a puzzle? Was my action a completely arbitrary red herring? Surely there’s a more optimizable pattern to discover than just going to a room and applying the noun to the noun? I know this ambiguity thrills other players, but for me it just produces an anxiety that I’m missing something, especially in a game that advertises itself as both nonlinear and requiring replays (hyperventilating my way through flashbacks of Curses!). One thing that confused me when I looked at the walkthrough was that apparently we’re not intended to engage with the knight in our first encounter, despite the fact that we discover him one room south of the dragon, and his description references him being eaten by a dragon. I thought I was like on the dinging edge of the clockwork encountering him there and was bemused as to how I ought to save him from seemingly imminent demise. I’m not entirely sure when or why or how the adventurers move and die, in part because it appears certain elements are randomized.
That randomization speaks to Gruesome’s prevailing sense of mystery. The dungeon you wander feels so simulated and intricate and interconnected that you’re constantly drawn to the unknown factors, a player is stimulated with a constant sense of more lurking behind every object they find. I don’t know how much is actually implemented, but every base interaction feels like it hides several layers of intricacies beneath it. Sometimes you’re waiting for turns on end as the musicbox cranks around you, wondering, what am I missing, what should I be waiting for, what happens when this all perfectly aligns? This is a complex game with a lot of moving parts and a sense of both anxiety and serendipity: in that way, perhaps, for all its Zorkian and Adventurian and Wumpusian flair, it’s most saliently a scion of The Hobbit. Thus, whichever your old school roots, you’re sure to have a topsy turvy romp through nostalgia in the misty yet strangely sweet Gruesome.