This game lampoons the snooty selfobsession of the imperial believing all the reverence he receives. As Emperor Nero during the Great Fire of Rome, you wander around naively frustrated by “Everybody whining and blubbering, and, most important, not paying attention to you!” As you can judge from the tone, this lampoon settles into the stock character of the urbane aristocrat: “There are also servants nearby, obviously. Like a great, mighty man like you would degrate yourself to do peasant-like tasks.” That this is a slightly strange characterization of Nero, who on the contrary was considered a garish spectacleer who reveled in popular grandeur, is par for Nero, who has been spuriously commandeered for any mockery to which Roman emperors so readily lend themselves. In that spirit, While Rome Burns keeps up the tune of the frustrated emperor delivering jaunty offhand comments which show a glorious lack of introspection: “You are very well known all around Rome for having a kind of a… temper, if you may. Honestly, people could be so dramatic. You yell at some servants for being incompetent once, curse some senators for trying to interfere in a new project of yours other, and suddenly you are some kind of a hot head. Tyrant, some of them started to call you. An absurd.”
Of course, a stock character runs out of runway pretty quickly. While Rome Burns adds additional mileage to its central joke through the characterization of Nero as preening in a public spirited way: “Someone must have alerted the crowd of this result earlier, because your people is already crying and pleading when you go outside tell them the bad news. The proof of how much they love your presentations gets you emotional, and pilling up with your deception for not being able to do the show you so desperately wanted is enough for you to burst into tears.” The pseudoempathy is a minty cardamom, the parasocial appropriation of adulation giving this Nero a more perfumed nuance than the usual fiddler to the fire. Delusionally naive balances with the usual brutal notes, providing some unexpected relief from the declaiming, as when Nero gets the idea that he can cajole the servants out of their lamentations with a bit of grandiloquent praise: ““Oh, dear servants of mine! How grateful I am to have your presence! There are no people in this world more graceful, more kind than you are. Would you like to help me to share my beautiful concert to the habitants of Rome?” You proclaim, trying to be as convincing as possible.” It’s an amusing left turn that improves all the straightaways it took to get there.
Not to say the result softens the intended tone, since Nero’s phobic revulsion of his servants causes the central conundrum, which is that he just cannot understand what these wretched creatures are doing: “The closer you look, more nasty details start to pop off. Their eyes are swollen from all the tears and there is snot dripping from their noses and spreading in the lower part of their faces, denouncing they must be going on it for a good time. There are also sobs ripping out from their throats, sounding like they are being pulled from the deepest parts of them.” Indeed, most of the gameplay involves trying vainly in vain to parse why “these ants making such a fuss when you have a busy day ahead to prepare yourself to a concert?” This promises a series of sketches as Nero floats through calamity in a highwire act of being out of touch.
Those sketches don’t quite come through though, since the gameplay is, like your concert, haphazardly thrown together. Most choices are random or vague, often ending the story abruptly without demonstrating any consistent progressional logic. If you do manage to get deep enough into the game, it starts to break, popping up the Twine debug view. Once I got to what I think is the proper ending, only the link didn’t appear to the next page, leaving an incomplete sentence and a broken passage. Compounding this lack of polish are several formatting oddities, numerous typos, and a few mistranslations, all of which a round of editing could have improved.
Editing could have also helped the game feel less rambling, a fleetness that proves quite useful when the game’s concept isn’t much thicker than the napkin it was scribbled on. Take this paragraph, which is already operating at yes I get it ha ha, but flounders on: “You can clearly see that your guards are out of their comfort zone here, wobbling through your clothes with widened and desperate eyes. It’s obvious they have no idea what they should be doing. After this day is over, you will have to fire them all and hire people who are more suited to such a prestigeous position. Honestly, how can they not know how to dress someone up? Their inexperience is almost palpable. Their hands are hesitant and tremulous while they try to understand how the fabrics work and in which order the fancy clothes should be put. Your guards fall more into desperation as time passes and they can’t understand it. This is not going to work. From their panicked faces, you know they’ve realized it too. In the end, they couldn’t even manage a simple task like dressing you up. Useless, all of them! Honestly, you are still incredulous about how such incompetents could be contracted to work under a man like you. You should fire them all right away. But it doesn’t change the fact there is still no time left for you to try any other thing. You will have to go on like this.” It repeats the setup several times, but then forgets to emphasize the punchline, which is that this is coming from someone who can’t dress themselves.
The ideas are all here, just not sculpted from the stone. While Rome Burns translates its historical setpiece into a surprisingly relevant satire about adulated parasociality spinning isolation into tastelessness, but it’s still several iterations away from sticking the landing.
The struggle is never the moment but all the ones that have to come after. Context constricting which kinds of moments can thence arise, what can ever be found again in them, but in the moments before they calcify to context lie vibrancies bleak and beautiful, shivers welling up inside you such profundity beyond the summons of these passing days.
This tension between a moment, its kindling, its freedoms, its capacity to believe in enduring, and memory, immutable definitions pressing you to the edge, simmers the wistful anguish of After the Accident. It flourishes into “gold fire touching the place where the road meets the sky,” it winces from “The sun smoldering ahead, as if you are driving into a fire.” The pain of a relationship breaking the more of each other we once made starkens in flashes of physicality skinbright, literalizations of the tempestuous phrases that haunt the mind away from such raw shape and color: “such unforgivable things said as the rain roared and the wind shrieked”. In the oscillation between car crash and the slow motion up to it, we find in each grip the white knuckle implied, the tumbling expands to exceed the speed of your own heart beating: “and you lean over and kiss him and suddenly the ground is shaking, the earth moves and books tumble from the bookshelf and you both leap from the bed as the earthquake echoes the thunder in your heart.”
Carried away by the intractable stream of choices unretractable, inevitability after it’s happened stirring the moments into fireworks of eidolon: “the light streaming in, and it’s blinding, and the air is filled with noise and you hear a snatch of the song about a landslide, about an avalanche, and then you are in the avalanche and your eyes are filled with stars and light and dark and you are floating and then and then and then”. Thens which follow from each other, so you don’t need to, you will go where they lead, flaring up and flaring up until the fire catches, and every otherwise melts away, smoke of the irretrievable occluding whichever horizon you were heading to: “You run in that direction, seeking, seeking, but lost, unable to leave because you didn’t leave that night and so you can’t do it now, circling the fire.”
Yet, paradoxically, in the eye of the storm, a certain pretty of calmed, “The quiet of an aftermath, of the intake of breath before the song.” After the Accident sparkles its violent rupture, a painterly nod at the ambition of your own devastation, as all the follies collapse emerges a wreckage as grand in scope: “You are standing on a sparkling carpet of broken glass, like diamonds on the black asphalt.” In the anguish of irretrievable, a certain tenderness emerges, more selfless than when bewitched by giving your self up to the motion: “there he is, lying curled” so you “curl around him like you have so many times, like an angel to guard him from hurt although you’ve hurt him so many times and a memory is wrapping around your throat, darkening your eyes and calling to you.” You are being called away, you know you cannot stay, suddenly you remember why you once tried to.
In that severance, however, slithers out a surprising lightness, a sudden anew: “You were somewhere else a moment ago, with him, and he’s not here, but you are, glittering in the last sunlight as a memory whispers in your ear and strokes your cheek.” Though you are called back into the old motions, you are also called forward into a new direction, possibility as it oozes from your wounds: “Panicked people push against you, you lose his hand, you’ve lost him (do you want to find him?) and people are running in every direction, away from the destruction.” It’s not that it feels good, but that, having followed feeling bad as far as you could, you try to let go, refuse it the future once drained of color in its sway: “your head hurts and you want to leave, to avoid the future, the past, to do the opposite of remembering…” In the absence, “you can’t see him / and you’re glad / and you’re sorry.” As the irreversible takes hold, simply “watching the transformation as the ingredients become a new thing”. Will it be better, worse? Tomorrow often is better, worse.
That emotive dynamism compels the game beyond the obvious framework that a literalizing the metaphor concept can sometimes threaten. There is enough heartfelt wisdom to wreathe the anguish genuine. Occasionally the trundling force of the text can hiccup: at the very end of the game, your phone buzzes, so I tried “>read message” as I had in an earlier sequence, which accidentally teleported me back into the old sequence, statelocking me out of progress, so that I had to restart from the beginning to do a single move differently. When the landslide does bring you down, Walker’s scintillating sadness strength carries you through landscapes beautiful for the burial.
The problem with a job is that you’re paid. A series of rhetorical genuflections yielding to acts performed for the express purpose of being paid. Because you exist atop an irreducibly complex interdependence of abstractions that have costs, because maintaining your existence requires you to tend all debts public and private. Because, having been born, you wouldn’t mind also being warm: “Somewhere a fireplace is crackling. You are wrapped in an old quilt. Soft downy fuzz. You remember a patch of sunlight on the carpet. Your head feels languid with dreams.”
In the fuzz of enclosure believe you’re sufficient, continuance as easy as breathing in, out, in, out, persisting at perpetual equilibrium, living the dream… “It would be so easy to sleep here.” But you can’t, the alarm yelps, you are required, no, not you, but the work of you in the age of mechanical reproduction: “In front of me are numerous bodies. / Behind me are numerous bodies. / Each body is covered with a suckling angel. / Above and below me, the other conveyor belts carry other cargo. / Angels graft neuroregimen patches to vacant-eyed patients heaped on racks. / Angels snip and sew at piles of raw bleeding organs assembling them into fresh new lifeforms. / Angels jab tendrils into dry skeletons and inject them with nutritional sludge until they swell into healthy individuals ready to enter society. / Angels swarm through the air, radiant against the dark machinery.” Hyperstructures automating particulate response into actualizing forces you adopt to adapt to where nutrients await to feed itself, you.
Thence hence thence the perpetual motion machine that spins you out to spin it out to spin all of this out of control, no, there will be control, any anomalizing outside of useful whiplashes into industrial ultraviolence: “Beyond the window the bleak metal of rusty girders shining black and lurid in the haze. Wind whistles through jagged glass. / Huddled on the floor slick with mold and blood. The buzzing of the machinery outside is endless. Mechanical churn and clatter.” You can fight, sure, of course, with which resource? You have nothing, no fuel, you will go nowhere: “Need to run. Can’t muster the strength. Hear machinery buzzing beyond the broken window. Can’t muster the strength.” Listen, yes, it’s so exhausting, this whole, well, listen, I hear you, that’s totally normal, “The desire to curl up and close your eyes.” That’s a debt you can pay. Trust me, once you earn enough, you can cycle through activities purely for itself, yourself I mean, you can savor any uselessly manifest: “Go outside / Drink something / Watch the fire / Read a book / Watch the holoscreen / Eat something / Create art” Anything is possible thanks to these “Transmission towers bristling with frozen satellite dishes. Electric current humming through barbed wire.” Choose whichever delight you like, choose two, choose three, until the desire to sleep overtakes you, suddenly the alarm is screaming, you are gushing through “great churning machines and smokestacks shooting black plumes into the viridian haze and crowds of strange and beautiful things but I know none of it because we are born to the hive and we die to the hive. We swarm through the pipeways under the angelic harmony of a thousand others and we are never truly alone.” And you owe obligations to the others, don’t you? You don’t want to be a burden, do you?
Crawling your way back each and exhausted time as “Numbing tranquility fills you … Even as the mass of tendrils comes closer and you recognize vaguely the shape of blades. / Even as blood spurts from fresh wounds and is immediately licked up by our brethren nearby.” Rest assured, “You will be put to use in the best way possible. / All things are as they should be.” If your use wasn’t valuable, the currents wouldn’t flow through you. In each electrification assured you still map to the grid, oriented to the coursing, where you belong. In the alternating current of velvet and voltage. “You would be beautiful divided into your component parts, each individual part of your mind humming along in perfect beauty.”
A yearning for prelapsarian childhood: seethefrozen destruction twisting all roads to the impossibility of return: “Boulders litter the path, fractures of rock splintered and spat out of the gulf when the shock waves ripped backwards and rent this land apart … Now, finally, he crawls. He knows his fingers would be ripped and bloody, his knees scraped, but the suit holds him. He uses the rings, then the fine china, the kitchen utensils, the bed sheets embedded in the rock as handholds as he slides up and down. He trips; his visor is left scratched where he lands on it … And then all of a sudden he feels the heat, sees the light, hears the sounds. Cracking, snapping, orange, hot. The gulf is as wide here as it has always been, but up ahead something spans it … A burning house.” Landscape both a ruin and a reminder of the familiarities that lie beneath it taunts us with the pervasive symbol to which all the burned bridges cannot lead back. Through a dream sequence of inhospitably liminal vaults, the narrator seeks to navigate a return from the waylays of seedy squalor that have collapsed his sense of self to the pseudosecurity of being imposed a fixed compass through childhood: “Beyond the crater he sees the house, still burning, still straddling the gulf, long cooled. / Beyond are the other places. The car part mines. The collapsed church, where his father lies. The forest they walked through before. The house where he once thought his family was whole. The altar of Aphrodite, desecrated and left to dust.” In the gap between desecrated Aphrodite and a collapsed church, the narrator shivers: “Naked and alone, he pulls himself up into whatever awaits.”
Animating this gap are sequences that are not so much metaphor as ballet. Each grotesque left turn induces a likewise sway, until the dreamspell slips us under its sway: “It is the sea, the world, that moves, not the entranceway. He touches it, moves his hand along the wall, smooth in a world of natural curves and jabs.” This dreamspell allows the game to approach material from just the right askew to slide under its surface, rendering literal the conflicted, indefinable emotions encased in memories we wish not to communicate. In some of these sequences, the narrator is just conscious enough to think along its contours, coursing a train of thought that can power through the terrain: “There are things his mind cannot easily hold, unconscious instincts that need to be overridden so that they can, consciously, become quite different unconscious instincts. / For example: every night of his life he has looked up and seen black. The black has never hurt him. He would lie in the top bunk, the blind of the VELUX up, and know that, if all he did was look up, everything that he needed was below him. East, south, north and west the earth curved away and nothing came from above. / Things, fears, hopes: at any time he could climb onto his bunk and be above all of them, like a dragon on top of its horde. / Above him is black. His instincts tell him he is safe, but he must forget them. He must force himself to remember that he is not.” The unknowable distance that, as a child confined at home, we romanticize, becomes dangerously alive with the irreversible as we step tenuously into its hold. Imaginary figments of fears and hopes immersioncrush: “A thousand engines, a hundred million gears, all seven of the seas rushing through uncountable pipes. The sound is ahead of him, beside him, behind him, above him, below him.” Everywhere you turn is turning around you, including you in its processes.
Processes which feed on youth seeking adulthood from neon flashes in the dark present us with sexual precarity: “The music would be deafening if it wasn’t muffled by his helmet. Lights strobe and flash, all red. The dance floor is made of plastic panels over block LED lights, each a different shade of white: baby blue, baby pink, artificial lavender. Some of the panels are cracked, some chipped, but all still comfortably bear his weight and the weight of the speakers. / They litter the floor, some loose, most grouped. They throb up and down and back and forth on their own, some off-beat but most not. They’re little black boxes, just small enough to be held in a single hand. Most shout or whoop: he hears the word’s ‘DJ’ and ‘Love’ and ‘Fuck’ many times. Some sit and tremble silently. At least one, somewhere in the mass, cries, at least one screams.” Compulsion of the rhythmic pulse of music, of the illogic of crowds, simultaneously tempts, taunts, and terrifies. Increasingly, it simply tyrannizes, lubricates the gears to override your frictions: “The floor grips his boots with layers of spilled fluid. / The bar is lit with clear white lights, the bottles behind it framed: the headline act. He walks to the bar to read the sign, a little pyramid of paper sitting at a coy angle next to the flask, the only other item on the bar. / “The first one is free.””
Into the resulting mire howls the game’s primary revulsive energy, a nightmare staging “Hundreds, shrouded in the filth of their own bodies. They lie and crouch and sit and huddle, thin beings with only each other to feed on.” In its orgiastic glut of disgust, the more elegant if vague ballet gives way to filth as a reliable substitute for emotive pull. Take this image, which on its own has a certain vogue of pose that stylizes the uninflected selfevidence of its symbology: “A line of bodies snakes along the pipe and he must walk perilously close to the edge to make it past them. Each holds a syringe, stabbing it into a black, bruised hole in their neighbour, squeezing, pulling out and refilling it from their own blood.” Stopping here, the image is effective, but the game doesn’t choose to stop there, instead incessantly emphasizing the uninflected selfevidence until it fizzles to schlock grime: “Yet the man ahead of her does not react when she jabs the inch wide tip of the needle into his blood-caked buttocks. When she pushes, the liquid holds inside his body for just a moment, and then drips, pours, gushes out of his mouth, his urethra, his anus. It runs off quickly, flowing across the curvature of the pipe to drip off into the open mouths of others waiting hundreds of feet below.” Hmm, yes, quite. The game asks if you want to drink some of it, of course.
This tendency to maximize gutwrench flattens some of the emotional import into cartoonish flourish. Indeed, the game seems to actively choose this, twice hinting towards the sexual assault scene that’s been cringeloaded by the mire, then retreating, deciding that it doesn’t quite want to go that dark, choosing to lounge instead in the aesthetics of horrorgrime, which is fine, possibly for the best, but it leaves the game’s revulsive intensity somewhat aimless, as when a scene of an intentionally puerile male dominance fantasy becomes only more puerile by its blithe commitment to the bit, a tastelessness that doesn’t become more tasteful just because we know the writer is in on the joke: “McAlistair is like most of them: they don’t realise that the point isn’t fucking her, the point is letting them all know that he’s fucking her. / He stands behind her as he delivers the speech. He doesn’t think about his words, and he knows that none of the men watching are thinking about them either. They are all thinking about his dick, his dick, sliding in and out of her pussy. Some of the women there were probably thinking about that too. Some of them, self-righteous harpies, are probably thinking about his poor wife.” If anything could be made from the gestures that pile on and pile on, executive parking lots and bank accounts and Anne Summers, we’re left to guess, careening instead into the next liminal living room.
Instead, in the moments that gust ambitiously to the atmosphere, the game creeps on effectively, sudden rollbacks of the eyes into the dreamtwist: “The dirty man crawls closer and begins to use the man in the suit as a ladder to haul his way up into the vacated section of pipe.” This atmosphere-building finesse is most potent in the opening oilrig sequence, as in this startingly punchvivid image: “The lift shakes in the wind, and will shake when it hits the waves, but he knows that it will not be long before it calms. / The Chief Engineer slaps him on the arm. He barely feels it. He shouts but it cannot be heard. Then they begin to slip away, the rig moving up and away, the sea moving up, up, and around.” The moment of disconnection when nothing can translate, alone.
When primed just right, slyly implicatively elusive, the game can sneak its whole fever in a fraught phrase: “The water keeps him steady. The world pushing back at him. Allowing him time to rethink all of his actions.” While each introspective step thence negotiates the uncanny depths, still the narrator “knows it through its feel: the way the ground trembles with familiar, human frequencies.”