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About the Story
A multimedia project about the end of everything.
64th Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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A lot of science fiction literature makes use of concepts that cannot be appropriately described in the vocabulary of the present, and demands an inductive approach; just go along with it, and it will become more or less clear as the story progresses. Accelerate is bordering on linguistic overload in this sense. Add to that a horde of strange metaphors and you have an “enormous piece of extravagantly confusing art”, to use a quote embedded in the work itself.
While it was occasionally hard to understand the protagonist or the context in a given situation, the story is actually relatively clear: you become indoctrinated into a cult of religious terrorists and attempt to bring forth some kind of revolution. In this, you have no agency. Perhaps you have no choice.
Regarding it as a gesamtkunstwerk, my feelings are varied. Its strongest point is definitely the writing; Accelerate reads like a modern sci-fi classic, only more poetic, though I would have had an easier time accepting it if I had sensed more coherence between the different contexts. As it is, I often felt I found myself in a new situation, not understanding how I got there, which also compromised the connection between the player and the protagonist. The visual presentation was the most lacking element of Accelerate. With a plain interface and simple animations, it brought thoughts of the 1990’s, rather than of the future. The music, on the other hand, was nice and appropriate; most of it I would describe as cyberpunk muzak, although at times it became uncomfortably brutal.
Okay, so there's a certain kind of game that pops up in IF from time to time. It's a kind of game that's part poetic and part heartfelt exposition. The words are abstract, the situation obfuscated or abstracted to a level where the core narrative is hard to discern and the game becomes a kind of blank slate or Rorschach test, where scenes and phrases give deeper meaning but not always what the author's original meaning was.
B-minus makes a lot of games like that, which are usually short. Longer examples are a lot of Porpentine's work, the work of Phantom Williams, and the games Spy Intrigue and Dr. Sourpuss Is Not A Choice-Based Game.
This game has that kind of style, but it also has 'really good animations and music' style, too. The music in this game perfectly complements the writing.
This is a long and complicated game. I played it over two periods of time, as I had to take a 3 hour break. When I first played it, it all seemed a mystery, but when I came back later, somehow it all clicked in my head and I understood exactly what was going on in the story and exactly who everyone was (not the deeper meaning, just the outer meaning).
The game has 21 chapters with some surprises in the middle. Here is a general outline of the complex, non-linear plot as I understand it:
(Spoiler - click to show)The player is (or more precisely, was) a young man named Hank, born in the 23rd century, who had a traumatic incident where they were held up at gunpoint by a black man, and then called the police. The event haunts them, and is one of a giant group of negative events that pile on the protagonist. The hero is also addicted strongly to drugs (one called metafentanyl in my playthrough).
(Spoiler - click to show)To get their fix, they go to the TAV institute, a pre-war group that somehow survived the worldwide conflict (giving them the name antediluvians). A Scientology-like group, they read your body with a strange meter device, and prescribe you your drugs.
(Spoiler - click to show)The leaders, Mother and Father, give you surgery and a new name to make you a woman, Hannah. Mother uses you to further her goals, having you assassinate, steal, and kidnap. Your ultimate goal is to end the bitter cycle of reincarnation and repeated horrible experiences by murdering fate, represented by an Archon. And that's exactly what you do.
There are references everywhere in the game, so many that I can't even be sure if they're references. Is it a Galatea reference when you awake as an art exhibit on a pedestal in a gallery with the name Galene (or is Galene an exhibit near you)? Are some of the Institutes beliefs and practices reminiscent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's beliefs and rituals? When the author refers to living in a holographic reality re-experiencing traumatic moments, is it referring to Howling Dogs? Is the end of Chapter 20 a visual representation of the scripture that says 'No man shall see the face of God and live'? Some maybe yes, some maybe no.
Other references are far more direct, like when you take on a role directly imitating the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 during 9/11. Timothy Mcveigh is referenced, Trayvon Martin is referenced, and absolutely everything ties in with trans identity (one reading is of Mother and Father as representing dual natures of Man and Woman inside each of us, with the protagonist's transition corresponding to their love of Mother, and Archon representing the idea of fixed gender identity). But that's only one interpretation.
I frequently compared it to musical albums as I listened. It reminded me of Joni Mitchell's Blue, where she used all of her most tender and/or heartfelt memories and thoughts to make a very public album. After my second session, I thought it was like the Who's Rock Opera Tommy with it's semi-religious overtones and a central narrative mixed up with symbolism. Or The Wall.
A game like this isn't really a game to be 'enjoyed'. This seems like the game you write when you have so many thoughts and feelings in your head you have to put them somewhere. You can either do that directly (I wrote a game called In the Service of Mrs. Claus which is 100% about my divorce, and in a fairly direct way) or you can do it indirectly and jumbledy-complex like this game. When you put out a game like this, probably the worst possible result is that a few people say "wow I loved it" and no one else comments. If you push this hard, you want someone to push back, and so I think it would be 'successful' if many people reacted to it strongly in both positive and negative ways. So 'enjoy' is definitely not the word here.
Despite that, the ending sequence with its visuals and music all came together and it was actually pretty epic, just as a story. Chapters 20 and 21 are just plain awesome, and like I said, I don't know if the author wanted to be awesome. I think a more appropriate response I had is early on in Chapter 6 or 7 where I said, "Well, that's disturbing" out loud.
The credits bring things back to a more somber tone. It's a vast list, including me (!), Sonic Youth, and 'the haters', without which the game would not be possible.
I'll have to revisit this game some time.
Rating this game defeats the purpose, but I'll do it anyway.
+Polish: Very polished. Extremely so.
+Descriptiveness: Equally so.
+Emotional Impact: High for me.
+Would I play again? Plan on it.
+Interactivity: I liked my choices.
So there was this book that circulated amongst the, shall we say, less-popular kids when I was in high school and college (the mid to late 90s, for reference) – the Illuminatus! Trilogy, by two dudes named Robert. It’s this frothy, over-the-top, drug-fueled mélange of Philip K. Dick sci-fi tropes, secret-society paranoia, revisionist history, anarchist theory and praxis, Tantric sex, gnostic apocalyptica, and like twenty other things all cut together in high-Seventies style. I don’t know whether people still read it these days, or if it would have the same impact in a world with Wikipedia, but I remember it as a big deal because it connected basically everything a certain kind of person might be into – any individual sorta-weirdo probably was big into, and familiar with, a portion of what was on offer, but certainly not all. And in fact I think of there being two main channels into it – first, you could be a dork coming to it from the sci-fi, history, and religion side of things (it me), or alternately it was also big with the folks who took a bunch of drugs and were excited about blowing up authority.
Illuminatus! isn’t mentioned in the Brobdingnagian acknowledgments page for Accelerate, so I suppose there’s no direct linkage, but I share that to give some partial flavor of what’s contained in this maximalist work, and also to acknowledge that while I think I get a lot of what’s going on here, I’m aware that I’m significantly too square to be the ideal audience for the piece – like, through my choices I think I made Accelerate’s transgender divine assassin sometimes feel a little normcore? So while I thought it was really good, I suspect there’s a chunk of folks to whom this will be amazing (and also a chunk of folks for whom this will really not be their thing, of course).
This is one of those games that’s hard to figure out how to get one’s pick into, so I’ll fall back on some structure to make it seem like my thoughts all connect up. I don’t think it’s worth trying to write about this piece without getting fairly spoilery, so I haven’t bothered to use tags, but fair warning that you should really play this for yourself, and only then come back to the remainder of what I’ve written.
1. The saha world of birth-and-death
(By which I mean, what is going on within the fictional world of the game – there is probably a way to write about Accelerate that does not involve reaching for the most pretentious references you can think of, but where’s the fun in that?)
Though the introduction to the game is intentionally jumbled up and disorienting, what’s going on here is relatively straightforward – the protagonist, an inhabitant of a repressive and despoiled future that is not different from today in any significant respect, feels a kind of internal brokenness. They check themselves into a sort of clinic, partially to score some drugs, but eventually enter into the spirit of the program, which involves transformation and transcendence of the self (the body, the mind, the soul – transgenderism is a strong element here but isn’t, I think, the whole of what’s going on). However, it turns out that the program doesn’t stop there, and is also focused on external change – soon the protagonist is going on high-stakes missions to disrupt capitalism, government, and religion, and in the climax hijacks a spaceship-chariot and storms the Garden of Eden to immanetize the eschaton by exploding the demiurge with a cancer-bomb.
So like I said, simple, straightforward stuff.
Though the overall arc here is I think fixed, there are nonetheless significant pieces of interactivity, through what I think are three primary types of choices. First, there are lots of opportunities to either get more detail, or speed through some of the denser parts of the narrative – I pretty much always opted to explore since I enjoyed the worldbuilding and the writing, but since I barely finished within two hours and others might be less into e.g. reading like 5,000 of a fictionalized interview transcript in between the main plot arc progressing, I think these were a nice convenience. The second set of choices are about giving the player an opportunity to characterize their, or the protagonist’s, responses to what’s going on – ones that I don’t think dramatically shift the story, but offer a welcome invitation to the player to engage with what’s being presented and own it through shaping a reaction.
The third set of choices are the most traditionally gamey, and allow what I think are whole scenes or sequences to be opted into or out of. There was a bit early on where the protagonist had the option of sneaking into the clinic’s basement to search out drugs, but I took a nap instead (told you I was normcore!) There’s also a big set-piece midway through where the player has a choice of different missions to disrupt society – I got a suicide-bombing at a punk show, but from reading other reviews it seems like there’s also an art gallery sequence on offer. So while the overall arc of the narrative appears pretty fixed, the choices do have a significant impact – in particular, the horrifying, civilian-directed violence of that punk-show chapter strongly colored how I experienced everything that came after, so I’m curious how the other branches would change things.
But look, none of the above would be worth very much if it wasn’t written like getting the right words on the page was a matter of life and death. The whole thing is animated by a feral, demented energy that goes way, way over the top, and sure, sometimes stumbles on itself, but is grabby as fuck. I was copy-and-pasting passages that I wanted to remember as I was playing, and wound up with over 2,000 words accumulated by the end. I’m going to excerpt one early bit of world-building at length so you can see what it’s like:
"Tracksuited guerillas, insurgent corpses arranged in strict lines and half-buried in the mud, tanks burnt to husks with broiled gunners hanging out the top, men in traction, bandage golems with zero visible skin, mothers clutching photos over corpses, raucous funerals spilling into the street, apartments burning, soldiers moving down the boulevard, blurs across an insensitive filmstrip, infants with white phosphorus birthmarks and depleted uranium rosacea, teenage boys in covered wagons and armored personnel carriers, sharp military uniforms and wry quarter-smiles, balaclava-clad youths like saplings on the hill, frozen corpses with hellish graffiti outlines drawn over their chest in the new snow, artillery backblast spraying topsoil meters into the air, gunshot eyes, fingers, jaws, testicles, feuds and rivalries sworn for centuries, gods forsaken and rediscovered, children defiled, defaced, strangled, in any order, people of all colors and ages cut down with firearms and bayonets, megaliters of tears mixing with poisoned groundwater, teeth gnashed and garments rent, blood-bright flowers laid across monochromatic funereal garb, a million amateur cenotaphs, rifles, cairns, and crosses dropping like location pins across every populated zone, streams of tracers like furious red whips against the clouded night, the high wasp howl of high-caliber bullets as they pass the ear, the thumping low note as they drive their way through flesh, like an axe-wielding man chopping through an entire cow in one swing, houses blown apart in broad tornado scars, roads and dancehalls empty, barrel bombs landing all bass no treble vacuuming blood and air out of all they touch, foreheads torn open like gift wrapping, hollow-point violets wide, essences quickly devoured by that which proceeds battle, preteens with eyes full of genocide already, bootprints in congealing viscera, senile veterans gibbering like the rabid, mothers too gone to nurse or produce, babies like dry leaves, mad-eyed warlords with huge grins and bigger jokes, murals peppered by bullet and blast, toddlers playing on abandoned military vehicles, outside homes-now-crypts, concentration camps, mass graves, faded stadiums and gymnasia, human abattoirs now empty save for the wind, abandoned, rusting instruments of torture, broken skeletons, thin polymer roofing torn to maypole shreds, falling with leaves in late autumn."
This is the kind of thing that’s easy to do very very badly – and maybe you think this is bad, fair enough! It’s definitely unpleasant. But while I’m old and technocratic now, I remember being young and angry and thinking and writing things like this right after 9/11, when we started invading and bombing everybody in sight. This style works, it compels, and it doesn’t let up. I don’t want to just keep regurgitating bits of writing I liked, because again I’ve got 1,700 more words where that came from, but the language is intense, it’s smart, it’s playful and self-referential – it’s grim, so very grim, but leavened with joy and jokes as well. Two full hours of being in this world might not seem the most appealing prospect – and to be fair, it isn’t meant to be, and it isn’t – but it was the quality of prose that kept me going.
All right, here’s one more, a description of a spaceship dogfight of all things: “Hamish sends flaming whips at our pursuers. One flashes to dust in the dark. Each spirals outwards in sine waves of decreasing frequency, whirling towards us.”
The visual design of the game itself is also quite smooth and pleasing. The fonts, colors, and animation all work to keep the focus on the text, while frequent chapter-breaks parcel out a story that would feel overwhelming if undifferentiated. My setup doesn’t lend itself to audio, unfortunately, so I wasn’t able to experience the music, though it appears a lot of thought and effort went into that.
3. The realm of forms
As is hopefully clear from the above, there are a lot of ideas at play in Accelerate, and even more references. Again, the acknowledgments are comprehensive and worth a read, though many of them are catchable as you go (Accelerate confirms my theory that if you ever see someone use the word “preterite”, there is a 75% chance they are winking at Thomas Pynchon, and a 25% chance they are themselves Thomas Pynchon). You’ve got Jacob wrestling the angel, 1990s space-rock band Spiritualized, the Albigensian heresy, and way way more within the fictional conceit of the world – and in the authors notes and acknowledgments, a clear invocation and situation of the piece within (what is at least presented as) a personal history of trauma and reclamation, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.
If I were to try to sum up the ideological action as compactly as possible (which, to be clear, is probably not a particularly useful or interesting thing to do), it’s the Gnosticism that rises to the top. Accelerate, it seems to me, is about how the material world we inhabit is broken, fallen, and incomplete – and it makes this case convincingly! It posits that this is the result of a betrayal by an evil Archon, and that through personal and societal transcendence we can reclaim our birthright of immanence. And it portrays that redemption happening through often-horrifying violence visited upon often-anonymous people who are complicit in evil through their silence and acquiescence.
This is fair, as far as it goes – within the fictional world, the baddies certainly give better than they get, and épater la bourgeoisie is a hallowed strategy. And it also echoes some of the alleged deeds of the worst of the gnostics, whose revulsion at the fallen nature of the material world led some to commit enormities (at least in the unreliable narration of their orthodox enemies). Still, at a time when catharsis through violence animates so much of our art and, more to the point, our politics… it made me feel bad (the pathetic, mewling cry of the too-subjective critic). To be clear, Accelerate isn’t positing an ethic of brutality – the authors note in particular offers (again, apparently real-world) forgiveness for an awful crime – but I did feel like I sensed some quiet sorting of wheat and tares, of who is given the chance to be redeemed and who is not.
Wrapping up here feels like ending on a sour note, but I hope the author(s) will forgive that. Accelerate certainly wasn’t written for everyone; a large chunk of it worked very well for me, and it’s not too hard to imagine the person for whom it fires on all cylinders. It’s a wonderful, well-conceived and well-executed experience, and one I won’t forget anytime soon.
See All 5 Member Reviews
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