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A divine inversion, December 5, 2020
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) Ė the Illuminatus! Trilogy, by two dudes named Robert. Itís this frothy, over-the-top, drug-fueled mťlange 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 donít 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 Ė 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 Ė 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! isnít mentioned in the Brobdingnagian acknowledgments page for Accelerate, so I suppose thereís no direct linkage, but I share that to give some partial flavor of whatís contained in this maximalist work, and also to acknowledge that while I think I get a lot of whatís going on here, Iím aware that Iím significantly too square to be the ideal audience for the piece Ė like, through my choices I think I made Accelerateís transgender divine assassin sometimes feel a little normcore? So while I thought it was really good, I suspect thereís 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 thatís hard to figure out how to get oneís pick into, so Iíll fall back on some structure to make it seem like my thoughts all connect up. I donít think itís worth trying to write about this piece without getting fairly spoilery, so I havenít 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 Iíve written.
1. The saha world of birth-and-death
(By which I mean, what is going on within the fictional world of the game Ė there is probably a way to write about Accelerate that does not involve reaching for the most pretentious references you can think of, but whereís the fun in that?)
Though the introduction to the game is intentionally jumbled up and disorienting, whatís going on here is relatively straightforward Ė 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 Ė transgenderism is a strong element here but isnít, I think, the whole of whatís going on). However, it turns out that the program doesnít stop there, and is also focused on external change Ė 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 Ė 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 protagonistís, responses to whatís going on Ė ones that I donít think dramatically shift the story, but offer a welcome invitation to the player to engage with whatís 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 clinicís basement to search out drugs, but I took a nap instead (told you I was normcore!) Thereís also a big set-piece midway through where the player has a choice of different missions to disrupt society Ė I got a suicide-bombing at a punk show, but from reading other reviews it seems like thereís 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 Ė in particular, the horrifying, civilian-directed violence of that punk-show chapter strongly colored how I experienced everything that came after, so Iím curious how the other branches would change things.
But look, none of the above would be worth very much if it wasnít 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. Iím going to excerpt one early bit of world-building at length so you can see what itís 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 thatís easy to do very very badly Ė and maybe you think this is bad, fair enough! Itís definitely unpleasant. But while Iím 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 doesnít let up. I donít want to just keep regurgitating bits of writing I liked, because again Iíve got 1,700 more words where that came from, but the language is intense, itís smart, itís playful and self-referential Ė itís 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 Ė and to be fair, it isnít meant to be, and it isnít Ė but it was the quality of prose that kept me going.
All right, hereís one more, a description of a spaceship dogfight of all things: ďHamish 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.Ē
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 doesnít lend itself to audio, unfortunately, so I wasnít 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 ďpreteriteĒ, there is a 75% chance they are winking at Thomas Pynchon, and a 25% chance they are themselves Thomas Pynchon). Youíve got Jacob wrestling the angel, 1990s space-rock band Spiritualized, the Albigensian heresy, and way way more within the fictional conceit of the world Ė 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), itís 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 Ė 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 Ė within the fictional world, the baddies certainly give better than they get, and ťpater 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 politicsÖ it made me feel bad (the pathetic, mewling cry of the too-subjective critic). To be clear, Accelerate isnít positing an ethic of brutality Ė the authors note in particular offers (again, apparently real-world) forgiveness for an awful crime Ė 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 wasnít written for everyone; a large chunk of it worked very well for me, and itís not too hard to imagine the person for whom it fires on all cylinders. Itís a wonderful, well-conceived and well-executed experience, and one I wonít forget anytime soon.