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A masterful alchemical mystery, January 6, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I beta tested this game, but did a full replay before writing this review).
This is my last review of the 2022 Comp, so yíall will hopefully forgive me if I indulge in one of my worst habits, which is opening a review with a meandering personal anecdote thatís only tangentially related to the matter at hand (see, now Iíve lampshaded it, itís fine) Ė itís about my favorite band, the Mountain Goats. If youíre not familiar, for purposes of this story the salient facts about them are a) as good as their albums are, the live shows are really where itís at, and thus thereís a very robust, band-sanctioned bootleg scene, and b) even in 2005 when this story is set they had a deep, deep discography with hundreds of unreleased songs, limited-run EPs, and albums released on cassette-only record labels lost to do the mists of time, such that even a devoted fan like me couldnít come close to being familiar with all of it.
With that background set, let me take you back seventeen years ago Ė I was living in New York City, and cursing my luck because the bandís frontman was coming to the city to do a pair of rooftop shows over the Fourth of July weekend, which was the same weekend an old high school friend of mine was getting married in Massachusetts. The wedding was lovely, I have to admit, but part of me was gritting my teeth with fomo the whole time, knowing I was missing what were surely some awesome shows. Fortunately, a kind soul recorded them, and after a few weeksí waiting, I downloaded the files Ė and then was beyond startled to see listed fifteenth on the July 2nd setlist a song called Going to Port Washington. Port Washington, you see, is where I grew up, a Long Island town Ė technically a hamlet Ė of 15,000 souls, so unexceptional that its Wikipedia page will put you to sleep (the most notable fact is that we were big in sand-mining in the 1870s). The odds that my favorite band would have written a song about my hometown seemed astronomically small Ė and I came so close to discovering this at a live show I could have attended myself but for that quirk of scheduling.
That brings us, at long last, to According to Cain. This thing is my jam Ė itís a smartly-implemented, beautifully written parser game where you use an authentically-researched alchemy system to delve into the psychology behind Cainís slaying of Abel, with a list of inspirations that had me nodding my head as I went down the list from obvious (of course Name of the Rose is on there, everyone loves Name of the Rose) to the obscure (Iíve not previously met anyone who knows, let alone adores, Peter Gabrielís soundtrack to the Last Temptation of Christ, but here we are). So whatís the fomo? While Iím glad to have been a tester and help with the gameís development, part of me wishes I could have just discovered the game fresh in the competition, playing it in its fully formed version and free to shout to anyone whoíd listen that they have to play this one (I feel itís gauche to do that for something where youíre listed in the credits!)
With the Comp coming to a close, though, itís well past time to sing the gameís praises. To start, for all that the premise is a bit brainy and potentially daunting, it does a very good job of easing the player in. The opening narration gives you just enough to understand who you are, what youíre doing, and why youíre doing it: youíre an alchemical investigator, sent back in time to investigate the settlement abandoned by the first humans in the wake of Cainís kinslaying, in order to learn the nature of the mark God put upon Cain as a punishment for his crime. It also gradually introduces the tools youíll use to unravel the mystery of Cainís mark. You start with a small collection of alchemical reagents, then acquire a reference book you can use to look up the objects, people, and spells that youíll encounter in your adventure (complete with chatty, helpful marginalia from your mentor).
The rituals start out simple, and directly clued, before growing in complexity without ever becoming obfuscated or overwhelming. There are two basic kinds of puzzles in the game, beyond simply collecting more ingredients to empower your spells as you go. The most straightforward involve using alchemical formulae to wreak physical changes on your environment. These often require you to be creative about looking up possible approaches in your reference book Ė you might be confronted with a boulder and start casting about for potential solutions, for example Ė at which point youíll learn the required ingredients. Second, the most narratively-important puzzles involve unlocking ďrevelationsĒ Ė looking for things or places that bore witness to significant events in Cainís story, then accessing the memories imprinted upon them by applying an appropriate mix of elements. One of the first formulas you learn will tell you the list of required ingredients, but sometimes these encode riddles Ė you might be told you need to apply salt, phlegm, and the poison of Abelís humour, say, meaning that you need to figure out which of the four basic humours most resonates with his personality.
This isnít just a way of gating progress and making the puzzles more interesting than following a recipe Ė it winds up tying the magic system to the themes of the story, and requires the player to understand, and engage with, the psychology of the lead players of the drama. In fact, one of the things thatís most successful about According to Cain is that all of its elements are cannily judged to reinforce the storyís themes. The landscape, for example, is geologically active as befits a young earth, roiling and burning and churning just as Cain resents his brotherís insolence. Meanwhile, your character is gently characterized, given a bit of backstory that lightly suggests that you can sympathize with the experience of someone driven out from their home and, justly or unjustly, made a scapegoat.
The writing is another strength, as itís particularly graceful throughout. Itís not showy Ė in fact, itís often downright terse Ė but itís evocative, nailing the peculiar dance required of parser-game prose by communicating lovely, lyrical imagery while still being concrete enough to allow the player to understand what theyíre seeing and how to use it to solve puzzles. Hereís the description of a crow flying across a river:
"As though demonstrating the ease of fording a river, the crow launches from the far bank, soars over the river in a geometric arc, and lands gracefully a few feet from you."
More darkly, hereís the description of a slaughterhouse:
"The planks are a rich tannin color from the sheer quantity of blood spilled. The coloration spreads up the walls, spattered from countless slaughtered animals. You imagine a grim assortment of iron tools and instruments once filled this place. Mostly, itís the lingering odor here that strikes you."
Weíre not inundated with extraneous details, all of which would need to be implemented as scenery and laboriously examined in turn, but itís more than enough to get a feeling of the places youíre exploring as you perform your forensic investigations and piece together what really happened (as the description indications, SMELL and LISTEN are implemented where appropriate).
The gameís structure is also well judged. It opens up in layers, with a medium-sized map gradually unlocking as you solve puzzles, with progress corresponding to deeper understanding of the story behind Cainís growing resentment of Abel. While youíve always got quite a lot of freedom to explore, the puzzle-solving dependencies mean that youíll likely encounter the different memories in a sequence that piques your curiosity about what really happened between the brothers, as early fragments of knowledge quickly establish that the conventional tale omits key facts. Indeed, the gameís narrative treats all the characters with some degree of sympathy; while Cain is situated as the most important character, and given some clear reasons for his violent acts, heís not let completely off the hook, just as the bratty, button-pushing Abel is also allowed a few moments of subjectivity before the end.
Do I have critiques? Well, I can think of one, which involves the aforementioned ending, though itís fairly minor Ė let me take this behind spoiler tags: (Spoiler - click to show)you start the game with a magic bracelet that will allow you to return to your home, but itís quickly lost. Fortunately, thereís a replacement that can be found, which belonged to one of the previous investigators assigned to plumb the mystery of Cainís mark but who died by misadventure along the way. The game frames the question of whether to take this bracelet as a dilemma Ė you can return it to the corpse that it can be sent back and presumably receive a proper burial Ė but the decision feels too easy, especially because the protagonist comes down with a fever partway through the game thatís a death sentence if theyíre not able to make it home. This is too bad because the downbeat ending where you learn the secret youíre searching for, but must resign yourself to a lonely death in exchange, seems a better thematic fit for the dour, obsessive mood the game conjures up, but to access this more satisfying resolution the player needs to take actions that are clearly counter to the protagonistís interests.
Again, thatís not much of a criticism Ė I thoroughly enjoyed my time with According to Cain, and while I feel like it was designed specifically to appeal to me, I think many other players will be in the same boat. And if I didnít get to experience the pleasing shock of discovery when stumbling upon this gem amid a sea of 70 other Comp entries, well, I canít have too many regrets, since after all I did get to play it. Highly recommended (oh, so too is Going to Port Washington, I forgot to say! It would make for an unflattering lead-in anecdote if the song was bad, so luckily thatís not the case).