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Babel and everything after, June 16, 2022
When I play IF with an eye towards writing a review, I keep a digital commonplace book – just a little text file where I copy and paste stray bits of writing that resonated with me, jot down inchoate responses that I might flesh out later, and keep track of typos and bugs to flag for the author. For most games it comes to a page or so, providing a nice jumping-off point for when it comes time to write a review.
I spent the better part of ten days playing Manifest No, and thinking about it, and thinking about how to write about it, and in that time my notepad for the game swelled to over twenty pages. I found one dead-end link (it’s “destructocreative”, in Chapter XX), and one thing that might be a typo (“mattrless”) – though that could be a joke about the center of things going missing. The rest is maybe the top 2% of the passages from the game that did something to my heart or my head or both, alongside my increasingly-frantic attempts to make sense of what I was reading. Here’s a random sampling just from my notes on chapter XIV (of XXVII):
“If we, if humankind loses its music, neither sigh nor sign to convoke voice, then what is of a struggle soundless?” Meluoi. “Require we respite religion, psalms of our spite forever afresh to worship day tatters. Submergence in another subjectivity is the only release our isolated souls will receive, this where is I guide you, hold you under the surface, strain out your struggling for air, until at last you slump serene, and we embrace on both sides of a mirror, drowned in each other’s airless, but I can’t make you drink the depths into your own air. You must yourself choose to, to… oh Yamicz, how I struggle to drown myself, let alone you, but I must, I, somehow I have to…”
Renaming sequence, cf all the above. “U, Emninu Leiru. Deiyanasz swa dieya vo. Yamicz.”
To want beyond your brittle limits thorns those on whom your thirsts lunge. No, that’s purposely too harsh. To want someone is suppression and therefore not virtue. Never want someone. Never want anything. No, that’s purposely too harsh. Why this perverse desire to feel worse, how much regret piles up to penance, when can I stop embracing the waste?
(Guess which of those words are Kaemi’s, and which are mine).
All of which is to say that there’s no way I can write a reasonable review that even manages to encapsulate everything I feel and think about Manifest No, much less pin down everything that it’s actually about and what it does. Partially, of course, this is down to sheer avoirdupois – opening the game’s html text in Word, it comes to just under 400 pages, and there’s not much in the way of fancy code inflating that – and partially it’s down to the dense, palimpsestic prose; the text is thick with neologistic portmanteaus, second-order homophones, and alliterative tricks that aren’t just naïve flourishes but carry a payload of meaning in their playful sporting, so you can read each sentence two or three times and take away a different set of valences each time.
(It occurs to me that what I just described has some resonance with the Hindu concept of lila, or god’s play – the idea that what we experience of reality is the divine separating itself into different forms (illusive, maya-forms) so that it can experience itself, extend itself in space and time, and reach deeper understanding through its reflexive game-playing. Is this a bit of a reach, even kind of presumptuous given that it’s a non-Hindu who’s trying to make it? I think yes, basically, but this is the kind of response Manifest No elicits, in some respects demands, so there’s blame to go around).
So there’s length, there’s density, but there’s also reach. While the plot of the game, to the extent I can make it out, can be reduced to a fairly standard postapocalyptic fantasy narrative, the thematic are much wider-ranging, again to the extent I can make them out. Without making a vain attempt to wrap my arms fully around things, there were two strands that primarily stood out to me: first, there’s a preoccupation with immanence; the world the protagonist experiences, we’re told repeatedly, is a hollow one, lacking in substance:
“Should dreams stream a little more lucid, who should wish for waking? Reality as changeful as those within it,” Myneme upon some lost wintry. "Contact between self and the ghostly sieve without the arid abstractions which plague day blears. Live in the conception truer than perception: the world unfinished, full of half shaped phantoms, rushed through real, even in nightmare is there a more fulfilling terror than in the encroaching of systems, structure ever increasingly predeterminative, riven into selfdefulfilling prophecies stripping you to actuals, simply throatsubmit to the swallowing semblancer.
Some of this is internal: the protagonist is running from significant trauma, including a seemingly-abusive mother, a recently-killed friend (or lover?), plus they kill someone early on. He’s not the only one who expresses feelings of alienation and emptiness, though: the theme is externally-driven as well. We’re post some kind of worldwide disaster that’s caused the seas to rise and the land to flood, with isolated capital-t Towers scattered in hostile oceans the last bastions of humanity (well, I suppose I should say “people” – the precise taxonomy of some characters can be challenging to fix, with a subgroup referred to as Vedas who might be biologically distinct (or it might just be that they’ve held on to literacy and have books whereas most other folks don’t), and one character who’s described as a lizard, which works well enough as a metaphor but could be that he’s like, a Gorn?)
I don’t think this is just a matter of life sucking and the protagonist being all grimdark, though: there are indications that whatever sundered the world somehow broke down the transcendent order that infuses meaning into gross matter (perhaps the title’s a clue, beyond being a dumb/awesome pun – this is a place where negation is made physical):
Hollowness of self precipitates hollowness of place.
To imbue into the object ourselves to reverse our initial eternal traumatic separation so when it rebounds amplified it can incinerate the innate curse along with us, shall we say the rose is not its thorns?
all these, stupidly tactile chairs, this world of browns and bangs, it’s not the faintest figment of that, that uh, I don’t know, I don’t know! I just, when I woke up I immediately descended, physically to follow my soul aye, went all the way home, and I, swam in the port, dove and rose and dove and rose until I thought I might disturb the glue that keeps these opposites together… really wanted to die in that moment, I can’t, it’s hard to explain, like in fate’s pull only faster or slower floating, wanted in the dream wake to live out my meaning at a rate worthy of our blood’s pumping to panic attack amass.
The other major strand that resonated with me has to do with language, and the simultaneous criticality of and inadequacy of words to fix identity and grapple with the transcendent. There are echoes of Babel all over this game, from the gross level of the plot – it’s structured as a quest for something called the Submerged Tower, which has a whiff of the Flood and Atlantis, sure, but in a gnostic-inflected narrative like this there’s really only one tower that matters. Throughout, we find passages like this:
Cease your prayers to a demon so brutal as single say, certain word, solid sound, sunders our ice palaces to seep through the noxious underworld fuming caustic thoughts, our wild grasping backward in the evernight seeking the source of a separate light other than what our pearl eyes radiate.
Atrocity natural, who should not wish cleave a dream city? Unspeakable situation, how do we supernate beyond construction of tenses artificial imposed brutal upon the fluid?
Speaking and naming does violence to the true nature of reality; at the same time, words have incredible power. Those Vedas I mentioned above? Almost the first thing the regular characters note that sets them apart is that they know “the Literature”, and they’re frequently asked for songs or poems, in tones not dissimilar from a starving person begging for crumbs. In a climactic scene, one of the Vedas rechristens the protagonist, giving him a new name and creating within him a potential for difference.
Emptiness, fullness, language, confusion – there are paradoxes here, deep ones. Is there a singular, unifying theme that can knit all of this together? Mmmmmaybe. Gun to my head, I’d say the deepest current is a Buddhist one, since the empty contingency of reality and the essential nonduality of forms provide a frame for making sense of all this. But ironically, I think it’s my own identity and viewpoint that makes me say this, since that’s the ontological frame I personally find most congenial for making sense of the world – oddly, I’ve even run a tabletop roleplaying campaign where reality had broken down and become ontologically empty, and it also involved swashbuckling adventure on fantastic oceans (of course, the cabal trying to immanentize the eschaton were the baddies in that one…). Maybe this is a coincidence, or maybe it’s a just an indication of the richness of the text that it offered me this vein to follow to what feels like the mother lode but might just be one deposit among many (there’s a lot here about sin that I engaged with only superficially, to say nothing of how to understand the often-shocking violence throughout the story).
Manifest No is hard to cabin, in other words; there’s more here than you (OK, I) can fully understand, and I’m flattering myself if I say I caught maybe a third of what Kaemi is putting out. You’ve hopefully got a sense of the language by now, but it’s marvelous, and well above my, maybe anyone’s, head. One more excerpt, then I promise I’ll be less profligate:
Ever persist of permanence recursions individuation of moments to eternal flowvents superimposing samsara alternation carnatives of dayrise and wellgone, swimming in sphere Uyllia where arises equally descends in infinite recall unpopulated with possibility uniterated, precalculated anneal of every energy enumerated matrices accounting the conditions preconditions, endless pastness of advanceless present tense mirroring itself infinitely any future of felt so the same, nigh as gods we dallianced in sphere Uyllia, capsule world lavish lazuli, brightness whirlwind blinding the outer unshines to presume border to predicate a notional knownness facilitator of participatory adequation excessive consumptional in identificatory fretworks, these consistency energies which contextualize our worlds sufficient to prevent its chthonic roar alienation stripping adornments to bare serative seriatim discourse, knowledge closure brocade bricolage
Just think of the domains of knowledge this sounds in, just look at the words: samsara from Buddhism, anneal from chemistry, seriatim from law, chthonic from Greek myth… So yes, Manifest No is demanding. But, I belatedly realize I should point out, it’s by no means an overwhelming slog. I’ve mostly been quoting from the more elevated language that, in fairness, makes up like 85% of the text, but the dialogue of many of the minor characters along on the voyage is typically much more direct, and the contrast between their plainspoken natures and the recondite Vedas (and protagonist) helps make sense of the plot, and also sets up some real comedy. There’s one bit where the crew cajoles one of the Vedas into telling a story, which she promises will involve lots of excitement including some assassins, then she launches into this completely abstract song-poem:
Glinting mirrorlike the incantations
Surging ocher dust insisted shimmered
Great Vyekana, the City Dauntless,
Ruby set in canyons candelabra,
Lucre gleam in the squalid glare
Bubbled heatdrench tar crooked stars…
Grimoire poet of the vanish, howls harpist,
Thief of soul to hordes, riches of wrecks,
Dread fever fathom flashing in the fever spasms mortalia –"
“Where’s the assassins?” Mojyi. “Said assassins were there, was it?”
"These are the assassins! That’s, aren’t you listening?”
It’s hard to read this as anything other than Kaemi poking fun at herself – I laughed, at least.
Are there criticisms I could level, beyond Manifest No just being too much? Sure, though I hope I’ve learned my lesson from my review of Kaemi’s previous game, Queenlash, where I spent 2/3 of it nitpicking and acknowledged its brilliance only in passing. Flipping the script this time out: the hypertext-novel approach to navigation can be confusing, with the association between world-link and the resulting passage obscure in the extreme, which made me feel FOMO when I came across a passage with like a dozen different links. I also came up short when I hit what I think is the one actual branch in the game, where you can choose either the high road or the low road in ascending a Tower – maybe this is another joke about how choice-based games traditionally function, but it still feels deeply weird. And yes, the language swings for the fences and while I think it hits almost all of the time, it does occasionally whiff:
Closed shops on crooked roads bloating roundabout goiters these eaves so easily which could hide loiterers like a cue shooting you on a shuffleboard.
(Yes, that’s the source of the “oof, goiters” comment above).
Keeping track of the characters is also really hard, given their multiplicity of names and sobriquets, especially since many of them are deeply unfamiliar (from googling I think many might be central and east African, which is cool and plays the Babel theme given that most Anglophone readers are probably similarly going to lack context for them, but still left me belatedly writing up a cheat sheet). Perhaps most damningly, the ending didn’t land especially heavily for me – I think an inescapable downside of the fever-dream prose that makes up most of the text is that while you can dial it down, as Kaemi does with the crewmembers, it doesn’t leave you much room to dial up in a climax.
If these are sins, they’re venial ones at worst. Manifest No is an astonishment (and the fact that it comes only a year after the comparably-miraculous Queenlash is a feat of literary production I can barely contemplate); it’s literature of the most rarefied order, somehow showing up in the back garden of an IF festival. I have no more words. Read it.