[PYG]MALION*

by C.J.

2021

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Number of Reviews: 4
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An empty plenum, April 15, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

After checking out its entry page, I was looking forward to this one: choosing the mythological counterpoint to Galatea as the title of your game is a move with appealing chutzpah, no matter how much extraneous punctuation you throw in there to muck things up, and Pygmalion’s blurb offers a pretty solid hook too:

"A story about You— The Murdered God— and the attempt to solve your death’s mystery in places beyond."

That enthusiasm carried me into the opening sequence, as the game’s got a neat CGA aesthetic and starts reeling off potentially-compelling plot elements: a murder-mystery where you’re the victim! Fourth-dimensional politics! Reformed necromancers! Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories! And there’s a fun little character-generation sequence here where you can define the genders of yourself and your sidekick.

Unfortunately, once I got to the game proper, my enthusiasm began eroding and I wound up not enjoying this one very much at all. On both the game and writing sides of things, my experience with Pygmalion was irritating and empty, despite the author’s clear intentionality and technical skills.

Before getting to the critique, a potted summary of how Pygmalion plays is needed, so here goes: you’re a god who’s been murdered by parties unknown, but a helpful necromancer has resurrected you by shoving your spirit into a marble statue. This second lease on life is on a severe timer, but it’s enough to allow you (with the necromancer in tow as a sidekick) to revisit the scene of the crime – a sort of cross-dimensional nexus – and interrogate the suspects and hopefully figure out whodunnit before you re-expire. The game is in Twine, but with a stylized presentation where you’re always looking at a retro, 4-color picture of a character or location, with navigation or dialogue choices listed below.

There are eight locations that play home to five suspects, with lots of incidental environmental details to investigate along the way. The places you can go are mundane – a garden, a foyer, a rec-room – but the contents are offbeat, including strange half-mechanical plants, ley-line tangles, and obelisk-fountains that resolutely refuse to grant any wishes. So too are the suspects, who are nameless representations of aspects of society: politics, capitalism, entertainment, big tech, and athletics (though I was confused on this last one since his picture makes him look like a motorcycle cop), each of whom occupies a different point on the spectrum between menacing and alluring – the cast reminded me of the characters you can make in the tabletop RPG Nobilis, if anyone remembers that. After time’s up (there is a real timer that ticks down as you explore), you accuse one and get an ending, though you appear to die again no matter what.

Even reading this summary, I think it sounds really great! But like I said, I got very little enjoyment out of this one. Partially this is due to how finicky the interface is, which adds friction to every interaction. Because of how much space the pictures take up on the screen, the text is spit out only one or two sentences at a time, and sometimes there’s quite a lot of it to get through before there’s a choice. Unfortunately, this requires either hitting the space bar – which I found often led to skipping over a line – or clicking a tiny > button that shifts slightly up and down in the window depending on how much text there is, which is a constant, low-level frustration. There are also sometimes options or explanatory text that shows up below the main display, meaning you frequently need to scroll up and down to see whether you’re missing anything.

I also didn’t really enjoy the game’s prose, though it’s technically well done – I noticed only a few scattered typos, and it’s got its own style. Unfortunately the style is one I don’t like. Sometimes it’s flat and dull, listing the furniture and stating how characters are standing and moving in terms more unimaginative than you’d think given the setting. It does occasionally liven up, typically when interacting with the suspects, but usually that means it starts sprinkling in references and adjectives that don’t quite fit, while remaining emotively flat, which winds up creating a kind of vague, hostile atmosphere. This alteration of styles I’m sure is intentional – it reminded me a bit of some of the literary fiction in vogue in the early 90’s, like David Foster Wallace circa Girl With Curious Hair – but it made my experience playing the game alienating and dull.

Speaking of things that are alienating and dull, the murder mystery here underwhelmed me. When you sketch the outline, again, it should be great! The problem is that there’s no actual investigation to undertake. There are no physical clues (crime scene’s been tidied up); you can only ask the suspects the same three questions, with none of them having anything substantive to say in response; and at the end, you can accuse anyone you want but regardless of your choice, you appear to only get a sly hint that sure, maybe they did it, without any resolution. Your actions wind up being completely unimportant as far as I can tell, with the player character unable to even attempt to solve the mystery. I suspect, as with the prose, this is the point, but for reasons I won’t rehash here since this is already running long, I really don’t get on with 99% of postmodern detective stories.

(I should say that I found one small bit of interactivity in the scenery, where options changed depending on what order I did things – if you check out the fountain and bum all your sidekick’s coins to throw into the water, you can then go back to the car and get a much larger haul of change to dump in. This leads to a little reflection that I kind of liked, with that act being a sort of commemoration of your soon-to-end existence, a kind of riff on writing your name in water. But this little narrative cul-de-sac, as always, doesn’t appear to have any impact on anything else that happens).

The last redoubt here would be the thematic level – if I found the story was ultimately one that had an impact on me and illuminated some aspect of the human condition, certainly all the above would be forgivable. Alas, I found things uninspiring on this front too. The narrative doesn’t have much in the way of specificity – like, who the god you’re playing is, or how they’re related to the characters you meet and why anyone would want to kill you. This is a problem not just for the murder-mystery side of things because no one has a motive, but also on the literary side of things because there’s not really any conflict. Sure, you can impose your own reading on this empty vessel – the best I can do is to imagine that the murdered god is a representation of religion, so Pygmalion is about allowing you to level a finger at the force that’s displaced you from pride of place in contemporary American society. But the game doesn’t give you enough interesting building-blocks to really support that interpretation.

As I’ve said throughout, this is a well-considered game that doesn’t do things accidentally, and shows quite a lot of skill and craft (though I did notice two bugs – a broken link to an image when examining the portraits in the stateroom, and a missing macro closing tag error in the Chanteuse ending). And I can see it resonating really strongly with certain players. But sad to say on this one, I’m on the outside looking in.