The Fall of Asemia

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The spoils of war, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

An arty, experimental piece, The Fall of Asemia engages with timely themes: I wish its melancholy story of an occupying army destroying a city’s way of life didn’t have quite so many contemporary resonances both literal and metaphorical, but here we are. I felt these connections all the more clearly because the game doesn’t wholly position the player as a participant in these events, but rather as a scholar exhausted by the effort of translating these records and bearing witness to the crimes they memorialize. I don’t know when the game was written, and whether the author intended to draw parallels to how Westerners have been following the distant but visceral war in Ukraine – and certainly there’s no way for it to have anticipated the past couple of days, as we Americans have been grappling with how far a self-righteous minority will go to dismantle our rights (this review was written when the Supreme Court's draft opinion striking down all abortion rights was leaked) – but its downbeat vibe definitely met me where I’ve been at.

The mood conjured by the translated fragments is at once dreamlike and violently, even harshly, immediate, and is the main draw here. That’s especially the case when the game turns to depicting the feelings of the conquered population (note the mimesis-enhancing translator’s aside in the first excerpt):

"The language they use here—it tastes like blood from a bit tongue. I tire so easily now. Our ears are tired, too. [… here, the ligatures don’t look Asemic—cf. the Eth ms.] Tell me, is Asemia really dead? It is merely drowning, yes?

"The strange vowels of this province flood my mouth like chewing on leather. Someone has painted the sky a different color. The other wives gather in circles like quail, and sometimes I can’t remember how to thread a needle. Those conquerors are fools. Soon enough, Asemia will rupture their hearts until they can’t tell the difference between blood and wine."

You only get a paragraph or two in each passage before moving on to another narrator, who provides another view of the static situation, so there’s no strong sense of narrative development within the records. Instead, progression comes within the frame, as the translator tries on different approaches to understanding the texts and sinking into increasing depression at the tides of history.

This is where the game’s interactivity comes in, because before each passage you’re given a choice of four to six abstract glyphs, each of which you can toggle between one of three different versions with a click. The set of glyphs you choose impact how the passage is translated, and since you loop through the same set of records three times over the course of the game, you can see how these selections change the text. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it didn’t wind up working that well for me as a model for how translation works. For one thing, since the glyphs are completely nonrepresentational, the player has to choose blindly, which seems in tension with the way a translator has to weigh the choice of reducing an ambiguous word to just one specific correlate. For another, the shifts in the texts feel like they go beyond differences of interpretation or emphasis and into straight-out different meaning. Here, for example, are the three distinct possible ways the first record can be translated (with the caveat that they can be mixed and matched if you don’t click each glyph the same number of times):

"In the city after the war, there were flowers made of shrapnel. They stank like the smoke from the bombed buildings. I tried to pick up loose stars from the shards of city glass.

"In the city after the war, there were women who danced on blood. They swayed like the sausages left hanging in the butcher’s window. I fought to save our dog until my husband, spitting bile, grabbed my arm.

"In the city after the war, there were men who sang like bones. They forgot about the river with its bloated bodies. I could barely walk away from the library’s books, open and dead in the street, like shot doves."

These are all arresting images, but it’s hard to reverse-engineer a plausible language where the difference between “men”, “women”, and “flowers” is hard to resolve, much less the highly-divergent last sentence. I don’t want to harp on this too much, since the game is clearly focused on communicating its mood and themes, rather than providing a simulation of what it’s like to translate a dead language – but it did feel like a misalignment between the game’s fiction and its ludic elements.

Beyond this fairly abstract niggle, though, I for once don’t have much to complain about here; I didn’t exactly enjoy my time spent wallowing in the bitter, fading memories of the citizens of now-vanished Asemia, but by displacing some of the stressful things going on in real life right now into a fictional context, it was very much cathartic for me. Recommended, but maybe don’t go doomscrolling on Twitter right after you finish.

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