Alltarach

by Katie Canning profile and Josef Olsson

2024

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Historical mythologies, May 14, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

(This is a game with a narrative that unfolds in layers, and as a result itís hard to talk about without engaging with some elements that seem to be meant as surprises; unmarked spoilers ahoy!)

Alltarach is an impressive Twine game that does a whole lot of things very well. The setting is perhaps the most unique element: its take on Dark Ages Ireland engages with the displacement of druidic paganism by Christianity, while taking each side of the struggle seriously and leaving more than enough room for fantasy. Thereís also a large cast of appealing characters, each with their own role to play in a complex society but also boasting enough personality to feel like real people. Thereís moody art, evocative writing incorporating lots of Irish, strong pacing, and a really well-done climax that introduces a satisfying twist to everything thatís come before and allows your choices to have a significant impact on the storyís resolution (or at least, it really feels like it does Ė the game autosaves, so no going back to check Ė but isnít that all that matters?) As a result, I really really liked it!

I didnít love it, though, so this is review is going to be one of those unsatisfying ones where I pick at a game I thought was very good and try to determine why I didnít think it was great. Given that the word-count is going to be disproportionately devoted to nit-picking, let me emphasize that the above paragraph is not just me doing a bit; this is legit a really strong, enjoyable game, and I hope it gets the audience it deserves. And I suspect some of my reaction is down to matters of idiosyncratic preference Ė I was really digging the grounded historicism of the first section of the game, for example, and found myself slightly disappointed when the fantasy elements came to the fore; other players might find their reactions to that flipped.

Sticking with that shift, though, I donít think my negative reaction is wholly down to a matter of taste. For one thing, it happens fairly abruptly and without much foreshadowing in the gameís first act, in which the gameís protagonist, an orphaned teenager living on a tiny fishing-dependent island, realizes that her brother has abandoned her and makes grounded preparations to voyage to the mainland and track him down. There are other youths with whom she shares a history (and maybe a flirtation or two), scant possessions to gather, a prized sheep to make arrangements for, and a colloquy with a priest that establishes some of the axes of conflict in this alien world. Itís an effective prologue, so I was taken aback when some mid-journey dialogue established that the brother was under an apparently-effective magical geas preventing him from setting foot on Ireland proper Ė and then even more taken aback when almost the first person I met upon arrival was the god of the dead himself. True, heís come down in the world quite a lot what with the rise of Christianity, but still, this felt like a major escalation without much buildup.

Beyond this matter of craft, the density of supernatural people and occurrences Ė seriously, you wind up meeting at least one major figure from Irish folklore a day Ė seems sufficiently high that it calls into question the success Saint Patrick appears to have had; thereís no indication that the protagonist is at all special in terms of attracting more supernatural attention than normal (if anything, as a Christian herself, she might be getting less?) but surely the living presence of the old gods would inhibit the adoption of a new one? Whatís even more challenging to the storyís integrity is that the player doesnít get a sense of how this impacts the protagonistís beliefs: her faith is established as perhaps a bit flexible in that opening act, as much born out of adherence to her dead parentsí wishes as sincere personal engagement with Christianity. But at least in my playthrough, none of the things she experiences causes her to question her allegiance.

Some of this may be due to the authorsí reluctance to characterize the main character and therefore make it harder for players to project themselves into her, I suppose. But Iím not a big fan of that approach to player characters in general, and it seems especially ill-suited for this story, which is no generic quest narrative. And itís not just the question of religion: the protagonist often felt like a cipher to me. It wasnít until a throwaway comment in the ending sequence that I realized that she was meant to be deathly afraid of the sea since her parents were killed while sailing during a storm; that hadnít come through at all during the extended voyage sequence. I also hit a moment in my playthrough where during a conversation with a nun, she was struck by the twin revelations that a) lesbianism existed and b) she was probably one Ė but as far as I can tell this is never mentioned again.

Thatís not the only thing that falls by the wayside as the game progresses. Much of the well-drawn supporting cast largely exits the narrative halfway through, and while there are newcomers who are no less interesting, I have to confess this reduced my engagement. Thereís also an inventory system that feels like it has real weight early on Ė this is a society where most people have very few possessions Ė but that likewise didnít seem to have any impact after reaching the convent.

The final thing that kept me at armís length was the occasional inscrutability of the gameís prose. Iím fine with confusing writing when it sets a mood or serves a purpose Ė I will never shut up about how much I love Queenlash Ė but I sometimes found myself baffled by unclear pronoun referents or glancing references that I think I was supposed to get. Hereís a bit where the protagonist is reflecting on her brotherís flight:

"The suggestion of the mainland comes to you again. Men in golden chariots, wheeling around bellowing dreadful cries of vengeance, the great brown bull loose amongst them. But also culture, indigenous and Roman, hiding in their fortresses and churchyards. He wouldnít fit in there, but nor would he much care. Stubborn, like yourself."

The game doesnít provide any clues I found to decode that second sentence, and I really canít parse the third at all. Or later:

"When the sailors are red-faced and tired enough and the hooker swaying with the weight of her cargo, the captain, a big, weatherbeaten man who looks half-squid, barks an ďall aboardĒ and stares down at the druidess."

I guess the hooker is the boat, but it seems like thereís a tense change happening somewhere in the middle? This isnít a matter of the occasional typo, I donít think; just an element of the writing style that I think adds enough friction to exacerbate some of the other things that occasionally took me out of the story.

Thatís a lot of critique, so let me toggle back now and wrap up with some praise, because I really did want to be beguiled by this story, and sometimes was, especially in that first section which I think is the strongest. Hereís one of the first descriptions, of your tiny little hovel:

"You stumble into the kitchen area. Like the rest of the little cottage, the walls are bare stone, unpainted and unornamented, and in the centre is the hearth where last nightís sad embers, smoored with ash, struggle on. You look away reflexively, flushed with the shame of knowing that itís not the same fire that Mam had tended every night since she moved to the island; you had let it die, not long after it happened, and for a long time you lay barely sleeping with him in a hollowed home, damp and dark, wind groaning through every crack. Now you keep it diligently, even though it still feels like someone elseís responsibility."

Thatís a great, grounded way of showing the impact of grief with some efficient world-building on the side.

And I really did like many of the characters Ė Iím not surprised everyone seems to have a crush on Ailbhe Ė and some of the creative worldbuilding touches Ė it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that Brigid wasnít just the goddess, but somehow was also the saint of the same name, which is really cleverly done. Again, a lot of the ingredients here are excellent; thereís something about the recipe that didnít fully click for me, but I do appreciate the care that went into making it.

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