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A dreamlike and mystical game about music, rivalry, and land wars , July 27, 2020
Rarely has a game given me more to think about. For the first time I can remember, I had to keep open a notebook on my thoughts for this review as I was writing, because there was so much I wanted to comment on.
This game felt surreal to me. Caleb Wilson is well-known for his haunting or magical games like Lime Ergot and Starry Seeksorrow. I was definitely looking forward to playing this, and it was one of the games IFDB had most suggested to me over the last few years.
The dreamlike quality pervades this piece. The other works of film or literature I compared it to as I played were Pilgrim's Progress, Dante's Inferno, the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Amadeus, and the works of Baz Luhrmann. If it were produced as a film I'd expect it to look like The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari, and I wonder if the whole Choicescript game couldn't be reinterpreted as a mental exploration of the subconscious. A major feature of the game is numerous bright stages where you sit alone before a dark and murmuring audience in a towering theatre which features bizarre architecture.
As to the game itself, you are a famed composer and musician. This world is an alternate version of Europe, set after the exile of its version of Napoleon and on the eve of a war between Napoleon and Russia.
In this world, many people are possessed with a parasitic intelligence known as a Genius, which may or may not just be a feature of their subconscious. Your genius has various opposed qualities it can lean towards.
Each chapter is played in a different town, each of which is characterized by an abundance of one thing (and here I think of the works of Kafka [but more cheerful] and Michael Ende, although neither one exactly applies).
There are a cast of distinct characters who shadow you everywhere you go, including a rival, a journalist, several love interests, and quite a few spies.
The text of the game is so interesting. I have a whole file of the most dreamlike and surreal bits, but here is a taste:
(Spoiler - click to show)"You approach a glowing rectangle: the strangely small doorway that must open onto the concert stage. Perhaps it is just the peculiar atmosphere of the castle, but you feel oddly nervous. The room is awash in bright light and for a moment you can't see a thing. When your eyes adjust you find yourself standing at the back of the curiously small stage. The hall stretches away farther than the stage lights allow you to see. There is no applause to greet your appearance: half of the audience is staring at you in silence, while the others—clerks, to judge by appearance—are hard at work, pens scratching at ledgers. It seems that for much of the audience, this is a working lunch. There is a blurry square, lit by dim lights, to the side and high up the wall, which is concave like the inside of a spoon. King Ferenc's box, perhaps?"
and another one:
"An elegant woman dressed in black and purple is standing before a marble mantel. There is no fire, just a hint of ashes; instead she—"May I present," says Peruz, "Countess Zerov, an esteemed visitor from the court of Sclavia!"—is the flame. A dark and liquid flame, like that which smolders unseen, sending up barely a hint of smoke and devouring a building from within."
Why, then, would I give 4 stars to a game that affected me so dramatically instead of 5?
I had some troubles. The enormous multitude of names was overwhelming, and I found the game had no almanac or list of names of places and people. Some kind of accompaniment to remind us might be nice.
I had difficulty knowing when my genius was being changed and when it was being tested. I had spent a great deal of time cultivating a mathematical genius, but then realized I couldn't change it more. A chapter or two later, it had suddenly reversed itself to be as unmathematical as possible. One of my choices must have changed it, but when, and where? Many other challenges were similarly opaque.
Overall, this game is a masterpiece of writing and setting, and I feel it will linger in my mind for many years to come. I had a long, long dream last night and this morning, and when I woke up there was a short time where the dream world felt more real than this one. This game parallels that same feeling, and it was surreal and haunting to play it so soon after that experience.
I received a review copy of this game.