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A parade of horribles, January 7, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
My favorite band is indie-rockers the Mountain Goats, on the strength not just of the songs but also the witty, humane stage banter. There’s this one bit that's stuck with me ever since I heard it: the frontman talks about how when he first started writing songs, all the romantic ones involved protagonists stalking the objects of their quote-unquote affections, because what’s more emotionally intense than stalking? But of course beyond the super problematic nature of this approach, this means all your songs are kind of the same, and have nowhere to build. So pretty soon he wised up and moved on.
One glance at the content warnings for we, the remainder should indicate why I bring this up – I thought A Papal Summons was going to run away with the Most CWs sweepstakes, but it’s actually a close-run thing. The game is about a disabled girl who’s been left behind when the cult she and her mother belong to transcends their earthly fetters. This is a compelling premise, but I found myself exhausted by the author’s decision to twist every dial to 11. There are piles of dead bodies, gross-out scenes with spoiled food, and a bingo-card’s worth of abuse heaped upon the young protagonist as well as comprehensively meted out from the prophet to all his followers. It’s certainly effective at setting a mood of well-nigh-postapocalyptic horror – and there are indications that some of the terrible things on display are hallucinations brought on by trauma and starvation – but I found it hard to immerse myself in such a grand guignol spectacle, as the comprehensive awfulness put me at a distance. It also made the cult members seem less like real people who’d made understandably-bad choices to trade off their autonomy for a sense of belonging, and more like cardboard cutouts in a cabinet of horrors.
Gameplay-wise, we, the remainder is curiously parser-like, with compass navigation links off to the sides of the screen and each location in the large map offering three or so different objects to interact with. Some are just there for atmosphere, but a few of can be picked up (there are inventory puzzles, but they’re handled automatically so long as you’ve been to the right place to get the right item). And others trigger flashbacks, as the protagonist recalls one or another instance of abuse (there’s a suppressed-memories trope here that feels a bit icky). The writing is effective, as these vignettes do convey a sense of what life was like in the cult – and in fairness, there are a few moments that leaven the near-unremitting darkness of the story with at least potential rays of light. The ending too is reasonably positive, at least the one I got (apparently if you’re less efficient at exploring, you can get different ones). I think it would have rang truer if the path to get there had been less choked with muck, though.
Highlight: There’s an effective bit of characterization early on, where you can decide what single talismanic object you’ve kept hidden from your controlling mother – and once you’ve picked it, there are numerous callbacks to you touching it for comfort as you encounter the compound’s terrors.
Lowlight: Since I was playing on mobile, I accidentally clicked through the aforementioned passage really quickly, and didn’t see a way to undo to see the other choices. I wound up with an Orioles baseball cap, which I guess was OK?
How I failed the author: since I played on my phone, the cool ascii-art map didn’t display properly, which made navigation difficult. Though east and west seemed to be flipped on my screen in a confusing way, and having the map available maybe would have made me feel like I was playing Angband, so perhaps it’s for the best!
2 people found the following review helpful:
A good deal more than just "cults are bad, mmkay", December 1, 2021
wtr establishes the whole oppression angle early on: you start as one of four sisters in a decrepit apartment, one you're not encouraged to leave, even though your Momma doesn't seem to be anywhere around. And once you leave, you're in a gated community anyway. A decrepit one: dogs in the street, lack of food, and so forth. So the mystery is: what are you doing here? And, of course, can you get out? Well, there's a hunger puzzle to begin, and if you strictly explore and map things out, you'll die of hunger. But fortunately it's not hard to find food that'll sustain you for a while, before you find food that works indefinitely. This "find something good then something better" contrasts with the general tone, where you'll find something bad and, yes, it's even worse.
Exploring your enclosed town, you find clues of what life is like, with a schoolhouse, a pavilion, and many reminders of What Happens to Sinners. In particular, nosing around places that'd be off-limits with adults around give you painful memories, where the screen turns red, if you search enough. It becomes clear what your life situation is like, and the only big question is if this is a full dystopia or this community is unique. Of course, this is one you-the-character don't want to think of right away.
As you explore the town, you learn about the Prophet Hunter and his influence on the community. He said everyone would be taken to heaven and, well, they sort of were. You find the key to his house, which is better stocked than his followers'. You find a way past rabid dogs. There's also a woman whom you feel guilty gazing at, and it introduces a strain of legitimate supernatural interference if you keep annoying her. This made wtr more than just a smackdown of cults because none of this could happen--some of it, it wtr's world, could.
The game's feel is parser-like even though it's in twine. You have compass directions, and you'll see text on the left edge if there's a path west, and so forth, which makes a map easy to visualize, and it also gives a perception of distance. You have to move the mouse a good deal to actually go west. The occasional item use similarly just needs clicks, though it's kept in the center, and with all wtr threw at me, I was grateful not to have verb- or noun-guessing to wrestle with as well. I found the background color changes are quite effective as well. There's green for the farm area, purple for the Prophet Hunter's house, and different colors for the streets. I don't think detailed graphics would work well here because the main character has been sheltered and thus pays attention to little beyond their own survival. I suspect even the ASCII map of the town you find early in the game clues you in to how backwards this commune is. The map by itself is pleasing, but then you have to ask, who would've created it, and why? While a time frame isn't given in the game, I can't picture any era where normal society would go with an ASCII map instead of something more graphical. Here it feels like the time I visited the DPRK government website and noticed a link to forms in Esperanto--not the nice or useful touch the creator (in-game, not the author) thinks it is!
While you can die of starvation or of sacrilege, the game's true ending is--well, a success, of sorts. There's a big gate. You need to go through it, for salvation, of a sort. The tool(s) you use for this relative freedom are, ironically, symbols of strength and unity, but in this case, they're just one more thing that makes it hard for people to pull away.
wtr also offers seven different places to find memories that break open that much more of how cult life really is. The walkthrough mentions them and avoids saying where they are, and I like this procedure, because I know I can have everything spoiled if I'm not too careful. And if you manage to escape without the memories, perhaps you're like the main character, just doing what you need to survive. There's some learned helplessness at work here for the player: you don't want to search for local flavor when looking for endless food, but once you find it, you forget about looking around until you've escaped and can't and don't want to go back. So this surviving vs actually noticing details really struck me once I looked back. How I could've been more observant, but I just wanted to get out. And going through again reminded me of times I'd replayed bad episodes in my life, looking for that memory of cruelty that would clinch things. Sometimes I found it and realized it wasn't necessary, but it was comforting.
4 people found the following review helpful:
Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, November 14, 2021
Terseness keeps the rhythm raw: “he was probably handsome, when he had his skin.” Rawness pervades, even as this world that has claimed you uncloses: “it’s been twenty-four days since everyone else floated up. / you haven’t been out since then; Momma doesn’t like you leaving the flat without her, and the effort of getting down the stairs hasn’t been worth it anyway.” But if all you know are walls, how do you learn the horizon? “it is big. it is threadbare. it is forbidden.”
And you know what it is like to be forbidden. An unexpected kiss, unexpected pleasure, leads to immediate reprimand: “do you want to live in sin? is this what you want? She had roared as She dragged you towards the water.” The water which drowns every gasp for air, which seethes over us, sears, sears us: “why does the water have to be hot, sweet girl? / because fire washes away the sin. / that’s right, She’d said, but I can’t wash you in fire because I love you. so this is the next best thing.” Full of sin, aren’t you, isn’t this the cause for all their cruelty? Sinful inescapably, self as a source of wrongness, an understanding of the body only as broken, how they insist we cease, pliable, sermonable, able, just like God’s precious first martyr. How Christian hyperguilt cycles lead to the perpetuation of cruelties, holiness as absolute denial of any self outside a productive blankness: “do you know why you’re in a chair, child? / you shook your head. you honestly didn’t. / he nodded, somewhat sadly, and then he told you. / it’s because you’re a sinner.” Sin as a perpetuation of abuse down a hierarchical chain; the closer to holiness, the more paradisical your removal from the rest of the community: “this is… his private garden? it’s nearly as large as the entire Community farmland. / and the food growing here! grapes and corn and mint and broccoli and… peaches. / as if by God’s own will, a peach falls from its tree and lands directly in front of you. you lean forward and snatch it immediately. when you bite into it, the juice dribbles down your chin. / you briefly ask yourself why Prophet Hunter would keep all this to himself, when the rest of you had barely enough to get by. there’s a revelation somewhere in your brain, but something else blocks it from surfacing.” Those who hurt you and their self-satisfied nonneed to hurt. You too can nonhurt, just smother yourself, dulled to everything, finally holy, indefinably null, numb: “the bottom drawer opens with a rattling sound. it is absolutely full of the same kind of little yellow bottles that Momma’s meds come in. you sift through them. they’re almost all empty. you pluck one out and hold it up to read the label. / what in the world is oxycodone?”
But the wrongness isn’t inside you, it’s everywhere, and you can’t bring yourself to return to the insularity prison of projections, even though “it looks so comfortable, but you just got up. it’s not worth the effort—swinging your body up, manually pulling your legs over—that would be required to lay back down.” Traveling along a map, inspecting everything, a fugue of memories that build and leave nothing there but the bareness: “they are still and cold and silent. / inside, no hymns are sung. / inside, no breath is drawn. / The Beast is laughing. / you wonder if there might be some unspoiled food in someone else’s apartment. / you imagine an icy hand closing around your throat. / you doubt you could make it up the stairs, anyway.” You look for any hint of the holiness that was supposed to protect you, but the thin veneer fails, you peek behind it: “on closer inspection, it’s not a lamb. it’s… something else. something wrong. / it regards you cooly with seven insectoid eyes, spaced evenly around its head. / bony spurs protrude, seemingly at random, from its body. you count 1 before your eyes begin to hurt. / for a moment, your surroundings seem to flicker. you see a throne behind it, and four beasts surrounding it, and a sea of men extending into infinity, watching it.” As you wander, looking for the hope that is not here, you realize it must be elsewhere, it is out there, somewhere, beyond the gate, these memories, this stillness eternal.
If the message is laudable, it is perhaps too determined in its despair to cohere its grays to delve beyond surface severities. Relentlessness of terse miseries with no variations crumbles like desiccated dust, especially as it loops through tropes, with no space for individuality to make the prebuilt circuit sparkle. The bleakness flattens everything, and the story seems almost self-aware of its own predictability, as in some footprints we find: “as unpleasant as the thought is, you know they’re made of blood. what else would it be?” Indeed, what else? The lack of range in the emotions also compresses the scales of expression, such that even a child not receiving a peach wrings the same cords as the bleakest scenes: “you were awash in a sea of grief. the bereavement, the shattering of your hope, it was all too much.” The story, again aware of its own straining to more than strain, tries meekly to emphasize itself at certain points, but doesn’t know how except to mine the same veins: “of all the things you’ve seen today, this makes you go cold. bleak. desolate.”
The brutalities are unsubtle, however, and in those scenes the story excels in its terse cruelties so raw they resist presentation, as when the prophet enchains our guilt once more in a ritual public performance of abuse: “i’d like to thank delilah, daughter of ẗ̴̬̤̲̼͍͙̼̼̟̤̘͗̒̈́ȃ̵̙̲͎͕̯̑́̌́͒̃̅̔M̴̡̻̯͍̖̭̰͒͂̓͌̓̾̆̍̐̑͠ͅr̵̡͍̬͕̲͕̬̩̿̀͒̿͛̏̑̎̓̅̃̏͘͜͜ ̴̛̻̻̣̿̓͊͛̓́̌a̵͔͔̾̅̏̿̀̋̃̄g̸̨̻̹̣̯̱̥͙̘̑͝ͅͅŗ̸͓͉͖͉̲̗͔̠̻̊̍̍̿y̷͈̘͔͇̰͖̓̒͋̌̋̏̍̀͛̈́̆͘͝ͅṂ̶̨͇̲̩̪̫͎͛̆̆͜͜ê̶̦͔͕̪̰̪͙͂̃̌͐̐͑ͅȧ̶̗̈́͊̈́̓͝r̴̡̧͎̝͓̳̹̲̥͕̿̐̍̑̿͋̒͛͊̈́͜ͅ, for bringing these grave offenses to my attention.” The terseness, when used to its maximal effect, slows down the reader’s engagement, jolting physical each passing moment: “it’s a slow process getting yourself down without it—a lot of scooting your rear end down one stair at a time, using your arms to push and move your legs so your center of gravity doesn’t shift too far forward. you stop halfway to catch your breath.” And, in that slowing, we can feel the trickling inklings of how memory fractures into lifetimes of wounds: “when you were little, Momma would spray it with wormwood perfume. the smell is long gone, but you still hold the blanket up to your face and inhale deeply before laying it across your legs. you feel comforted.” Comforted? And there, amidst the relentless bleakness, is perhaps the starkest anguish.
4 people found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric Twine mystery, October 31, 2021
I enjoyed this descriptive horror exploration game. It's the kind of writing that keeps things just vague enough at the beginning, but adds to the story as you progress. There are numerous optional pieces to the game, as well as several endings, making it worth replaying. Rather than racing to the most direct path to a solution, I wanted to take my time with this story, exploring everything. I thought the puzzles were very manageable and intuitive; I never felt stuck. The reveals rewarded my probing as the bigger picture came into view. Recommended.
2 people found the following review helpful:
The aftermath of an unspeakable event, October 17, 2021
This choice-based exploration piece tells the story of a girl who wakes up in a deserted community and seeks out food and answers to the mystery behind everyone’s disappearance.
The structure of the piece is beautifully realized through a gradual exploration of the eerily empty community, which allows for bits of memory and story to come together piece by piece into a frightening but powerful whole. I felt a pervasive sense of dread building as I played, and I was fully invested in the outcome by the time the climax hit.
I will say that I was confused by the climactic scene, which reveals the truth of the community in a flash of memories and/or visions. I realize that there’s a blend of reality, visions, and religious symbolism throughout the piece—angels appear in physical form—so I do understand why details might have been kept vague.
3 people found the following review helpful:
Surreal horror game with religious themes in a compound, October 4, 2021
This game features a hungry young protagonist in a wheelchair that explores a large world in Twine.
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This game is very location-and-inventory based, with a large map (including an actual in-game map at one point) and several lock and key puzzles.
Gameplay consists of exploration, with special optional memories unlocked while a larger main storyline plays out.
Stylistically, it leaves many words uncapitalized and switches to different colors to signify different themes.
The story is a surreal religious horror where it's difficult to know what is real and what isn't. There is a large amount of imagery taken directly from the book of Revelations, and much of gameplay revolves around the fact that you are someone in a cult.
Overall, I found the surreal religious imagery to be effective. Many of the parts about wheelchair use seemed realistic based off of my experience with living with a wheelchair user for almost a decade (except getting through farmland!).
I appreciate the author leaving a lot up to imagination, using nuance and hiding behind symbolic imagery.
-Polish: There were noticeable typos. Everything else was great.
+Interactivity: The world map and the puzzles felt good.
+Descriptiveness: Very vivid writing, some of the most descriptive I've seen this comp.
+Emotional impact: I'm really into this stuff. It doesn't represent my worldview (I have a more hopeful interpretation of Revelations) but it lies in the intersection of my interests.
-Would I play again? It was pretty dark and I felt like I understood the message I was going to get, so I'm not sure I'll revisit.