The Hole Man

by E.Z. Poschman


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Number of Ratings: 4
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1-4 of 4

He's very deep, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

In my head, I sometimes like to anthropomorphize the different kinds of IF.

(I don’t really, but the conceit’s our entry point into the review and the alternative was a comparison to Waking Life, so I think we’re all agreed this is the less-bad option).

As I was saying before that rude interruption, I like to picture all the different kinds of IF like they’re people: you’ve got your nerdy, spreadsheet-loving puzzlefest; your overearnest theater-kid narrative-driven game; your emo, edgy autobiographical choice-based game about trauma and mental health; your trying-too-hard-to-be-funny class-clown comedy. Then there’s the figure that’s loitering around at the edge of the crowd, smoking something that definitely isn’t tobacco and flipping through an old worn-out Pynchon paperback: our old friend the druggy, philosophically surrealist art game.

The Hole Man is very much part of this proud tradition, and acquits itself well, though falling prey to the Achilles heel that tends to plague this kind of game. The conceit of this long choice-based game is that you’re on your way to jury duty (side note: I would 100% play an IF game about jury duty) when someone trips you, and you… sort off… have your body fall out of yourself, so it walks away while you’re stuck as an empty outline where a person used to be. Cue peregrinations as you wander a fantastic landscape that mashes up the quotidian with the outre, seeking an identity to take on to replace the one you’ve lost.

Whether this kind of thing works or not is almost entirely down to the execution: how good are the ideas, and how good is the writing? Hole Man is good on both scores, with a funhouse of cleverly-philosophical situations presented in an appealing, wry narrative voice. Like, here’s what happens after you meet the king of a castle that’s also the insides of a dragon, and who’s himself a weird congeries of other serpents:

"You’re not sure if you just met royalty, or a just a bunch of snakes that enjoy living in a basket and pretending to be a king. They were quite cordial in any event, though."

It’s a bit what-even-is-identity-comma-man, sure, but it made me laugh. Or there’s a song I found when pulling another thread:

"I need a glass-bottomed boat
I need an able seaman
I need the kind of attraction
That you can’t find anywhere but the Amazon River!

(Please do not stand up until
The boat has docked at the pier)

Help me.
Electric eel!

I want a giant snakehead!
I want an arapaima!
I want to prove the existence, of an ahuitzotl, with a hand on its tail!"

(That Pynchon reference I made above didn’t come out of nowhere).

(After I posted this review, the author explained that in fact the Pynchon reference did come out of nowhere, and this is actually a Weird Al lyric.
You may want to reassess the weight you give to your reviewer's analysis accordingly).

There’s definitely a lot to explore, and it’s both superficially fun to turn over rocks to see what’s below – Castlevania 2 references! Tiny dragons who work like fairies – as well as to encounter the somewhat-deeper mediations on offer. Each path you take through the game puts you in front of a different archetypal figure, leading to a dialogue or disquisition that engages with topics that – well, honestly felt a bit random and not narrowly confined to the overall theme about identity, but I found them enjoyable just the same. There’s a neat conversation about flipping Clarke’s law of magic vs. technology on its head, some surprisingly-poignant existentialist ruminations on how to go on given the inevitable death and ending of all things, and an examination of the difference between toys and games that isn’t too on the nose (though it’s a bit on the nose).

When I say it’s a lot, though, it’s definitely a lot. The blurb says that there are 12 endings, and it’s a bit of work to wander around and find each of them – I found five of them, and while each only took five or ten minutes to reach, contemplating doing that seven more times felt exhausting. This is what I meant when I mentioned an Achilles heel above: when everything works on an arbitrary logic, traditional narrative stakes are hard to establish, and that anything-can-happen vibe means there’s not a lot of connective tissue binding the different paths, and potential identities, together.

Again, the blurb indicates that there’s a “special surprise” waiting for those who run down all the different avenues, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep me motivated through seven more replays. I also ran into a few small bugs – a dead-end passage in the basement of the parking structure, the description of a bookstore that presupposed I’d been there before even though it was my first visit – that, while not anything big in of themselves, threw up just enough friction that the idea of systematically charting out all the different ways to navigate my choices felt like too much work. I console myself with the thought that Gradgrindian assiduity is at odds with the philosophy of a game like this – better to go with the flow, dip in and dip out as the spirit moves, and not worry about wringing it dry of every drop of content. Approached like that, it’s hard not to recommend The Hole Man – I can’t tell you what you’re likely to get out of it, but you’ll probably get something.

A dreamy world to wander through, with philosophical questions to ponder, May 20, 2022
by Wynter (London, UK)
Related reviews: Twine fiction

I've often wondered what it would be like to write a full-length novel in Twine which branched off in all kinds of different directions, with a really long reading time, so you could end up reading several completely different novels depending on which path you took. Or simply a vast fantasy world, which you could explore at your leisure, finding more and more places to discover and be delighted by.

I mention this because The Hole Man goes some way towards achieving both of these objectives. You start out preparing for jury duty, and have your identity - your whole self - stolen from you, and end up in a kind of surreal world. There is a whole world in this game to explore, and though the different branches often overlap, the game area is big enough that there were always new things to discover. You drift from one setting to another, whether realistic or pleasantly surreal, almost without noticing, just as if you were in a dream. It's funny in places (Spoiler - click to show)(such as, when asked for your favourite genre of writing is, and you say 'interactive fiction', the narrator calls you an "apple-polisher"), bizarre, whimsical, and philosophical.

I love games with a strong sense of place, and particular of fantastical places, so I enjoyed simply getting lost and wandering through this world - often I would wander around in circles, coming to places I had been to before; at other times I stumbled upon whole areas I had never been to before. Although the place descriptions mostly don't vary when you return to them, I did appreciate the 'hint system'(Spoiler - click to show):the slow loris in the tax office will tell you which areas of the game aren't worth returning to, and which require more exploration. Although of course the real problem is finding them again... As a Twine writer, I found myself thinking about how the game had been constructed: which passages linked to which, and when variables came into play.

If you wander far enough, you encounter one of several different Men, each of whom has a bit of wisdom to impart, and whose job you are allowed to take over, if you wish. (Spoiler - click to show) If you do accept, you reach an ending; if not, you collect a token from each one and carry on with your quest towards one of two winning endings. I'm not sure what the promised 'special surprise' was, although I did appreciate the 'I'm not a man' ending.

Of all the games in Spring Thing 2022, this is the one that I kept coming back to.

- Rovarsson (Belgium), April 29, 2022

A giant game with many endings, with few rules, April 21, 2022

by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours

This is a very large Twine game. I think of all structures Sam Kabo Ashwell mentioned in his 'Standard patterns in choice-based games', it most resembles the sorting hat, as there are ten or so different paths that, once you pick, is generally linear to an ending.

You play as a person whose identity is stolen, leaving you as a gaping hole in an alternate world.

That world is one where anything can happen. A shop that has a closet can take you to another world, and so can biting a sucker.

Each path allows you the choice to become a 'man', like the Drake Man or the Darin' Man, giving you an awesome and alternate life.

I found the prose to be overall well done, and there were interesting ideas. But after 3 or so paths, I began to feel like there were, if it's even possible, too many good ideas!

Brandon Sanderson has said before that good magic systems are more interesting the more restrictions they have. This isn't a high fantasy novel about complex magic, but I think something similar applies here: if anything is possible, it's almost the same as if nothing is possible. After a while, it all kind of blended together.

I opened up the game in Twinery to see how much I missed, and realized that after an hour or so I had only seen about 20-30% of the game. I used the code to read the 'ultimate' ending, which I thought was roughly as fulfilling as the other endings, but had some cool descriptions of things.

Taste is subjective, but for me personally, I think I would have enjoyed it more if there were more structure in terms of themes or some other kind of rhythm to the game. Outside of that, the game is coded in a smooth and complex fashion and the writing is vivid and descriptive.

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