The Hole Man

by E.Z. Poschman

2022

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Number of Reviews: 5
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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.