The Hole Man

by E.Z. Poschman


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1-5 of 5

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.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Spring Thing 2022: The Hole Man, May 14, 2022

The Hole Man is a game of identity theft, as in, “Some thief stole you, from top to bottom, and didn’t leave anything behind. There’s nothing left but a hole in space, where you are supposed to be.” The physicality of the wordplay is indicative of much of what follows, a metaphoric journey of self-discovery that delights in a quirky humor, where a fiddler crab is, well, literally a fiddler, and everything’s a little silly: “This is the bookstore. / Waiting behind the counter is a firefly. / (This is a bit of a surprise, since most people aren't animals in your experience, but there isn't really a way to bring it up that doesn't seem rude to someone who's just doing their job.)”

Like many works that cut a wide swathe through received tropes and which delight in a light-hearted silliness, The Hole Man flirts with camp: “The ominous stone castle in the mountains towers before you, its battlements and towers seeming to be ringed by the black stormclouds overhanging the whole area. / The whole entryway of this castle is shaped like a jawless human skull. Strangely, the front teeth are not the eaves, but the front step: you enter through the nasal cavity. You hope the castle doesn't sneeze on your way in.” This hard commitment to tropes renders the writing cartoony, but it sidles out of campiness with its self-undermining glee, ending up instead at a middle grade zaniness: “What's really weird is that all the furniture is zipped up in plastic vinyl coating. Who lived here before? Grandma? / There is in fact a sort of spooky-looking belfry filled with bats on the property, but that's not scary! Bats are very helpful pollinators and also eat mosquitoes. Having bats on your property is nothing to be ashamed of! / The single scariest thing about this house? No wifi.”

The prose is expeditious, zooming you through candyfloss pastels to focus on action, incident, whirlwinds of content: “At the end of this maze of machinery, mounted in the largest and most intimidating metal cabinet yet, haloed by yellow caution stripes and bearing warnings in every language except the one you speak, you find a single lighted red button, pulsing gently. / Can you resist temptation? Do you have the inner fortitude, the willpower, not to extend one finger and press such a tempting, inviting red button? Can you hold out any longer?” What keeps these scenes from motion blurring into nonsequitor are syncopated detail glistens which keeps the reader tunneled into where they’re being hurtled: “Near the center of the room, a smaller cabinet is hosting some very small and delicate work: the construction of two human hands. This is done with what looks like a grid of clicking knitting needles, each taking threads of flesh and nerve and quilting them together with all the others, layer after layer, until the two hands begin to curl their fingers.” However, this focus on detail can sometimes jar with the wordplay silliness, resulting in several times the joke is explained to you, then explained to you again just to be sure: “You have discovered The Made Man. Or, perhaps more accurately, you made him. / Of all the strange people you’ve met so far, the Made Man has given you the best idea of his appearance, because you’ve literally just seem him constructed, seemingly from raw materials.”

Here we touch on the conceit of the game, which is that you wander the world trying to get yourself into situations where you can locate personifications of some concept, who explain themselves to you, and then you can decide to become that person. This would normally result in a glorified personality test, except there’s a Gotta Catch ‘Em All design, as you’re meant to repeat the scavenger hunt until you find all of the personifications and unlock a special final ending. In this collection paradigm, each new man becomes more like a lesson our protagonist learns, a maximalist iteration meant to be negated and collated into a more fulfilling whole. Here, for instance, is the lesson the Darin’ Man teaches us: “"I study life up here," the Darin’ Man starts. "But the thing about life on Earth, is that it comes FROM Earth. There’s no life that comes directly from the air or space. Everything up here came from down there." He gives an emphatic point downward. "And, unfortunately, everything goes back too." / "The ground is rising up to meet all of us. Some of us will meet it in the form of, say, a heart attack, or cancer, or a traffic accident; others might have something more unique, like a practical joke gone tragically wrong, or falling out of an airplane." He chuckles. "Almost makes you feel privileged to have such a rare opportunity, doesn’t it?" / The expression on your face seems to suggest to him that you don’t agree. / "Regardless of your situation, Earth wants you back, and it’s going to get you," he says simply. "We are in the rare position of seeing it coming. Threats are an unavoidable part of life, but most of the truly existential threats to life move so slowly we never see them as a threat at all." / "What about you?" / "Same as anybody: I’m too busy living to think about dying," the Darin’ Man chuckles. "There’s so much to discover up here, you know? And even the things that have already been discovered, we can still learn so much from."” From the Darin’ Man we gain a bit of perspective that helps us to appreciate life’s brief blessing with a hypercurious verve powerful enough to overcome the ennui and angst.

Not all of the lessons we collect are quite so blatantly didactic though. Many are more openly conceptual, as the Drake Man’s paeon to fantasy as a vital element that can still empower our disillusioned scientific age, for instance through the musical magic of theory-ludic jazz: “"You’ve probably heard the phrase, A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? That’s Arthur C. Clarke’s third law," He chuckles. "There’s a corollary to that, though: a sufficiently transparent engine of magic would be indistinguishable from science." / He reaches over to his boom box and turns on some light jazz. "Electricity was once the tool of gods alone. Even those who called themselves witches and wizards feared it… but we studied it, mastered it, and now it comes in a battery you can buy at the dollar store." / The Drake Man smiles as he watches the giraffe, whose head is bobbing as it unconsciously grooves to the music. "If magic were something that could be tested, reproduced, and marketed, it would be science! Your cell phone would have magic wand functions built right in, your car would have collision-avoidance spells and they wouldn’t even cost extra!" / He jumps to his feet, crossing the room to open the door for the giraffe, who gratefully runs out to frisk in the pink morning daylight. "And of course the opposite is true of science. Magic does have rules, in a way… but they’re literary conceits. No angel investor would touch your invention if, like magic, it was subject to things like dramatic irony, deus ex machina, and the rule of three!"” Yes, oh, I forgot to address the giraffe in the room. That’s just kind of what this game is like.

The scavenger hunt element makes the game engaging, because each man exists in a little rabbit hole down from the central “overworld”, as it were, so you’re constantly exploring the overworld looking for routes into something weird, which is fun. There are multiple routes to some of these rabbit holes, which makes the world feel more porous and interconnected. However, I think you actually have to say No to each man before it counts them, even though it gives you a screen marking your collection only when you say Yes? The collection mechanic is confusing, and means that, to truly appreciate the game, you have to go through the world collecting all of them twice.

Once you do manage to collect them all, you go through a secret elevator, and as you descend you have an internal debate about your identity using all of the lessons you have learned from the various men, coming to the conclusion: “But being yourself is the right thing to do, whether or not you succeed. It’s worth fighting for. It always was.” Having achieved this realization, you confront the thief who stole your body. You take it back, forgiving him in the process, then reappear in the courthouse, with everything wrapped up with the feel good bow of “You wouldn't ever want to be anyone else but you.” If you like your introspection with a dash of speculative playfulness and a little on the YA side, then The Hole Man has a wild ride for you.

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.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A wacky search-for-your-self adventure, April 15, 2022
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

A surreal, crazy quilt entry in Spring Thing 2022. The Hole Man is often playful or bizarre though not always very cohesive, as one might expect of a crazy quilt. It's clear the author had quite a time writing it all, taking us on a tour of a wandering mind and showing us what weird, wonderful stuff they've conjured up, peppered with observations, insights, jokes, and literary allusions. That's one of the more pleasurable uses of writing after all, and probably what makes this game most commendable rather than a reliance on complicated puzzles or technical wizardry. The game's informal, fun tone of writing always kept me chuckling and wanting to see what the author would come up with next. I enjoyed it with a mallsoft/easy listening vaporwave soundtrack playing alongside that was not included as part of the experience and may have influenced my reading, just FYI, and you might find that sort of soundtrack fits too. The Hole Man is a bazaar of the bizarre (to borrow another allusion) with sights to behold and bedazzle.

As the reader traverses The Hole Man's different connected worlds, they will meet Wise Men (as far as I saw, always men, and always The X Man-- a parallel with the protagonist's position as The Hole Man) who each offer their thoughts on a subject. (Spoiler - click to show)The Go Man offers some thoughts on games, The Servant Man offers some thoughts on the dependency of belief systems on non-belief, The Slaughter Man offers thoughts on food production & horror, etc. Maybe I'm just picky, but some of their offerings came across as a little pat to me or somehow not fully explored. Some of The Hole Man's Wise Men offer more eloquent or stronger positions than others, granted, but I won't spell them all out here without a spoiler tag beyond saying your mileage may vary. With a spoiler tag, however: (Spoiler - click to show)I think it seems unlikely The Slaughter Man was read through by a vegan (those gingerbread people were sentient, man!) or The Servant Man by an atheist, for example, (also, nitpick, in the instance where the object of worship demonstrably exists, we're talking not necessarily about believers, but followers... but that's a fine hair to split I suppose and my own hill, not the author's) or that the author would really be satisfied if I were to pick up a piece of paper and just write my own ending to the game as suggested by The Go Man (I would have missed a lot of the game that way as he was the first I encountered). Perhaps they're good fodder for a forum thread somewhere and the starting point for some good conversations though.

After hearing any one Wise Man's thesis, the player is offered a chance to take the place of the man they were listening to. That seemed to me at first blush like a distraction from the goal of rediscovering and reclaiming the protagonist's own body in a game that's made of distractions and sideways steps, but it is suggested any time you meet one of these men that they are "like you," based on some bit of description, so maybe any one of these is actually secretly the same person that was heading for jury duty before having their body stolen at the start of the game. Indeed, that seems to be the suggestion of the epilogue, sort of like the game is structured as a big personality test. As a test of this sort, I think it matters less how exactingly structured the arguments of any one Wise Man are because what unvoiced disagreements seem to suggest then would be more like, "This position isn't the right one for me," assuming a player is trying to find the "right" one rather than simply collecting them all (although actually the latter option is the game's more valorized one).

On a technical note, most nodes in the story that I saw do not change text upon revisiting, meaning that links lead to experiencing the same scenery, descriptions, and events every time. This goes uncommented on by the text itself, but is pretty much forgivable given the scope of the game and the understanding that because the goal isn't related to solving puzzles around different locations, tracking state in each of them is not so much a priority of the player either.

Although I've said most of the locations are disjointed by the "crazy quilt" nature of the game's setup, they do share at least one major theme through it all as far as I could tell. They all portray a kind of search for the self through consumerism. The "soul" (or "the person/body with accompanying attitudes," such as it is; the text agnostically suggests such a place as Limbo exists, but goes a long way in not committing itself to any one understanding of a soul as part of a specific or pre-conceived notion of afterlife) is lost in a mall. The player wanders through The Hole Man looking out on mall shops or department stores, exploring their contents, commenting on the sale or creation of art products, watching rituals of consumption, etc. all while trying to discover and listen to single Wise Men generally defined by their primary vocation expound upon their pet subject in mostly one-way conversations, thereafter offering up their positions in the market as a path to a new self. (Spoiler - click to show)Even "Reason. Patience. Acceptance. Things you can't put on a store shelf, and that you can't wrap up in a box" are still explicitly packaged along an assembly line by elves in The Kind Man's workshop, for example, awaiting their consumption (or, parallel with the game's other major choices, awaiting bestowal upon the seeker by a Wise Man). While my guess is that the author may not have intended The Hole Man as an allegory about the search for self-identity necessarily through consumerism or vocation outright, and The Hole Man may be better enjoyed as the exploration of an eclectic intellect for entertainment purposes with personality test style epilogues, I think that the idea sitting under the surface there unengaged or uncriticized (for as far as I played through anyway) kept it from going deeper than it might have in some of its analyses. Each of the selves available on offer in The Hole Man is prefabricated and can be selected like a different brand of cereal off a shelf, made "just for you"; at the same time each is also explicitly treated as a collectible commodity.

For purposes of this review, I did cut my playthrough short a bit by accepting the role of The Kind Man. The epilogue wrapped up with a neat moral and posed a bit of a quandary to think about, which was a fitting ending. I don't think I have time while trying to play all of the other entries (Spring Thing has 47 this year) to go back and try to get what the blurb says is 12 different endings with a perhaps hidden 13th if you collect all 12, but I may return and revisit later just to let my mind wander along with the author's again and see what other spectacles await me there.

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