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About the Story
Eurasia, 40,000 years ago. As the story begins, a band of Cro-Magnons have just invaded a nearby Neanderthal camp, falsely claiming that the Neanderthals (Neanders) were planning to steal meat, skins and ivory from the Cro-Magnon mammoth hunt. The Cro-Magnons (Magnons) visit the Neander camp with the intent of chasing them out of this rich valley. As they approach the camp with axes and knives, their rage gets the better of them and they end up murdering every Neanderthal in sight.
60th Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
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Earlier his year, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a truly great book of popular science about the Neanderthals. So I had some of the background that one might need to fully appreciate Cecilia Dougherty's story about Neanderthals, Shanidar, Safe Return. Not that the piece is only accessible to people who already know something about its topic; but it can't have hurt that terms like 'Neanderthal' and 'Denisovan' alreasy meant something to me, and that I was able to get some of the many references to archaeological finds. (On the other hand, I did not play Time Before Memory, to which Shanidar is a sequel.)
In Shanidar, we follow a group of Neanderthals as they make their way from one of the most impressive archaeological sites associated with them (Bruniquel Cave in present-day France) to another of those most impressive sites (Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan). Bruniquel Cave is famous for the circle of stalagmites built by the Neanderthals. We have no idea why they did it; whether it had a religious meaning, or an artistic meaning, or something else; in Shanidar, the site is a focal point for ancestor worship and shamanistic ritual. Shanidar Cave is famous for its burials, and some of the characters in Shanidar not only end up being buried there, but are indeed identifiable as specific skeletons, Shanidar 1 and Shanidar 4 being clearly referenced. This plays somewhat fast and loose with the archaeology, since those skeletons might have been buried there many thousand years apart... but frankly, what writer could resist the temptation? I for one was waiting the entire game until somebody got the right kind of head wound to turn them into Shanidar 1.
The structure of the piece is fairly strange. There are several parts to the game, and each is laid out not so much as a linear narrative, nor as a garden of forking paths, but more as a tapestry in which your gaze can follow different strands that happen parallel to each other, and then hop back to follow another strand. Initially, I found this very confusing, and it does tax the reader that one often reads passages that refer to events of other passages that one has not yet read. One has to put oneself into what for want of a better word I will call a cubistic mood, thinking here of the paintings by Picasso and Braque that show objects in disconnected ways and from different sides. You'll have to piece things together yourself, but you'll manage to get a relatively clear picture, especially if you are willing to replay parts of the game.
Two things make the experience more difficult than perhaps it might have been. First, there are many names. I understand the impulse to show these societies in a broad way, and also to show three different groups of early humans in one game. But perhaps it's a bit much for a piece of this size. Second, the choice to name one of the characters 'you', even though this character is not much more central than some others and is not a focal point of choices, is quite confusing. It seems to be that the game would have been a bit clearer if everything had been in the third person.
In the end, reading Shanidar, Safe Return is a strange experience. We are always at a considerable emotional distance from the characters, nor do we make choices for them. We observe a story that is both wide-ranging and long -- indeed, there's even a strand about the people who will move to Australia and Oceania, and there are flash-forwards to today -- and which doesn't have much narrative pay-off. Sure, these people who have survived an attack manage to get to their safe haven, but we never doubted that and weren't too invested in them. On the other hand, there's a intriguing sense of scope. Something of the mystery of thinking about and dealing with the Deep Past has been captured here, perhaps better than it could have been captured in a more straightforward narrative.
There's a tension in Rebecca Wragg Sykes's book, in that she both wants us to be impressed by how different the Neanderthals were, and by how close they are to us (in fact, they are partly our ancestors, though not nearly as much as the Cro-Magnon humans). The moral is something like: we should celebrate the diversity of humans, because there's an underlying unity; it's great that we're different, because we are also one. It's hard to see how this works. It's hard to see how tales about common ancestry can effectively combat racist thinking, say, unless uses them to squash diversity. In Shalidar, the idea of common ancestry comes in the form of an ancient shaman called Bihotz, neither male nor female, and from before the splitting of humans into Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and Denisovan. They are a fascinating figure, but there's something of the same problem about them. It's hard to use the idea of primordial unity for the cause of celebrating diversity. I don't have a clear suggestion for a better way of approaching these issues, but perhaps it is something we can contemplate as we let our minds roam through the Deep Past.
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