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The truth of the story is in the listener..., June 8, 2021
Whom the Telling Changed is a different kind of IF. I was enthralled by this story within a story on multiple levels.
Superficially, this piece is a retelling of the story of the Cedar Forest and the demon Humbaba from the Gilgamesj epic. An interesting tale on its own, and also of great historical worth, it being the oldest recorded epic poem known in literature.
The setting is that of a non-descript tribal shepherding and farming community somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, some 3500 years ago. A group of newcomers have arrived, and the tribe is stricken with fear. There are also those who are curious to learn, and see these newcomers as an opportunity. You play the role of one of them, standing up to your war-hungry rival Sihan.
The epic poems that survived share a great relatability, centering on the great human questions of life and how to respond to them. It is here that Whom the Telling Changed places its interactivity. While the Storyteller relates the story of Gilgamesj and his friend Enkidu, you are allowed to comment and interject, hoping that your questions and suggestions will lead the emphasis of the story in your preffered direction and so sway the people to your point of view.
I imagine this sort of discussion over the meaning of old and well-known stories during a ritual telling around the fire may have been very important in the decision-making of pre-literate peoples. We still see this in debating the "true" meaning of religious and ideological texts.
Indeed, this is the wisdom the Storyteller imparts: Stories are not true or untrue. They convey meaning to the listener who makes them so...
The game-aspect of the story lies in traversing the pre-existing (and perhaps known to the reader) story in ways that emphasise the peaceful or curious sides of our human nature, as opposed to the violent or fearful ones.
Or not. The player is free to explore all the different directions the story may take, thereby sending the attention of the tribe and the relation with the rival Sihan in different directions.
Apart from some standard parser commands which are generally not needed, the player is offered a range of topics to choose from in the form of highlighted words in the text. There is also the opportunity to PRAISE or MOCK other speakers, to get the tribe on your side. Be careful, this may backfire.
I found there was a very believable and focusing contrast between the strict ceremonial protocol of the Telling and the freedom to interject at almost any time during the story. The game refuses all commands that would take the protagonist out of the frame of the Storytelling, most times responding with a valid in-game reason. On the other hand, there is a combinatorial explosion of choices that can lead you through the main story in many different ways, evoking different reactions from the tribe along the way.
The writing is exquisite throughout. The author has adopted the style of the epic oral poem, with repetitions and formulas, but he has also adapted this into readable and playable written IF-prose.
A story to play and replay, and, for me at least, a reason to expand my knowledge of the source material.
Very interesting, very impressive.