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About the Story
Saint-Simon’s Saw synthesizes different methods of splitting and reforming a narrated situation. It is named after the 18th Century social reformer, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, a minor French aristocrat who experienced both extreme success and colossal failure, and supported the American and French revolutions of the 18th Century. This game is intended as an aid for mediation, and for the envisaging of radical futures - a bit like a tarot deck.
93rd Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Saint Simon’s Saw is a digitized tarot reading, except instead of traditional tarot cards, it has its own proprietary deck, drawing upon eclectic influences. Crucially, in addition to the ultimate reading of a hand, each card has an easily-accessible in-game explanation, which is where the bulk of the writing is to be found.
The tone of the work is singular and fascinating. It’s an interactive fortune-telling experience, but with the soul of an undergrad’s hastily-written essay, fuelled by coffee and Wikipedia summaries of post-structuralist screeds. There are inconsistently-styled citations of scholars like Jo Freeman and Paulo Freire, but no bibliography… and the citations themselves are basically frivolous, as if they’ve been inserted solely for the sake of name-dropping or because some professor demanded that there needed to be x number of citations. There are points where hugely creative and insightful ideas are touched upon, but these are counterbalanced by vague discursions, obscurantist writing, and nonsensical metaphors. There’s also a ton of misspellings and grammatical errors (including inconsistency over whether the work is titled Saint Simon’s Saw or Saint-Simon’s Saw), which altogether give the impression of something that may have been translated from French into English. And it’s all packed into a smooth-running executable with some lovely illustrations.
To an extent, I’m not sure what to make of this, because I’m profoundly unsure where it falls on the scale of sincerity versus irony. As far as I’m concerned, this could be an ambitious but flawed attempt at something sublime; or a straight-up joke; or anywhere in-between. This quality makes Saint Simon’s Saw perplexing and mystifying.
But this confusion plays into the strange enjoyment I got from the experience. The thing is, it works well enough as both an earnest piece and an ironic one. There’s enough thought-provoking content to grab my interest in spite of all the rough bits. But there’s also enough rough bits to make me laugh in spite of the thought-provoking parts.
This isn’t a game, but rather a simulated divination device using a deck of cards – think a Tarot deck but with more topical cards and a simplified reading layout. It’s got lush production values, with the table wood-grain a strong point and the cards animated with a pleasant tactility. These aren’t really elements that I’m comfortable evaluating in a work of interactive fiction, though, and as such it’s hard to figure out how to review it since it’s not a game, and there’s no narrative or progression. I suppose I can just describe the reading I did with it? Given the tenor of the times, I predictably asked the deck what I should do if the election got weird (I played it the Monday before Election Day). Here’s what I got:
In the “Paradigm” slot, which I think describes the overall situation, I got the Slacker, which indicates a “surfeit of possibility.” Awesome, thanks cards, that’s super helpful. Though the more in-depth explanation closes with a quote reminding us that “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” So perhaps that’s on point after all.
Next we have the “Punctum,” which I think indicates an approach to consider taking? The card here is the Other, reflecting “relocating blame” and “categorization.” Apparently it’s meant to remind us of the folly of “constructing an Other out of your ignorances and unknowns, then attacking it.” Some reasonable applicability to how folks tend to characterize the supporters of the other side here…
Now the “Vehicle,” signifying a tool that may be of use. I got Weird, top-line summary being “abjection.” Digging deeper, “weird is the process of being and becoming, that predominantly lies outside the observers [sic] power.” This is above my head, except to say that yeah, things are likely to get weird (that was even how I phrased the question!) – not sure that’s a useful tool to help accomplish anything though!
For “Outcome” – self-explanatory enough, I think – I got Synthesis, “alignment of activity,” “resolution of conflict through shared submission to an overarching goal.” That’s… surprisingly positive?
Putting this all together, I think what the deck is telling me is to think more broadly about what might happen tomorrow, to be mindful of what we all have in common, and that something strange and beyond our powers of understanding might usher in a harmonious future where Americans reconciled and working together towards a new common cause. So basically, if the world goes full Watchmen tomorrow and we wind up forgetting about Democrats and Republicans as we all band together to fight alien squid-monsters, you heard it here first.
POST-ELECTION UPDATE: This did not happen.
Saint Simon’s Saw is a program by Samuel Thomson, published in 2020. I’m not sure if you can call it a game, as it doesn’t have a conventional goal or a real win state - I would say it’s closer to a tool or a toy.
You’re supposed to think about a problem you have, then pick four cards from a deck to get a short reading. Like the blurb says, the process is a bit like tarot, although different - the cards and the logic of the reading both appear to be designed by the author and contain some unique symbolism and meaning.
The program has been made in Unity and it features some 3d-graphics, a smooth presentation as well as a set of hand-drawn cards. The execution is generally impressive, although there are a few typos and I couldn’t find a button for quickly restarting to get a new reading. Wonder if that is by design?
Carl Jung thought tarot could have relevance in psychology because of the archetypal imagery contained in the cards, and I’m guessing the author is along the same lines here. Symbols can be a powerful way to express concepts, and being confronted with symbolic imagery in relation to a personally important topic might help you see it from a new angle, or possibly ascribe new meaning to it.
The blurb says that this game is “intended as an aid for mediation, and for the envisaging of radical futures”, and I have no doubt that with the right type of a person it will do just the trick. If you enjoy esotericism, symbols, cartomancy and similar topics - or just have a generally pareidolic sensibility - Saint Simon’s Saw could be helpful, enlightening or simply interesting. It only does one thing, but it does it well. (It’s probably a very acquired taste, though.)
As someone who has never found card readings appealing or helpful, this was not an experience I could get into. However, I would imagine for those that do that this could be a gratifying experience. Thomson has presented a slick, simple, and beautiful application and I hope there is an audience for this.
This unity game is more of a reimagining of a tarot deck than anything else, like the text describes.
It’s a 3d game with responsive physics. You can pick up a card, place it in the correct spot (or just slop it around), flip it over, flip it over part way.
Cards can be placed in four different positions, and then the game will register the full reading for you.
It’s an impressive use of the 3d engine and the art is great. As a purely narrative game, I didn’t feel a strong emotional connection to the cards or the readings. But this will almost certainly be the most technically impressive game I play in this comp
+Polish: Immensely polished.
-Descriptive: I found the card meanings and descriptions fairly vague.
+Interactivity: Smooth and nice 3d interactions.
-Emotional Impact: I felt distanced from the messages of the cards.
-Would I play again? I'm not sure what I could find in it more than I have. Although to be fair I was always leery of Tarot, which this resembles.