Saint Simon's Saw

by Samuel Thomson


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Postmodern prognostication, December 11, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

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.

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samuelthomson, January 3, 2021 - Reply
Hello Mike Russo, thanks for taking the time to review my IFComp entry, Saint Simon's Saw.

More than a single reviewer commented that this isn't a game, and as a newcomer I'm perplexed by the terminology of the competition and what the relationship is perceived to be between something being "a game" and something being "interactive fiction", as these terms sometimes appear to be used interchangeably, and sometimes not. That's not to say that I have particularly strong feelings on this yet, and I expected that my entry would be interpreted within the traditions of the competition, and that some elements of the execution wouldn't seem very relevant, but I'm still fully here for the edge cases and misfits.

I appreciated how your review went through the process of doing a reading, it's a good question to ask and I liked to see how you worked through it. However, I'd resist trying to end on a linear narrative explanation and applying it as "what will happen to everyone", or "what everyone will do", and instead I'd think about the range of possibilities that the card represents - for example, if the "Outcome" card is "Synthesis", then the real thing to think about is where synthetic activity will be located in the aftermath of an election, and where the opposite will happen, because it's probably safer to think that the sum total of synthesis will remain the same. Hopefully that would be a more meditative experience and less "eureka" moment. Thank you again for a helpful review.
Mike Russo, January 4, 2021 - Reply
Hi Samuel -- thanks for the note, and the thoughts about how best to engage with the readings (appropriately enough given that this one ended on synthesis, sounds like a dialectical approach is potentially fruitful!)

In terms of the game vs. IF vs. whatever else terminology, I personally was thinking primarily of Will Wright's game vs. software toy typology (and I'm guessing AKheon also had this in mind in his review, too): things that are more game-like tend to have baked-in goals, successes and failure states, and "designed" narrative, while things that are toy-like are more open-ended and unstructured, rely more on the player to provide their own direction and goals, and emergent narrative based on what the player does in the game. SSS seems much more on the "toy" side of things to me, though I used "tool" instead since it felt like the intention was that it would have some utility.

(If it's not clear, Wright's framework isn't about dismissing things as unworthy of consideration if they're not games -- in fact pretty much all his games are really toys!)

The other way I've sometimes heard folks talk about IF Comp entries as not really being a game or "interactive fiction" has to do with interactivity; you occasionally see an entry that doesn't have anything to do beyond click the "next" link and therefore wouldn't be much different if printed out as a static short story.

My personal sense is that this kind of comment is pejorative, but only mildly so -- if a game is well-written, thought-provoking, and engaging, but only minimally interactive, I think most Comp reviewers these days would mark it down a bit but not too far. I don't know if you saw Babyface in this year's Comp, but it's maybe a good example -- it's a really well done horror story but there's minimal player agency (choosing the order you look at a set of photos in is the main one, I think), and it came in 31st, with a few people rating it in the quite bad 1-4 range, but most judges giving it a solid rating.

I know there have been gatekeeping wars in the past about what "really" belongs in the competition or counts as IF, though I think the most intense period was during the rise of Twine and choice-based games, which was a period when I personally wasn't as engaged with the community so I don't have a strong sense of the arguments made there. Things have landed in a pretty open-minded place, thankfully, and as you say there are definite edge cases and misfits that do find their way into the Comp, and while they generally don't place especially high, they often find an audience (my favorite game in the 2019 Comp was Language Arts, which is a programming game in the "Zach-like" genre with not an iota of Zork DNA to be found).

Anyway, sorry for going on a bit, just wanted to make clear that the "this is not a game" line wasn't meant to be a put-down! Cheers and thanks again.
samuelthomson, February 7, 2021 - Reply
Thanks, again some good pointers. I'll have a look for Will Wright's explanation on games/toys, it sounds like a good comparison could be made between that and games/play in Huizinga's book, Homo Ludens.
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