A Catalan Summer

by Neibucrion

historical
2020

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Number of Reviews: 5
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A unique genre-transcending gem, December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Usually when I play a piece of IF – or read a book or watch a movie, for that matter – my brain immediately tries to classify it, slotting it into a genre or identifying the key themes or thinking about its antecedents or otherwise fitting it into some broader framework. This is just the way human beings process information, I suppose, and don’t get me wrong, it’s often helpful for understanding the intentions behind a piece and engaging with broader movements and trends. At the same time, it’s rather exhilarating to come across something like A Catalan Summer which had me constantly second-guessing my assumptions of what it was trying to do, not because of self-conscious zaniness or surrealism (those are hoary subgenres all their own) but because its goals, approach, and setting are just so content to do their own thing. The blurb promises “historical gay melodrama,” which is already not an uh especially common IF Comp vibe, but even that fails to truly communicate everything that’s going on here.

I worry that opening paragraph makes it sound like A Catalan Summer is bonkers. It’s not bonkers! It’s actually quite grounded, focusing on an upper-class Catalonian family and their personal and political travails in the aftermath of World War I, with subplots about repressed sexuality, yes, but also labor unrest and separatist politics, as well as lots of very well-described but frankly superfluous detail about the architectural flourishes of the family mansion. True, pretty much everybody (you wind up guiding all four members of the family) can wind up making Telenovela-style decisions – and there’s a (Spoiler - click to show)supernatural element that pretty much comes out of nowhere – but I think the game would still work well if you opted out of all the smoldering-glances stuff, and if anything, I feel like the writing errs too much towards understatement rather than reveling in passion and intensity (this is all quite PG-13 rated). Though then again, there’s also the gay brothel you can visit and where you can choose, for your night’s companion, a panto Viking complete with horned helmet. So maybe it’s a little bonkers.

Gameplay-wise, you navigate through the family house looking for people to talk to, and then make choices. The house is bigger and more open than it needs to be – possibly to create space for the aforementioned architecture-porn, like let me tell you, if you are into festoons this game has you covered – since all you can do is talk to people, and most locations are empty most of the time. But I liked the ability to wander about, including a few extramural excursions that allow for some sightseeing and local color, even if I’m used to this kind of interface be deployed for puzzlefests like A Murder in Fairyland.

The pacing is quite brisk – every ten minutes or so, you’re whisked into the next vignette with a different viewpoint character, and the choices are well-considered, providing enough granularity to give a sense for the voices of each character and allow the player to make significant choices, while not belaboring every bit of dialogue. Sometimes it’s too quick: you can go from flirtation to schtupping to post-coital bliss in one line of dialogue, and I had one sequence where a character survived an assault, went to a hospital, and recovered, all in the space of two short paragraphs. But better too quick than too slow, I think. It also builds to a nice climax, with a final party scene where you can choose which family members to inhabit: you can orchestrate a passionate tryst with one character, then have another stumble upon them in flagrante delicto for maximum shock effect.

I quite enjoyed the characters. Patriarch Josep is the one you spend the most time with, and I think is the best drawn – he’s got rather conservative leanings, but also seems unashamed about his homosexuality. These tensions aren’t played up in the writing – there’s no internal monologue as he wrestles with his understanding of himself – which I think is effective in creating space for players to make a wide variety of choices without feeling like they're being untrue to the character. The others are more one-note, though you can decide whether son Jordi’s habit of slumming it with the hoi polloi reflects sincere belief or is simple dilettantism, and I enjoyed figuring out ways for Josep’s jaded wife, Maria, to amuse herself (spoiler alert: it involved boning the staff). Only Clara, the sheltered daughter, doesn’t find herself with as much to do.

The writing is a significant part of the draw. There are some typos and odd grammar throughout, potentially due to translation? But I liked how it simultaneously created a sort of dreamlike aura while being quite grounded in a sense of history and place, with ever-solid dialogue. Here’s a bit from an early scene, where Josep is giving a tour to the family of a business partner:

“This house, you explain, was an old presbytery built next to this chapel. I had the house renovated while leaving the chapel in its original state. Around the 13th century, the Counts of Barcelona dominated Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and even the south of Italy, which explains the number and beauty of the monuments of that time in the region…”

“A kind of golden age…” Auguste says ironically, “Isn’t it from the memory of this blessed time that the Catalans forged their desire for independence?”

You can see there are some punctuation issues and the locution is a bit awkward, but for whatever reason this style really worked for me, and the history nerd in me appreciated all the detail the author offers (I didn’t know Barcelona is named after Hannibal Barca!) Or there’s this, relating an assignation:

“You and Charles are now used to meeting in Barcelona in his apartment, discreetly. As the days go by, both of you feel the initial desire plunging its roots into you, gradually blossoming into a massif with complex interlacing, crazy branches that thicken to become a real and strong feeling that ties you to each other in a knot that will become all the more difficult to slice.”

That second sentence is too long and uses imagery that’s not quite right to my ear, but somehow that makes it even more compelling.

I did run into one technical niggle, which is that at one point Maria showed up somewhere she shouldn’t have (though I couldn’t interact with her), and the admirable openness of the plot made my ending feel a bit ridiculous, as in one paragraph of dialogue, Jordi, clearly full of love for his father, told Josep that he should be unafraid of pursuing happiness with his lover, but then in the next paragraph blew up at him and renounced his inheritance because Josep set an American detective to pursue Jordi’s anarchist friends – melodrama is all well and good, but emotional whiplash is something else altogether.

Still, that couldn’t undercut what was a deeply enjoyable experience. Like, that American detective is actually (Spoiler - click to show)Dashiell Hammett. There’s a (Spoiler - click to show)Marcel Proust cameo too. And I haven’t elaborated on the whole (Spoiler - click to show)ghost thing (my head says, you don’t need this and the author should have dropped it; my heart says, yes, why not this too?) Point being, A Catalan Summer marches to the beat of its own drum, takes direct inspiration from nobody and I’m sure will not be directly inspiring any copycats either, cares not for your petty distinctions of genre, much less the Aristotelian unities, not due to any sophomoric and self-congratulatory iconoclasm but just because it’s content to do its own thing, and it’s all the more worth playing for it.