Amazing Quest

by Nick Montfort


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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Like, Whoa, Dude, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Not everyone is going to “get” this game. But I’m here to tell you that, to the discerning eye, Amazing Quest is a brilliant and deeply moving masterpiece. Be warned that there’s simply no way to plumb the depths of this work without diving right into all the details, so there will be spoilers ahead.

This first point should be obvious to anyone who has played the game: Amazing Quest is a radical, surrealist deconstruction of the Odyssey which takes the familiar tropes of this classic work and turns them on their heads in order to reveal deeper meaning. Ancient Hellenistic literature, we are doubtless aware, is predicated upon the experience of presence. Presence, indeed, is axiomatic - and the importance of this cannot be overstated, because this same mode of thinking underpins virtually the whole of traditional western culture. Odysseus, you will recall, is a Greek man with a name. We know he has a name because it’s right there on the cover! His journey is to hearth and home, where he expects to reunite with his wife, Penelope, a woman who also is named. Matters like these are where Amazing Quest diverges most obviously from the Odyssey. Its protagonist is nameless and genderless, their origins unknown, their relations unspecified, their future inscrutable. It is with these flagrant omissions that Amazing Quest reveals itself as a dialectical synthesis of western classicism with Buddhist philosophy, recasting and recontextualizing the “journey home” trope within a frame of emptiness, juxtaposing the conspicuous experience of absence with our expectation of presence. By stripping out names and details from the familiar narrative, it invites us to consider the experience of their absence. To what extent can we alienate the signified from the signifier? To what extent is it truly possible to distinguish the internal experience of subjective identity from the external facts of socially-constructed gender identity, or family affinity? The game itself suggests answers to these questions, while simultaneously, and brilliantly, subverting its own answers: y/n? Yes and no, obviously, tell us nothing about the concepts in question. And yet, these are presented as the only answers to any given question. Is this a pre-emptive criticism of the cursory and ineffectual analysis which the author anticipated in response to the questions his game would provoke? Or is it perhaps a riff on the limitations of language itself - a suggestion that all language, ultimately, is an exercise in futility? No, it’s neither. It’s merely an open invitation for us to consider whether the questions that we are asking are the questions we ought to be asking.

But this is only the most superficial of what Amazing Quest has to teach us. In the enclosed strategy guide, Montfort cautions us: “What you (with your cultural world-view) might think of as chance […] plays an important role in this game.” This remark takes on unexpected significance as we progress through our amazing quest. At first, it appears that the results of each choice are random - indeed, there is no way to predict whether a yes or a no will yield (or shall we say, precede) positive or negative feedback. We, with the expectations instilled in us by our cultural background, perceive this as “chance,” yet Montfort’s comment seems to imply that this is not the only way of looking at it. What, then, is the alternative? Do our inputs effect some predictable feedback? Does it matter to the game whether we select yes or no? The answer, of course, is no. Montfort knows this, and we know this. Where, then, is the space for ambiguity? This is what we are invited to question. And in doing so, we will eventually have to ask ourselves, what is chance? This is where we are invited to consider our own ontology. If we believe in Enlightenment determinism, we must ultimately hold that nothing is truly chance - that everything ultimately has a cause, and that randomness is merely an illusion, revealing our imperfect understanding of that which we perceive to be based on chance. According to this view, the apparent randomness of Amazing Quest is merely an indicator that its course is determined by something other than our input. Or if we posit an indeterministic ontology, then we suppose that the apparent results of our choices were indeed random, and, still, not caused by our choices at all. Why, then, are we asked to make choices, when they are apparently meaningless?

Here is where Montfort’s strategy note exposes itself to a new interpretation: eventually, we will win the game. We cannot lose the game. Assuming we continue to play long enough, there is no question as to our ultimate victory. At this point it becomes clear that, ontological questions aside, what we perceived as chance was not chance, because it was nothing. The marginal effect on the gamestate of us getting positive versus negative feedback for any given choice… was nothing! We merely anticipated that the outcome of individual events would be of importance to the ultimate result, but it was not so. In this way, we are invited on a critical intrapsychological journey. What does it mean for us to be proven wrong? Why did we expect this? Where did our expectation come from? To this latter question, the author has already suggested an answer: it is our cultural background which has led us to this point. Our intrapsychological journey, now, becomes an interpsychological one. What did we experience, what were we exposed to, which caused us to feel that the events of this game would be of some consequence?

We are in good company, of course. Humans, for as long as history has been recorded, it seems, have ascribed causal significance erroneously. Let us now return to the Odyssey and the superstitions which it embodies. The reason Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaca is because he has been cursed by Poseidon. To our modern eyes, this is an obvious contrivance: you cannot be cursed by the god of the sea; angering such a non-existant entity will have no effect. And yet, is there not another way to read this event? Genesis P-Orridge famously observed that religion represents an early attempt at psychology. Poseidon may not seem to be a person with agency unto himself, but perhaps he could be said to exist, in some sense of the word, in the minds of humans. And if so - were we perhaps premature in concluding that he has no causal significance? Similarly, were we premature in concluding that the events of Amazing Quest had no causal significance? Perhaps it was their existence, in our minds (and thus embodied in our physical brains), that caused us to keep playing the game and ultimately win. This is likely to be among the more controversial of Amazing Quest’s implications: its idiosyncratic sort of panprotopsychist thesis - the implication that all things material and otherwise, through their potential for embodiment within the mind, have the potential for agency.

This is all just to scratch the surface of the, frankly, amazing content of this quest. I won’t be attempting a more substantive analysis at this time - after all, the field of IF studies is still in its infancy, and future critics will doubtless pick up on important details I’ve missed! Perhaps I’ll return to write a full essay once there exists a larger corpus of critical analysis to cite, but for now, these are my initial thoughts. I greatly enjoyed Amazing Quest and will be watching the author with interest.

Comments on this review

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Dan Fabulich, December 10, 2020 - Reply
I suppose it's only fitting that you'd post a prank review to this prank game.

I guess I'd have been more in the mood for a "ha ha only serious" parody of scholarship about Amazing Quest if the game itself had let us in on the joke in the first place.

"Does it matter to the game whether we select yes or no? The answer, of course, is no. Montfort knows this, and we know this."

On the contrary, we eventually find this out, but we do not know this as we sit down to play. The game's documentation deliberately misleads the player about whether the choices have any effect; the surprise of learning the game's underwhelming secret undermines the work.
Joey Acrimonious, December 12, 2020 - Reply
Ah, perhaps I got ahead of myself on that point. There was such vigorous discussion of Amazing Quest on the Intfiction forum, where I originally posted this, that I'd assumed anyone would have known of the game's conceit before arriving at my review. This may have been short-sighted of me - thank you for pointing it out.

I'm disappointed that my sincerely post-post-ironic review was misinterpreted as a prank on account of shortcomings like that, but that's on me. I shall aspire to choose my words more carefully when reviewing Montfort's other works, in order to live up to the rigor expected of an IF critic.
Rovarsson, December 6, 2020 - Reply
I daresay that your thoughtful analysis of Amazing Quest is no less than groundbreaking work. This interpretation of Montfort's work as a deconstruction of the Jungian Archetype of the guileful Trickster Hero will no doubt spark much animated debate in intellectual circles of psychology, philosophy and literary analysis alike.

The juxtaposition of named vs unnamed and its consequences for the study of the concept of Identity has the potential even to overthrow the now-dominating doctrines in logic and from there spread out to mathematics.

The following discussion on the nature of chance, winning and struggle will have profound impact on the manner in which Western society views itself and may ultimately bring about a self-reflective movement bringing about a second Enlightenment, this one of a more introspective, Buddhist nature.

Thank you, kind sir, for ushering in these interesting times!

With gratitude,

Joey Acrimonious, December 6, 2020 - Reply
Rovarsson, your support is much appreciated. I remain convinced that it is only a matter of time before, as you say, Western society is profoundly changed through the study and analysis of Montfort's work.
Rovarsson, December 6, 2020 - Reply
Of course, there remains the nagging question of how to adequately respond to those outdated Obectivists who still point to the overly simplistic proposition GET LAMP as a sufficiently defining statement from which to view the matter at hand. We, good sir, are already beyond this all-too-materialistic point of view, but robust argumentation must still be developed further to help along those of lesser intellect and imagination, to make them fully grasp the necessity of the intra- and interpsychological journey of mind and society you so eloquently propose.

Only by steadfastly adhering to this new Insight and proclaiming it clearly to all will Truth prevail.
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