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Unsettling, June 13, 2022
Ooof. This is a tough one to get to grips with. Partially thatís down to the content of HTWAS: itís a cut-up series of autobiographical vignettes mapped in achronological fashion upon a ďhypercubeĒ, which concern set theory, bipolar mania, creative partnerships, and a math-and-divination based project to facilitate universal love and cross-cultural understanding via ethereal communication with a Chinese pop star, all of which chaos is accessed via a parser interface with a minimal verb set whose only affordances are navigating the hypercube and combining objects that represent abstruse math concepts to form other, yet more abstruse ones (feel free to scatter parenthetical ď?Ēs anywhere the previous sentence seems to be crying out for one).
The bigger barrier for me, though, is the opening text, where one of the co-authors says his relationship with the other co-author (which was also a romantic one, from the gameís context), has fallen apart after confessing to having sexual feelings for her teenaged son, who heíd apparently been a caregiver for over most of the previous decade. This is walked back almost immediately, but in a very vague way that indicates something significantly bad did occur:
"No, actually none of that was happening or going to happen, except the part where I, BenJen, am delusional and say horrible things to a teenager believing it will restructure the proton and give perpetual free energy via large cardinal embeddings, but actually I am just hurting the people I love, failing to manage my mental illness properly, and destroying my life and everything I have tried to do and be in the world."
This is of course something said in-game, and versions of both co-authors do exist in the story (which is similarly from the perspective of Ben), so itís certainly possible that this declaration should be understood within the fiction of the game and doesnít reflect actual events Ė as someone whose previous game was a memoir, Iím acutely aware that even in an explicitly autobiographical work there can be a significant difference between real events and what shows up in the game. But from playing through the game it certainly does not seem to boast much fictionalization; most events are low-key, quotidian ones depicting the co-author riding his bike around San Francisco, talking with his co-author about subjects including writing this game, and digging into his obsessive-seeming theories about what advanced math means about the nature of reality. Much of itís also told in a writing style that I find really reminiscent of similar emails Iíve gotten from a bipolar friend of mine when heís in a manic phase:
"The ball returns to your flippers and you shoot for an appealing target. The ball ricochets off the Communication Carousel and hits the Free Will Fork for a bonus. She continues, ĎWhy is a Measurable cardinal special? If a measurable cardinal exists, it is the critical point of an embedding of the universe of sets to a transitive class, and the full universe of sets is larger and richer than L, the constructible universe. The existence of elementary embeddings depends on the self-reflectivity of the universe of sets, whether or not initial segments of the universe reflect properties of the whole. This is analogous to recursive self-containment of deities and universes and souls within the universes that contain the deity, as well as to the infinite mirroring of two minds communicating and modeling the other mind modeling the other modeling itself."
I donít mean to be dismissive of whatís clearly a significant work, in terms of the effort itís required and its significance to the co-author. And while it is very hard to make sense of much of the game Ė partially because I canít follow the math, which might of course be perfectly comprehensible if you have the right background Ė there are some powerful moments in amongst the muddle. Thereís a fantasy of playing the piano with great facility thatís counterposed with the lived reality of arthritis making such virtuosity out of reach, and conversations where the co-author shares his arguments with his partner but displays appealing self-awareness about the positive things heís able to communicate but also the ways his enthusiasm or mania makes things more challenging for her. Thereís interesting things to discuss about how the narrative Ė and the hypercube mapping Ė are constructed, as well as the binding mechanic and what it means in terms of the themes that emerge from exploration and the eventual option to ďwinĒ the game.
When I think about engaging with those things, though, I feel a coldness in the pit of my stomach, because itís hard to treat HTWAS primarily as an aesthetic object when I canít shake the idea that itís the record of a person in the throes of a mental health crises whoís harmed themselves and others. Itís also unclear to me whether both co-authors agreed to put the game out in its current form, or if Ben has done so unilaterally after their relationship fractured. Iím not completely sure whether this is the right course of action for me, much less others, but Iíve decided to leave these notes on my reaction incomplete rather than doing a full review, and wonít be nominating it for ribbons. And Iíll also hope everyone involved with the gameís creation (especially the other co-authorís son) gets the help and support they need.