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Gestures Towards Divinity

by Charm Cochran profile

Surreal
2023

(based on 15 ratings)
7 reviews

About the Story

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was a British painter, infamous for his use of brutal imagery and distortions of the human face and body. Well-known for both his violent subject matter and cutting wit, he is commonly considered one of the most important artists of the Twentieth Century.

This story is not about him.

Content warning: Intended for mature audiences. Content warnings can be found in-game.


Game Details


Awards

22nd Place - tie - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)

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Number of Reviews: 7
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Most Helpful Member Reviews


7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
IFComp 2023: Gestures Towards Divinity, October 5, 2023
by Kastel
Related reviews: ifcomp2023

The works of Francis Bacon evoke different reactions for good reason. He inspires controversy and awe. But as the game's blurb points out, "This game is not about him."

We are first introduced to him through plaques explaining his overall life story and his triptychs. As we view his works, the middle panel beckons us to LOOK CLOSER. We accidentally enter these paintings and emerge into his strange, surrealistic visions. There, depending on which triptych we've gone through, we can talk to a Fury, George Dyer, and Dyer's corpse.

The entire game revolves around exhausting conversation trees between these characters in the artworks and the people in the gallery. By asking around, we'll learn about what Bacon has thought about life, art, God, the soul, love, and some more. While it may remind players of Emily Short's influential Galatea, this game is mechanically far simpler: you'll be switching back and forth between different characters to unlock new topics to talk about.

While the gameplay was tedious, I couldn't satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to know more about Francis Bacon's art and how people understood them. Why are people so drawn and repelled toward his works? Is there some deeper meaning or could it simply be nothing at all? What was his relationship with Dyer? Why did he paint the Fury like that? Is the painting of the corpse just shock art or is there more to it?

As we ask these questions to different people, we begin to get a portrait of an artist from different perspectives. One fan sees him as a surrealist artist capable of subversion and bold new ideas. A detractor, on the other hand, finds his work too grotesque and even opportunistic. But those who are close to him -- the models of his work -- see him as (Spoiler - click to show)someone who craves masochistic pleasure and forced his partners to replace for his long-lost desire. He desires violence upon himself. For those who remain unconvinced and decide to investigate the question of Bacon's intentions even further, (Spoiler - click to show)you'll have the opportunity to "talk" to his self-portrait at the end of the game. He doesn't respond to anything you ask him because he seems too interested in himself as an artist. But you can tell him *who* he is, and he screams, implying you taught him something he didn't realize he had all along. At any point in the game, we can leave the gallery and get on with our lives.

Whether you dug through every topic or not, the game suspends its judgment on Bacon's art. We are left with our own voices to find out how we feel about his work. In my case, I wasn't aware he was a real figure until I started writing this review and I found his work beautiful. But his actions are inexcusable to me: he was an incorrigible, abusive artist who profited from people's misery for the sake of art. At the same time, he's been dead for so long that I don't have an ethical problem with his work being seen all over the world. Other people could disagree with me and that's fine.

This game is not about Francis Bacon the artist. It's about how the people inside and outside his works are affected by them.

When we ask people and the subject matter questions about Bacon's art and philosophy, we're actually teasing out something else entirely: our lives. Bacon is simply an author-function; his biographical details don't really matter. His works are the real focal point. What's more important is what we take away from it, and that journey is always meaningful.

As for me, his works and this game embody the sadder parts of queer desire. What we desire is often taboo because we cannot decouple love and dehumanization from our thinking. Losing it hurts even more because we can't talk about what we've lost. Shame and fear drive us into abstraction, into talking about nothing else because words and gestures no longer reflect our state of mind.

Is it so wrong for us to seek it?

Gestures Towards Divinity, like other works of art, cannot answer that question. All we can do is enter the game and explore it. Perhaps, we could chance upon some important truth that even their creators don't know -- or we don't. Satisfying or lacking, they are all we have.

Whatever the case, our personal answers we find are always gesturing toward something. Our curiosity is what makes art divine to us.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
One of my favourites IFComp 2023 pieces, November 30, 2023
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Recent world events are fairly disheartening and would give a lot of comfort to those who believe that violence is the dominant force in human nature, if comfort were something that such people could be given. On my Mastodon account, I wrote:


The willingness of others to engage in massive violence and cruelty can make our own attempts at kindness seem so impotent and pointless.

That that is not so, that even the smallest human gestures are of supreme importance, that in some sense they redeem the world, that is the faith we need.

It’s not an easy faith, but there is no alternative.

I had decided to start my review of Gestures Towards Divinity with this quote, even without realising that I too had used the word ‘gesture’, something I only noticed when I copy-pasted it into this post. But this is what Cochran’s game is about. It is about small acts of kindness against a background of relentless violence. Those are our gestures towards divinity. Without them, we can only be the inhuman mourners at a crucifixion that might not even be taking place, and certainly will not absolve us of any of our sins.

Gestures Towards Divinity is a piece of interactive fiction that would have been perfectly suited as an entrant into the IF Art Show competitions, back in the days, which focused on creating an object or scene which the player could explore. In this case, we explore an entire art show, albeit a small one, in which three triptychs of Francis Bacon are being exhibited, along with a still from Battleship Potemkin. These are real paintings, and I assume that only considerations of copyright stopped Cochran from adding visuals to the game. As it is, we can easily look up the paintings as we play, which adds to the atmosphere. The middle panel of each triptych can be entered, and we then come into an abstract space in which we converse with either a fury, or George Dyer, once at the beginning of his relationship with Bacon, and once after his death.

The most famous of the Art Show games, entered in 2000, is Emily Short’s Galatea, and it’s hard not to be reminded of that piece when Gestures Towards Divinity allows us to converse with the painted characters. But there are important structural differences. In Galatea, a large part of the point is that the conversational space is wide open and the conversation can take different turns, depending on how your choices influence Galatea’s mood. In Gestures Towards Divinity, however, the conversations are meant to be exhausted – there are even achievements for this – and we are given explicit lists of topics we can still discuss. This is a textbook case of lawn mowering, where we almost mindlessly choose one option after another because in the end we’ll have to choose all of them anyway. This was a bit tedious; but what saved it from being really tedious was the great writing and intense substance. I think the game would have been even stronger if some of the less central subjects had been left out (nothing, I feel, would be lost if the topics ‘fate’, ‘luck’, ‘karma’, ‘life after death’ and ‘soul’ were to be removed from the game entirely), but even in the current version I was thoroughly intrigued by what the characters had to tell me. The vapidity of my conversations with the barista was endearing as a contrast, and as a useful reminder that life can be concrete and small.

The approach that Cochran takes to Bacon’s art is unashamedly biographical. The piece does mention stylistic choices, world events, art movements… but it returns again and again and in great depth to Bacon’s life, his relationships, and especially the violence, the alcoholism, the masochism and sadism, and the influence – the terrible, destructive influence – he had on Dyer. It’s not a nice portrait that is being painted; which is fitting, given that Bacon was not in the habit of painting nice portraits of others. Just as the painter puts the ugliness, the violence and the estrangement at the centre in all his works, so Cochran puts all of that at the centre of our conversations on Bacon. (Spoiler - click to show)The fact that we can talk to Dyer both when he’s still hopeful and naive, and when he has committed suicide in a desperate attempt to win back Bacon’s love, and that we can do that because the real Bacon painted a bunch of triptychs showing the dead Dyer in horrible poses(!) and then sold them(!!), makes all of this extra haunting and powerful.

If that had been the entire game, it would have been very interesting and it would have mostly confirmed me in the antipathy I felt towards Bacon’s art. I’m not sure I have seen it in real life – certainly not much of it – so I must be a little circumspect in judging it… but, essentially, I really don’t need art to show me the ugliness, the violence and the estrangement with which the world is rife. Or rather, maybe I do need that, and certainly I can handle it, but please do also give me, I don’t ask much, but at least a gesture towards divinity.

Well, Cochran has me covered. Some reviewers have stated that there’s a disconnect between, on the one hand, the heavy and serious conversations in the paintings; and, on the other hand, the extremely light-hearted puzzles that you can solve in the museum. But there’s no disconnect. The paintings are the background of violence and ugliness. The puzzles, all of which involve small selfless acts of compassion and positivity, are the gestures towards something else. They are acts of faith. (Spoiler - click to show)To have seen the dead Dyer casting a devil’s shadow, to have mourned at the cross of a God who does not exist, and then still to pick up the empty cup and put it in the bin, then still to buy the water and give it to the plant – it’s such a small thing, but it is an affirmation of that than which nothing is bigger. (Which you could call God, but which I prefer to call humanity, or love. God has so many problematic connotations.)

It is no accident that only through an act of kindness can we gain access to the final conversation, the one with the guard, who is the only one to give us a more positive perspective on Bacon’s art. That was nice, and made me feel better about Bacon – not, perhaps, Bacon the man, although he too was in need of acts of kindness, but about the art. It can work differently on different people, and its power is undeniable.

There’s a strange, strange sequence at the end that I’m not sure how to place. We finally come (Spoiler - click to show)face to face with Bacon himself, but we can’t talk to him, since he is hiding behind bon mots and abstract theories. But then, if we wait long enough, he starts screaming. (According to some reviewers, you can also get him to scream by telling him who he is. I tried this, but it didn’t work. Perhaps the parser was being overly finicky.) And there he is, screaming, screaming, screaming. Is this a final gesture of the game, condemning Bacon to a hell of his own making? I suppose those gestures too are towards divinity. I tried my best to be kind to Bacon – to hold him, or soothe him, or console him – but nothing worked. “If comfort were something that such people could be given,” well, indeed. It was a dark, dark note to end the game on. But at least I had a date with the guard, and I suppose, as I (almost) said in my own entry to this competition, that the point of art and fiction (I said history) is not to help the dead, but to help the living.

A wonderful piece. Thank you, Charm.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
When Art Speaks, Listen!, December 20, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

This is a melancholy work about Francis Bacon, the troubled violence artist. I know the blurb denied this but I am unconvinced. The player is in a small, three room museum, examining three triptychs spanning the artist’s career. In a quite literal sense, the game is a dialogue with the works, thematically tied to Bacon’s demons and how those demons impacted his relationship with his longtime muse/model/lover. Ok, yeah it’s nominally about the muse, but Bacon himself is the dominant force over all of it.

The most prominent feature of this work is the writing. It is soaring and often sublime. The game is strongly NPC-driven, and between the crazy-broad conversation branches, the subjects you are steered to pursue and the nifty voices of the characters it is Engaging right out of the gate. Here’s some examples that really resonated with me. If you don’t recognize these quotes as top tier writing, blame me for yanking them from context:

“I will be his father and his patron and his lover and his lover and his lover and so many more of his lovers, and one day I will be him. It is inevitable, as much as I wish it weren’t.”

“That’s why The Underworld, or Hell, or whatever you want to call it works, you know. Because you have no sense of solidarity.”

The game also performs a minor miracle… actually I don’t want to call it that. It implies some kind of providence or accidental confluence. The author’s wordsmithing talent and painstaking word-by-word precision has rendered deeply affecting, wide-ranging, almost natural conversations on super heavy topics of mortality, trauma, art, unhealthy sexuality, and corroding relationships. I know, right? With parser-IF NPCs!

There are two tricks the author leverages, and again I don’t want the word ‘trick’ to cheapen the achievement. Firstly, the use of TOPICS provides a quickly-disappearing gentle steer into all that great dialogue. Second, the nature of the NPCs provides just the barest distortion that papers over whatever uncanny-valley glitches might be there. These choices ensure the dialogue shines bright without the slightest scuff. And boy howdy, the stories they tell are complex, tragic and affecting. By the time I had plumbed the depths (breadths?) of the triptychs, I was ensnared in the tragic history and surrounding discourse.

And then the thread ran out? The art narrative had pulled me along with ever deepening ideas, drama and tragedy, and then kind of stopped without climax. (Or perhaps a tragically understated one.) Had the game ended there, it would have been fine. Had the painting climax been echoed or integrated into a larger ‘real world’ climax it would have been better, and we might be talking Transcendent. What it did instead was segue to a different kind of wry but simple puzzle collection.

The story all along was signposted by ACHIEVEMENTS. I think I understand this choice. It kind of refreshingly kept things from becoming too self-serious and provided a teasing counterweight when exploring the paintings. Buuut they also triggered my inner Ash Ketchum, and so I started chasing other achievements. Much more mundane ones. And I interacted with other NPCs that didn’t have the… distortions… that the paintings did and felt just the slightest off because of it. I don’t want to be too down, these mini-puzzles and real human interactions were sparky and joyful and fun. Objectively, stronger NPC implementations than 95% of parser games. The (Spoiler - click to show)barista’s reaction to the philosophical topic list was particularly giggly. But they were qualitatively a step down from the central story of the art (barring one interaction with the (Spoiler - click to show)guard that DID subtly resonate in a complex hopeful/creepy way).

So I’m left with a work that was deeply Engaging for 1/2 of its runtime, then downgraded to the finish line. This seems unfair as I’m thinking through it though. The second half was actually Engaging as a parser puzzle, it just wasn’t the SAME Engaging as the first half. After expertly cycling me into an affecting dramatic state, it asked me to take a breath, then just play around a while. Am I really complaining that I had to deal with two different flavors of Engaging IF? I think I have to acknowledge that Engaging+ added to Engaging- is still Engaging. Yeah, maybe I could have wanted more connection between the two halves but maybe I should just shut up and not look an IF gift horse this wonderful in the mouth. Engaging it is.

Two final disconnected notes. Don’t limit yourself to provided topics, these characters have DEEP wells of things to say. Beyond the tour de force dialogue implementation, the whole package is the most robust amateur parser implementation I’ve seen to date, in terms of fully implemented nouns and organic ‘can’t do/talk about that’ messages. I have the vague sense there were glitches around characters remembering-but-not-remembering you, but have no specific memory of them. Vanishingly close to Seamless.

Played: 10/3/23
Playtime: 2hrs, 12/17 achievements
Artistic/Technical ratings: Engaging, ~Seamless
Would Play After Comp?: Yes, more achievements please!


Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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Gestures Towards Divinity on IFDB

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Polls

The following polls include votes for Gestures Towards Divinity:

Games that take place completely in museums by Andrew Schultz
IFComp 2023 had a couple, and they reminded me of another I tested in Shufflecomp. I like having the ability to leave when I want and see what I want. I'm looking specifically for ones with no winning or losing, and ones where you can...

Outstanding Game of the Year 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best overall game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible...

Author's Choice for Best Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best overall game of 2023. Unlike all other polls in the IFDB Awards, this...

See all polls with votes for this game




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