Gestures Towards Divinity

by Charm Cochran profile


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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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