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11th Place - ParserComp 2022
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Number of Reviews: 2
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(In what follows, I thoroughly spoil this game, because I don’t think there’s any other meaningful way to discuss it. Ordinarily I’d say that if you’re interested in the thing, you should probably go off and play it on your own, experiencing it the way the author intended, before coming back to read what I wrote. This time, though, I have qualms about that recommendation – but even saying why I have qualms might obviate the whole point of this non-spoilery introduction. I guess I’ll just say that I have a significant objection to a major part of how The Muse engages the player, and while it’s a well-crafted game that’s self-consciously addressing moral questions, in my view it’s not sufficiently well-crafted or sufficiently sophisticated to clearly overcome that objection).
2005 was a while ago, though I fancy I remember it reasonably well. I was 24, finishing my 1L year. I saw my second, third, fourth, and fifth Mountain Goats concerts, including a secret Halloween show at the Knitting Factory – the venue schedule listed the band playing that night as the Hospital Bombers, but I recognized the in-joke and bought my tickets in advance. A solid 40% of my personality was hating the Bush Administration for enshrining torture in U.S. policy (it’s down to about 5% these days). Vespers won that year’s IF Comp; I reviewed it enthusiastically 1. As I recall, both player and NPCs get up to some rather heinous deeds in Vespers, and there wasn’t a content warning in sight, inasmuch as content warnings weren’t yet a thing. I don’t remember the absence bothering me (I already said I was 24).
The Muse is an English reimplementation of the Spanish-language original, La Musa, released in 2005. It contains no specific content warnings, though it does note it’s not suitable for children and may offend the sensibilities of some players; it’s right.
The game doesn’t do much to explain itself – it’s clearly one of those allegorical games short on specifics but long on associations. You’re in the dark, with a book, a bloody pen, a woman; you can examine everything you see, including yourself, but it doesn’t provide much illumination. Or rather, the muse does: “she emanates a reddish evil light that envelops your being and your book, impregnating the pages with blood.” However handy she’d be in a darkroom, she’s not much of a conversationalist – all she does is exhort you to write. The parser lets you decide what word or words to put down in the book, then when you look at her again, you’re thrust into a different environment – happily, it’s bucolic this time, and all you are required to do (or can do) is relax and rest.
Then you’re back in the dark with the girl and the book, and the process repeats. The gameplay of each scenario remains the same – it’s basically a guess-the-verb thing, you need to puzzle out the appropriate action to bring each to an end – but they grow darker in turn. You gorge yourself while watching a starving prisoner despair, you kill a soldier begging for mercy, with the muse’s voice coming in from off-stage to egg you on. In between the cycles, you write about whatever you want, the muse’s bit getting staler with each repetition.
The fourth vignette shunts you into a boudoir, where a naked woman is combing her hair. She’s also not much of a talker – if you compliment her on her hair, she says thank you, and if you tell her to stop brushing it (your only other option), she simply stands still. Unlike the other sequences which clearly prompted an action in need of completion, this one seemed more static. I tried taking the hairbrush, I tried breaking the mirror, I tried combing my own hair. This time, when the muse’s voice came in, it said “What are you going to do? What should you do?”
At this point I realized two or three things near-simultaneously:
1. Each of these little scenarios was dramatizing one of the seven deadly sins; I’d worked through sloth, gluttony, and wrath.
1.5. Oh, I’m probably dead and in hell, aren’t I?
2. This game was really going to make me type RAPE WOMAN to progress.
The woman’s clearly a fictional construct; she’s got no agency, and has only a limited range of robotic responses to your behavior. Given point 1.5, and the way the characters in each of the other scenes seemed to poof into existence from nowhere when I showed up, as if they were created just to torment me with their little tableaux, and presumably returned to that same nothingness when I left, it’s an open question whether within the fictional world of the game she’s even meant to be a real person with subjective experience, or just a demonic illusion.
I walked away from the game for ten minutes, and when I got back, I typed it.
It’s over in a sentence, and of course there’s no detail, no panting, prurient narration to fog up the moral allegory. I went back to Limbo, and this time when prompted to write something in the book, I wrote about lust, and the game nodded its approval: the muse “understands that you now know you are doing penance and she is really your jailer. But smile anyway, because you are by her side and you still love her.”
I played through the rest of the game after that, three more sins. Pride is a fun one, you need to complete a bloody ritual, which involves some improvising with an altar and a blood sacrifice. Number seven is Envy and spells out what I’d guessed by this point: you’re Cain, the muse is Lilith (running with the tradition where she’s his lover and not his step-mom, I hope), it’s all punishment for killing Abel out of jealousy. Then the cycle repeats, because of course it does – but there’s also a way out, because of course there is, though the implementation wasn’t robust enough for REPENT or BEG FORGIVENESS to do the business. God’s forgiveness allows you to rest peacefully, though too bad for Lilith, “beautiful and wicked,” crying as you abandon her.
In 2005 MeToo hadn’t happened yet. If you’d asked me my favorite novels, I’d have probably listed Atonement (there’s a rape), Demons (there’s a rape), Ulysses (no rape so far as I can tell but not 100% certain). The way interactive fiction can make the player complicit in evil was still something of a novelty. Sam Alito joined the Supreme Court.
The Muse isn’t an irresponsible work. It propounds a set of moral ideas, which are wedded to a Catholic structure that pretty much requires something like RAPE WOMAN to hold together (theologically speaking you could end the sequence with COMMIT THE SIN OF ONAN, but in these fallen times it lacks the same heft). It gets the distasteful deed off-screen as quickly as is decent. And for all the murder and mayhem the average player of video games has committed at this late date, how fussed can one really get about two little words?
I still wish I’d walked away from it and never come back.
There’s an annoying pseudoclever trend in big budget games where, struggling to be both cleverly poignant as an artistic work and unintrusively fun as a consumer product, they attempt to offload the burden of interrogating received play tropes by shunting the agency out to the player, conflating their control with the diegetic control of their character, resulting sometimes in tepid gotchas, a la Far Cry 3, or extraordinary dissonance, a la The Last of Us 2, often both. Like cigarette companies, these games shrug and say, well, if there are problems, you shouldn’t have kept playing. Games which scold you for engaging with the systems their teams meticulously crafted over years of intent.
The Muse presents itself initially as being about a writer struggling to create, where you are “Seated on some hidden foothold in an infinite darkness,” forced to fix your gaze “on the book of eternal pages that you write with the help of your muse, faithful companion in your grief and sorrow.” Attempts to write in your book spools you through scenes that present some initial condition, like a beautiful sunset in an open field, but which quickly resolve and recede: “You lie back and close your eyes, sinking back into the overpowering darkness that envelops you whenever your muse is with you.” Each place vanishes at the touch, returning you to the obscure inner abstraction of the muse’s endless impetus.
It is here that the ominous clouds signal the turbulent malevolence of the muse, unsettlingly illustrated in grainy drawings that demonize through ethereal white pulses which threaten to brighten to scars. The muse keeps forcing you into new manifestations, which become increasingly troubling: you find yourself “on the battlefield, fierce warriors surround you, armed with swords and weapons of death. Before you stands a dying soldier begging to save his miserable life.” The solution to which the muse urges you is to “kill him with his own sword”, despite his dying cries. The bated violence frills out “the logical achievement of your new inspiration”, leaving you once again abandoned “with a new blank page.”
Canny readers may, by this point, clue into the pattern of these vignettes: we are enacting the seven deadly sins. The gotcha appears: by playing the game and advancing through the scenes, we are becoming stuck into the guilt cycle. In the seventh and final sin, envy, we kill a shepherd, which finally unveils the full context: “The voice from heaven shouts: "What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the earth. That is why the earth that has opened its jaws to receive your brother’s blood from your hands curses you. / A black rain of ash and red of blood gushes from the sky, dragging you into the black abyss. You fall and fall for centuries, plunging into absolute darkness… a darkness only bearable by the beautiful smile of your muse, who gathers you in her arms and takes you back to the book, which awaits your writing. / “Everything ends. Everything begins.”” You are Cain, wandering the Earth cursed, and you must break the cycle of sin by praying for forgiveness: “Again the same voice, now, echoes in your head: “Now you have asked for forgiveness, you can rest in peace, after so many years, after so many sins. Your punishment comes to an end, walk free at last, my son.”” As a high concept puzzle, this is mildly clever, but it relies on a tedious gotcha, where, in order to progress, you have to follow the linear path prescribed, only to then recursively instantiate your punishment, leaving you to restart with the last minute twist of recognizing what you should have done all along.
Progression through the game locks you into doing evil acts, which you are then immediately punished for, as actually you should have stopped playing by using the escape command that builds on context you don’t have until the cycle is finished. Where this becomes extremely frustrating is in its fourth vignette, for lust, in which, to progress, you are supposed to, well, you can infer. Look, I’ve read a lot of books where a lot of bad things happen, sometimes in excruciating detail. I have a certain tolerance for engaging artistically with the unwavering horror of humanity’s infinite capacity for atrocity. I don’t believe it is necessarily useful to impose certain parameters of comfort on yadda yadda yadda. But this just feels crude in a way that is not artistically intriguing. Sure, some of this might be that the selfcontainment of traditional fiction allows for one to undergo a lot of intense transgressions within a specified scope, in which you, immersed, witness, but the roiling internality remains its own engine, sufficient and eternal without you. By demanding your input to bend into the agency necessary for movement, the player dynamic renders the action obtuse, stabbing out at you bluntly, hurting you for turning the wheel that makes the machine function. One so inclined could argue that this heightened level of grossness you feel playing this game as opposed to reading a correlate work is a power generated by the innate conditions of games as a medium, where your “agency” becomes entangled to render the underlying import more tangibly powerful. I don’t really agree; I think it rather emphasizes the mechanical clunkiness of the artistic enaction, a certain evasiveness that utilizes entanglement as an ersatz for a more compellingly considered engagement.
Because, rather than make me feel sinfully identified with Cain, the effect was to render more visceral the game’s flaws. Like, this is a game where the “sin” of sloth is falling asleep in a pleasant field! Why does lust have to be acted at so much starker a level? This is a game whose vignettes are designed as quanta capable of evoking the central prescription: you are in a field, there is a sword, you need to use the sword to kill someone; voila, wrath. Okay, yes, I suppose wrath involves violence. We’re on the same page, muse. You could have just said “wrath”, and I would have learned as much as the vignette affords. So the absolute gall of a game at this level of specification that imagines it is somehow accomplishing anything at all by requiring rape to progress. Sure, murder might have bothered you equivalently, sure, if you were clever enough you could have clued into the escape mechanism earlier, sure, it’s technically you entering the commands, there’s so many ways to turn the blame outwards, but is that dispersion sufficiently compelling to recontextualize the blase brutality into some kind of inverse sophistication?
Not only do I not find this blameshifting interesting, but I also don’t think it actually exculpates itself, given that these issues are built deep into the game’s core, as it recycles tedious tropes of externalizing one’s immorality onto a seductive feminine. You see, your sin is actually the control your muse has over you! It is the muse who compels your evil acts, and the goal of the game is to wriggle out of her influence: “Your once heavenly spirit escapes from within the walls of punishment, leaving behind the beautiful and wicked Lilith, your muse, whose tears for your absence splash on your face, as you fade into the ether never to see her again.” The commonplace of beauty and wickedness connected is the projective misogyny whereby the sickly obsession of the male gaze is internalized in a feminine object which retains the evil in itself, as per the game’s epigraph by Roberto Menendez: “Damn you slippery muse, / you give me your caresses and your kiss / and I join the words together like a possessed, / sinking in your quicksand. / You leave, turning me into ash / and I feel a thick ribbon around my neck / that chokes me with longing for your return, / growing this almost sickly obsession.” The muse’s womanness is coextensive with her evil: “As beautiful as it is obscure, she emanates a reddish evil light that envelops your being and your book, impregnating the pages with blood.” The narrator’s sinful cycling is the result of the fact that “you are by her side and you still love her” even though she is “really your jailer”. Original sin, of course, emerging from Eve, the moral throughline can be extrapolated easily. Given the content the game insists on having, this victim-blaming framework threatens a lot of particularly unpleasant themes.
The gotcha at the core of the game is attempting to get a loan from the player so that it can check subject matter that its craftedness can’t cash. I don’t mean to be mean, but this is a game that requires rape to progress. So yeah, I’m going to hold it to an exacting standard, and it doesn’t pass. I just feel gross and unhappy in a way that doesn’t feel interesting.