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About the Story
In the year 1596, Anna is about to be burned at the stake. As the constable prepares to light the fire below her, she can do nothing but seek a solution in her own memory and imagination.
The Anachronist is a game in which you make choices that determine the outcome. By increasing Anna’s knowledge, you can create opportunities for her to act. By decreasing the entropy or disorder of the whole situation, you can raise the odds that the ending will be a happy one for all of the characters. If you try to conclude the story while knowledge is too low or entropy is too high, Anna will burn.
At the same time, The Anachronist is literary fiction. With as many words as a novel, it’s indebted to authors like Joyce, Borges, Calvino, and Pamuk. It uses modernist and post-modernist literary techniques–as well as an interactive format–to explore questions of perspective, historical change, and truth.
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Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a story’s time period. When they can’t find solid ground to establish one, or when what they thought was solid proves unstable, they report confusion or annoyance. Their suspension of disbelief has snapped.
I have a hard time remembering dates. A very, very hard time. You have no idea what a hard time. When other people discuss generations, when they delineate time by decades, this seems alienating. There’s no great change from December’s last day to January’s first. Dividing the time on either side into different years makes sense for practical matters. Treating that distinction as more than an arbitrary line drawn on a calendar, discussing years as though they were truly distinct -- this is where I start to sink while everyone else floats. For whatever reason, the timekeeping systems that most people use to organize their lives feel meaningless to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many fairy tales.
I think this is why I’m more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, I’m more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. It’s fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this game’s subject matter was like having a favorite dessert served on a silver platter.
You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire -- temporarily.
A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. But they aren’t only her memories. Her perception is sharp enough, her empathy keen enough, her imagination wild enough, perhaps, this close to death, that she can share her consciousness with other people. She can look, from the stake, across the city and know what’s happening in distant towers. She can remember stories that her cellmates told her, before she was convicted, and relive their lives through those remembered tales.
Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…
More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. It’s very long for a Twine game. It took me a few days to finish, and probably around ten hours total. My reading speed, granted, is slow as a slug, but still. If you plan to play it, treat it more like a book than a game.
It also features long stretches of non-interactive text. Extremely long stretches. Stretches that tested my patience. I’m reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but I’ll read that if that’s what I want. Stone Harbor is another recent game that had similarly long, non-interactive passages. I finished that game feeling as though the brief interactive bits were window dressing, that the story would’ve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When it’s not interactive, it’s not interactive.
But when it is, it is.
I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?
I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.
What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.
In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen. I was tempted to give it five stars for the concept alone. But although the concept is great, the game suffers from a few things apart from its long non-interactive patches.
It’s written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually don’t unfold through direct action. Instead they’re summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, you’d expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You aren’t always there yourself.
It’s also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. It’s Elizabethan, and it revels in intimate period detail. Tastes, sounds, textures. Clothing, accents, architecture, music, food, religion, law. Everything feels evocative and real, and also researched. You can sense the research in every line. Again, that textbook flavor emerges, where you feel more like you’re reading a scholarly article than a story. Even the artwork (there are many nice illustrations) is captioned with bibliographic information if you click it. Attributions are good, but presenting them on every single page really puts the story’s academic foot forward.
Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your “entropy” or “knowledge.” What these stats do doesn’t become clear until the end, when they determine the end. I tried to decrease entropy throughout the story, even if it meant sacrificing knowledge, which led to a sub-optimal ending. Whoops. Since the game is so long, it’s unlikely I’ll play again to do things differently.
You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that don’t belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your “entropy” decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didn’t work for me: a) because I didn’t know what the “entropy” stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didn’t work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldn’t click them. I only managed to find about four clickable anachronisms in the whole text. Which meant I spent a lot of time clicking on nothing when I could’ve been more immersed in reading.
These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is ambitious, sophisticated, and despite everything that I thought it did less than ideally, it still did enough right to keep me engaged to the end.
The Anachronist demands quite a bit of the reader. Long passages require patience, and one must be prepared to treat this more as a book than a game. Not recommended to play in one sitting. However, Levine is a skilled and knowledgeable writer, and the experience is rewarding.
The Anachronist is set in the 16th century, and Levine provides plenty of illustrations and quotations to immerse the reader in that world. Levine does an excellent job of thinking in the 16th century logic of his characters.
My one small gripe is that the narrative voice is sometimes inconsistent. While most sentences sound 'literary', others are surprisingly straightforward, closer to spoken English. Perhaps this was intentional, as the casual sentences feel anachronistic, but it felt more like the narrator accidentally falling out of character. However, the simpler sentences do make the story easier to read.
It's clear that an incredible amount of work and research has gone into this story, and it deserves much more attention.
The amount of time and effort that must have gone into this is staggering. Although this is considerably more involved than what I typically look for, I feel I must give credit where credit is due for the good of others who might come across this review. This is a great story stemming from a possibly even greater concept, and a good choice for those who don't mind taking breaks and coming back for more.
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