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The Anachronist, May 21, 2017
Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a storyís time period. When they canít 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. Thereís no great change from Decemberís last day to Januaryís 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 Iíve read too many fairy tales.
I think this is why Iím more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, Iím more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. Itís fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this gameís 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 doesnít 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 arenít 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 whatís 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 isnít 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. Itís a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonistís 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 sceneÖ
More than any other interactive fiction Iíve played, this feels like a novel. Itís 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. Iím reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but Iíll read that if thatís 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 wouldíve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When itís not interactive, itís not interactive.
But when it is, it is.
I faced the hardest decision Iíve 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 didnít do that. I stayed in the protagonistís head (or maybe the protagonistsí 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? Shouldnít I focus on the fire, whatís actually happening?
I didnít know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the storyís reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I shouldíve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the storyís most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.
What I chose to do next doesnít matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isnít a story whose strength rests on making the ďrightĒ choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the readerís own experience, which can only happen because itís interactive.
In this sense, itís some of the strongest interactive work Iíve 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.
Itís written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually donít unfold through direct action. Instead theyíre summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, youíd expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You arenít always there yourself.
Itís also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. Itís 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 youíre 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 storyís academic foot forward.
Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your ďentropyĒ or ďknowledge.Ē What these stats do doesnít 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, itís unlikely Iíll play again to do things differently.
You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that donít belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your ďentropyĒ decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didnít work for me: a) because I didnít know what the ďentropyĒ stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didnít work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldnít 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 couldíve been more immersed in reading.
These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldnít 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.