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About the Story
The pope -- the holy father himself! -- has summoned you to Rome for a personal audience. But the Vatican is a massive, bustling city, full of twisting avenues and winding corridors and so many oubliettes, so what are you chances that you'll ever find the pope's office somewhere in this edifice?
30th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
One thing is clear straightaway about A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat: if the Comp were judged based solely on content warnings, it would be leading the pack. Just reading the list is enough to raise the hackles, even before starting in on this Twine gameís theatre of horrors. These arenít idle warnings, either Ė while Iím not sure I ran into everything in my playthrough, based on what I did see, Iím more than willing to believe that the missing enormities were lurking behind some of the doors I left unexplored.
The parade of misery isnít just here for shock value, either. The gameís plot sees its priest protagonist summoned to the 15th-century Vatican to present a prodigy of nature to the pope, but the structure is a descent through greater and greater depravity, with some of the contemporary Churchís well-documented crimes presented alongside supernatural violations that are polemical exaggeration, not mere fantasy. Iím running out of euphemistic synonyms for ďreally bad thingĒ, but suffice to say that I ran into Torquemada and one of the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum and purchased a plenary indulgence (albeit from a shrine dedicated to Mammon), but also found a brothel being run by an Abbess right next to the construction site for St. Peters, and far more besides.
The writing effectively conveys the awfulness of what youíre seeing, with some more modern touches to the dialogue preventing the distancing effect of history from undercutting the impact of whatís happening. Indeed, the way harm to children becomes a more and more salient motif as the game progresses makes it clear that itís not just the 15th-Century incarnation of the church thatís being critiqued here. This is all fair enough Ė thereís a reason the Reformation kicked off shortly after the time being depicted here Ė but at the same time, itís not exactly unplowed ground, and while the arguments land with a bit more force than usual given the luridness on display, I wound up wishing there was a bit more flesh on the bones, a bit more complexity in the portrait of how a horrible institution perpetuates itself that doesnít rely on painting everyone concerned as a villain or a dupe. If the game was content with deploying its imagery just in the service of scares, that would be one thing, but since itís clearly more than just a haunted hayride I wound up wanting more.
Commenting on the game-y aspects of The Church Cat feels a bit besides the point, but itís well-structured, with choices allowing you to select which terrible thing youíll confront next on your trip into the bowels of the Church (mercifully, you also are allowed to run away from some of the more disturbing scenes). There were a few aspects of the implementation that aped some parser conventions, like a persistent inventory link and occasional directional navigation Ė typically I like this sort of thing, but theyíre best suited for a puzzle-based experience, which this definitely isnít, so they felt redundant. Streamlining them away wouldnít make it more fun, but would probably make it more focused on its core, horrible themes.
Highlight: Slight spoiler here: (Spoiler - click to show)the cat that speaks to quote from scripture is neat, and I appreciated that it lifted up some of the wilder bits of the Bible Ė the passage where a bunch of kids make fun of Elisha for being bald, so the prophet curses them and two bears maul them to death, is a personal favorite.
Lowlight/How I failed the author : Hopefully the author will not be offended if I say that the game was pretty much all lowlight for me Ė itís gross and scary and horrible, and as a new father I was especially not excited to read about bad stuff happening to small kids. I still think itís good at accomplishing what it sets out to, but man I did not enjoy it one bit.
For such a potentially sweet-sounding title, this sure gets rough fast. It's the story of a pilgrimage gone wrong or, more likely, that could never go right. You've taken leave from a faraway diocese in northern Scandinavia (or so I guess from the name Isjfall) for three months to visit His Holiness. And nothing about the trek is holy.
It starts with your companion on the ride to the Vatican. I'm struck with how his lack of dignity is an instant turn-off, while the cruel people in charge that you meet later are less immediately disgusting. You have plenty of chances to ignore the True Believer, as the game calls him, but you'll probably eventually give in to curiosity. He's carrying a casket, and it's never clear what's in there. You have ... a cat who can spout Bible verses. And the cat spouts the goriest ones! The Pope seems to want to see your cat, not you, but hey. You take what you can get.
Just one problem with your cat: there's a Papal edict that cats are all tied to witches. So they are being shoved into burlap sacks and burnt all over Rome. You get to see the results of this destruction: lots of smoke and lots of rats. Parallels with modern, uh, issues are pretty clear here: some politicians currently blame everything but the virus for COVID, and "religious exemptions/beliefs" are listed as a reason/excuse not to get vaccinated.
Of course it gets worse. The Pope is below ground, and in a pretty clear parallel to Dante's Inferno, you keep descending and keep finding worse and more powerful people. Until you make it. Your True Believer friend makes it, too. And the meeting with the Pope is certainly underwhelming. For you and the True Believer, but for different reasons.
This is deliberate, I think, because it calls into question if the Pope has any real power at all, and the unsavory people you've met along the way are doing the real heavy lifting, and they have as much contempt for the Pope as for any deity. The end feels like a bit like a cop-out, but not quite on the "it was all a dream" scale, but it does bring questions. It's been six months since the Pope sent the letter. Did the Pope forget about you? Did he ever care? Did he just like feeling important, having people spend so much time coming to visit? One also gets the feeling that the people who wave you by when you show the summons know you are no threat to what they see as real power. They don't exactly help you find whom you need to when you're exploring 10 or 15 or 20 levels below the surface. Because part of having power over people is making or letting them struggle when they don't need to, and that's true regardless of if there's any actual debauchery or bribery going on.
There was almost too much for me. Because we ought to have scorn for those who corrupt religion and morality and so forth. We need reminders that those who yell the loudest often yell to distract you from their bad sides. And we need to 1) not be the True Believer and 2) reject True Believers' arguments. But this work left little else. It was effective, and it's still relevant today. We see popular mass-preachers coming up with new lies, from Joel Osteen's fake sunniness to Franklin Graham's more wrathful approach. They blame rock music, nonconformists, or whatever is convenient, somehow convincing people they weren't in it for wealth and power, but gosh, good things happen to good people!
I don't think Church Cat is trying to look for a way forward, either. It shouldn't have to, but if you're reading reviews before playing, you may want to know this. I prefer a way forward, however small, and sometimes I fool myself it's there when it isn't. Church Cat left me no such outlet. So I'm left stuck a bit, but I probably would be, either way. Seeing ruthlessness in describing horrible people helps, until it doesn't. But on the other hand, putting in a sliver of hope after some of the passages would feel as hypocritical as a preacher switching from "God is love" to describing how and whom you, who are not God, should hate. Church Cat definitely crosses lines, not necessarily lines of taste, but beyond which any further observation or choice leds to more horror and chaos.
This didn't stop me from playing again to see if there was anything I'd missed, for better or worse.
This is a short Twine game in which you play a priest, apparently during the construction of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, with a summons to see the Pope. You have a cat that is given to quoting the most head-scratching, out-of-context Bible verses in a human voice when prompted.
You have to work your way through the Vatican and find the Pope to fulfill your long journey and answer the summons. Along the way a lot of dark, weird, unexplained sh-t happens. Not sure what else there is to say beyond that.
I think the author was trying to commentate on the Catholic church of the era in question, or perhaps the church in general. But I'm not sure. I'm not Catholic so perhaps I'm missing some context with which to interpret this game.
In the end I didn't get the message, if there was one, and didn't enjoy the game. Combined with a small handful of typos and this is a two-star game for me. YMMV.
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