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A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat

by Bitter Karella


Web Site

(based on 14 ratings)
6 reviews

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?

This is a grotesque camp horror story inspired by the works of Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe. It contains content that is not appropriate for minor or sensitive players.

Game Details


30th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)


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Number of Reviews: 6
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Short Twine game about the emptiness of medieval Catholicism... I think?, October 19, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: Less than 1 hour

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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Horrible but lacking in avoirdupois, January 5, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(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 game’s theatre of horrors. These aren’t idle warnings, either – while I’m not sure I ran into everything in my playthrough, based on what I did see, I’m more than willing to believe that the missing enormities were lurking behind some of the doors I left unexplored.

The parade of misery isn’t just here for shock value, either. The game’s 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 Church’s well-documented crimes presented alongside supernatural violations that are polemical exaggeration, not mere fantasy. I’m running out of euphemistic synonyms for “really bad thing”, 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 you’re seeing, with some more modern touches to the dialogue preventing the distancing effect of history from undercutting the impact of what’s happening. Indeed, the way harm to children becomes a more and more salient motif as the game progresses makes it clear that it’s not just the 15th-Century incarnation of the church that’s being critiqued here. This is all fair enough – there’s a reason the Reformation kicked off shortly after the time being depicted here – but at the same time, it’s 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 doesn’t 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 it’s 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 it’s well-structured, with choices allowing you to select which terrible thing you’ll 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 – typically I like this sort of thing, but they’re best suited for a puzzle-based experience, which this definitely isn’t, so they felt redundant. Streamlining them away wouldn’t 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 – 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 – it’s 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 it’s good at accomplishing what it sets out to, but man I did not enjoy it one bit.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Garfield, this ain't, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Some doors are better left unopened, October 17, 2021

A short but sprawling journey, this piece enters the Vatican and delves into the depths of horror as a rural priest tries to get an audience with the Pope, but discovers a rotting institution in bureaucratic chaos instead.

The writing is pitch perfect—if it were a paperback, it would be unputdownable. I was engrossed by the evocative details, from the cat spewing increasingly horrific Bible passages to the vivid scenes of debauched religious fervor. I also enjoyed finding a fair amount of new content on a second play-through, which provided added nuance to the plot.

I did feel that the finale was oddly muted, which left me wondering if there might be a better ending just out of reach and I had simply made the wrong choices. On a second play-through, I got the same ending, and I was left wishing for a conclusion with a bit more impact.

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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, October 24, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

On the first day of the Decameron, in which the storytellers engage on the theme of the social structures of religion, one story relates the tale of two friends, a Christian and a Jew. Of course, the former tries to convert the latter, and the latter promises to go to Rome to study the new religion. The joke is that the Christian immediately panics: if his friend goes to Rome and sees the absolute debauchery of Church leadership, there is no way he will convert. Boccaccio obliges his Christian audience, however, with a comfortable out: returning from his trip, the Jewish friend does convert, reasoning that if a religion can prosper when so poorly led, then it must be blessed by God. Boccaccio affirms the power of individual religious devotion as a power unblemished by the inevitability of corruption of religious organization.

Bitter Karella’s A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat denies this hope, trying to directly tie an aesthetic repudiation of Catholicism to the naivety and complicity of the believer. I emphasize aesthetic, because, besides nods to hypocrisy or institutional cruelty, the brunt of the ire is aimed, not towards any concrete element of Catholic belief, but rather towards a phantasmal essence of decrepescence within rigid hierarchy: “A wail goes up from a gang of nude flagellants to your left, their bodies oozing black and red, as one of their number slaps a studded whip across their backs. / To your right, a clot of pilgrims chants a Gregorian hymn, their voices merging together into one dull drone.” Straightforward associations of devotion as violence: a gang of self-harm, the stagnation of being into community. Position within religion blunts individuality, a pseudonatural harmony of roles with a prelapsarian absence of the human, where “a steady stream of priests” leads inevitably to you being “swept along with the throng.” An endless motion carried seemingly of its own accord, throwing bodies this way and that, Dante’s punishment for lust writ large. Industry on a mass scale, in which roles are inhabitation of velocity, a way you move through the world, and yet never truly is it you moving: “Priests and officials, many carrying stacks of scrolls or stone tablets, constantly bustle in one door and out another in a never-ending flow of activity” as they slowly build: “No man alive today will live to see the completion of this basilica. The construction will take decades, possibly centuries, but when it is done it will be a monument to the righteousness of the faith …” The underlying threat of all this motion is that if, for any instant, you stop, if your office no longer pertains to the maelstrom, then your role will drag you down to some subterranean terminus, where you shall officiate over the nothingness, as when we find one unlucky bureaucrat as a skeleton: “Presumably this WAS the administrative official in charge of the Imperium department de Lucifugia. It doesn’t look like anyone’s checked in on him for a while.” Stripped of individuality in a brutal, bodily process, you are replaced with a decay of officiation, in which your agency is repurposed as a tool, as when we affirm that serving the Church is equivalent to serving God: ““Well said! They ARE one and the same, aren’t they? So when you work in the interests of the church, you can do no wrong, right? And when a man can no longer work in the interests of the church, then that man can no longer serve the interests of God. Isn’t that right?””

The higher up in the process you are, the more you decay, yet the more privileged of the mire you become, as in a character lucky enough to receive a name, Henricus, whom we meet as “A tall, nearly skeletal man, dressed in white sacerdotal robes caked with black soot” with “a long sour face with rheumy bloodshot eyes above a beaky nose and a fringe of stringy white hair around his ears”, and just in case we didn’t get the point, we’re told “His face is smudged with ash.” He then informs us that St. Peter’s is not open for pilgrims, so “If you have a pennance [sic] to make, you can deposit your payment at any Mammon kiosk in the city." This is a nearly smothering level of camp, relishing expectations as they cavalcade, as when the payment to Mammon results in a rather unsurprising reference: “Below the imp’s mouth is carved the word INDULGENCES.”

The anti-Catholic tropes rattle off with such aplomb that one would envision some sort of Protestant jeremiad, were the story not at pains to connect its criticisms with a wider judgment of Christianity, as in the cat, who cites a number of unsettling verses about sexuality, regularly reminding you just how much weird stuff there is in the Bible: Onan, unsettling and dense Torah commandments, a hadithesque involving circumcision. The real target of criticism is not the literally monstrous clergy, who are machinelike tendrils of corruptions, but the true believer, whose quest dovetails with ours, as when we first meet him, and he enthuses: ““Can you believe we’re finally here? In the very beating heart of Christendom?” / God, this guy. He’s so annoying. You’re glad you won’t ever have to see him again.” However, we do see him again, deep beneath the Vatican, near the Pope: ““To think, we’re about to meet the pope himself,” says the true believer. “What an honor! And to be able to give the ultimate gift to God’s ambassador on Earth? What Christian could ever dream for anything more?”” After feeding his blood into the Pope, being literally consumed by the religion, he continues to babble pieties before being led away. The message of the story is clear: don’t be that loser! Which seems to me an unserious dismissal of religious devotion.

The story can rage itself into over-the-top condemnations which lose contact with substance and become aestheticized screeds connected to no particularly tangible criticism, for instance in the description of the Pope, surviving on the blood infusions of the faithful: “From this position, you can see the pope lying in his bed. He is so thin that even the soft feather bed bruises him, large purple welts spreading across his back and hips, across skin like paper stretched tightly over bones. His eyes sunken so deeply into his skull that they resemble empty black pits, staring sightlessly up at frescoes of cherubs and saints. His dry blackened lips have curled back from his teeth, leaving his mouth an open hole of blackness. You would think that even know he was already dead, but the physician in all his wisdom has detected the faintest intake and exhale of breath. The body is connected to a network of artificial tubes, plugged into incisions along his arms and chest, extending up to be lost in the gloom of the domed ceiling. Dark fluid circulates through the tubes, doubtless part of the physician’s plan to help the pope cling to life.” This visceral distaste swirls the story into heady fumes of recrimination, so that our cat begins to cite strange heretical verses: “You feel the cold of this place in your bones. You wonder if there something about this place, about being at this depth, about being thing close to the very epicenter of Christendom, that might be causing the cat to… / pick up signals that it shouldn’t be.” The disdain that drips through these descriptions culminates in the story’s final sentence, the nail in the coffin: “The pope has nothing to say.”

I’m not here to defend the Catholic Church, although I think the story comes from a place of dismissive incuriosity, which renders elements of its emotive verve jejune. Calling chants “dull drones” for instance ignores the beauty and intention that has been poured into a rich tradition of music; like, listen to how beautiful and sincere this is. However, the deluge of resentment spares no one, resulting in a rather distasteful application of the monstrous aesthetic to sex workers: ““Welcome to Our Lady of the Evening,” says the procuress, her piggy eyes gleaming. She licks her cracked lips eagerly, leaving a slug-trail of spittle.” No humanity exists here, not even for victims, who are, unfortunately, aestheticized in the story’s usual camp: “Upon the mattress is a slender young woman naked other than a scandalously altered yellow samarra cloak, decorated with red devils and dragons and cut so that you can see… most of her flesh. The left side of her face is disfigured by severe burns, her flesh scarred and blackened and oozing, her left eye a milky white. The flaming red hair on the right side of her head falls over her right shoulder like a crimson waterfall; what little hair grows from the blistered left side of her head is brittle and wispy.” But no, she likes being this way, delights in it, making sexual interplay about being burned at the stake: ““Tell the pope I DESERVE the pyre,” she says as she shoves you out the door. “And this time, tell him to make the flames hot.”” That this is an insensitive treatment of a grave historical circumstance is an understatement, but very well, there’s room for that in art, yet the dehumanization really seems to exist for its own sake: “her talons lightly trailing against your skin to raise goose pimples”, a whisper “hisses the whore”, it’s all a bit tasteless. The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended? I did not see what happens if you select the “virgin” rather than the “whore”, and I do not seek to find out.

I think these problems arise in part because the engagement with Catholicism seems driven less by polemic or emotive engagement and more by the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the caricature stylistics. The game seems to think of itself primarily as fun in the way that a haunted house is fun. Enter into the spoooooky Vatican: “You pass though [sic] another gate, this one carved to resemble a hellmouth, an image in bas relief of a grinning demonic mouth chomping sinners between its teeth.” Religious terror, it’s a carnival ride! Catholic traditions, like the release of differently colored smoke to indicate the status on electing the next Pope, are ripped out at random as set decor: “Great plumes of black smoke are visible from behind the walls; occasionally a sudden burst of new smoke is accompanied by a cacophany of inhumanly high-pitched screeches.” All the appropriations create a successfully disturbing Catherine’s wheel, but perhaps with a bit more patience and curiosity, rather than only a suffusive delight in plasmatics, the animosity could be channeled more purposefully. As it is, we have a German Expressionist nightmare, in which you can choose whether to delight or despair.

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