A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat

by Bitter Karella

2021

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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.