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Horrible but lacking in avoirdupois, January 5, 2022
(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.