While Rome Burns

by CSR


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SeedComp 2023: While Rome Burns, April 16, 2023
by kaemi
Related reviews: Seedcomp 2023

This game lampoons the snooty selfobsession of the imperial believing all the reverence he receives. As Emperor Nero during the Great Fire of Rome, you wander around naively frustrated by “Everybody whining and blubbering, and, most important, not paying attention to you!” As you can judge from the tone, this lampoon settles into the stock character of the urbane aristocrat: “There are also servants nearby, obviously. Like a great, mighty man like you would degrate yourself to do peasant-like tasks.” That this is a slightly strange characterization of Nero, who on the contrary was considered a garish spectacleer who reveled in popular grandeur, is par for Nero, who has been spuriously commandeered for any mockery to which Roman emperors so readily lend themselves. In that spirit, While Rome Burns keeps up the tune of the frustrated emperor delivering jaunty offhand comments which show a glorious lack of introspection: “You are very well known all around Rome for having a kind of a… temper, if you may. Honestly, people could be so dramatic. You yell at some servants for being incompetent once, curse some senators for trying to interfere in a new project of yours other, and suddenly you are some kind of a hot head. Tyrant, some of them started to call you. An absurd.”

Of course, a stock character runs out of runway pretty quickly. While Rome Burns adds additional mileage to its central joke through the characterization of Nero as preening in a public spirited way: “Someone must have alerted the crowd of this result earlier, because your people is already crying and pleading when you go outside tell them the bad news. The proof of how much they love your presentations gets you emotional, and pilling up with your deception for not being able to do the show you so desperately wanted is enough for you to burst into tears.” The pseudoempathy is a minty cardamom, the parasocial appropriation of adulation giving this Nero a more perfumed nuance than the usual fiddler to the fire. Delusionally naive balances with the usual brutal notes, providing some unexpected relief from the declaiming, as when Nero gets the idea that he can cajole the servants out of their lamentations with a bit of grandiloquent praise: ““Oh, dear servants of mine! How grateful I am to have your presence! There are no people in this world more graceful, more kind than you are. Would you like to help me to share my beautiful concert to the habitants of Rome?” You proclaim, trying to be as convincing as possible.” It’s an amusing left turn that improves all the straightaways it took to get there.

Not to say the result softens the intended tone, since Nero’s phobic revulsion of his servants causes the central conundrum, which is that he just cannot understand what these wretched creatures are doing: “The closer you look, more nasty details start to pop off. Their eyes are swollen from all the tears and there is snot dripping from their noses and spreading in the lower part of their faces, denouncing they must be going on it for a good time. There are also sobs ripping out from their throats, sounding like they are being pulled from the deepest parts of them.” Indeed, most of the gameplay involves trying vainly in vain to parse why “these ants making such a fuss when you have a busy day ahead to prepare yourself to a concert?” This promises a series of sketches as Nero floats through calamity in a highwire act of being out of touch.

Those sketches don’t quite come through though, since the gameplay is, like your concert, haphazardly thrown together. Most choices are random or vague, often ending the story abruptly without demonstrating any consistent progressional logic. If you do manage to get deep enough into the game, it starts to break, popping up the Twine debug view. Once I got to what I think is the proper ending, only the link didn’t appear to the next page, leaving an incomplete sentence and a broken passage. Compounding this lack of polish are several formatting oddities, numerous typos, and a few mistranslations, all of which a round of editing could have improved.

Editing could have also helped the game feel less rambling, a fleetness that proves quite useful when the game’s concept isn’t much thicker than the napkin it was scribbled on. Take this paragraph, which is already operating at yes I get it ha ha, but flounders on: “You can clearly see that your guards are out of their comfort zone here, wobbling through your clothes with widened and desperate eyes. It’s obvious they have no idea what they should be doing. After this day is over, you will have to fire them all and hire people who are more suited to such a prestigeous position. Honestly, how can they not know how to dress someone up? Their inexperience is almost palpable. Their hands are hesitant and tremulous while they try to understand how the fabrics work and in which order the fancy clothes should be put. Your guards fall more into desperation as time passes and they can’t understand it. This is not going to work. From their panicked faces, you know they’ve realized it too. In the end, they couldn’t even manage a simple task like dressing you up. Useless, all of them! Honestly, you are still incredulous about how such incompetents could be contracted to work under a man like you. You should fire them all right away. But it doesn’t change the fact there is still no time left for you to try any other thing. You will have to go on like this.” It repeats the setup several times, but then forgets to emphasize the punchline, which is that this is coming from someone who can’t dress themselves.

The ideas are all here, just not sculpted from the stone. While Rome Burns translates its historical setpiece into a surprisingly relevant satire about adulated parasociality spinning isolation into tastelessness, but it’s still several iterations away from sticking the landing.

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