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About the Story
I train to fight angels in a monastery by the sea.
9th Place overall; 2nd Place, Miss Congeniality Award - 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2013)
Nominee, Best Game; Winner, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Implementation - 2013 XYZZY Awards
Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling
Their Angelical Understanding is a choice-based interactive fantasy story, and sometimes interactive poem, about being hurt and about how we respond to that hurt.
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Number of Reviews: 5
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First Porpentine game for me, so I was kinda eager to see why people were talking about her games. And it went great!
The game isn't too long, about half an hour. There's a lot of surreal elements in it, which I thought were brilliant: it made the whole experience very powerful and vivid. The prose feels raw and emotional, which I understand seems to be Porpentine's writing style; it works great here, because the game focuses on trauma and its consequences, and it really makes you feel what the character feels. Sometimes there's weird details thrown in, and they never fail to make the text more evocative. Sound and animations are sometimes used to complement the atmosphere, and I thought it worked well when they were used.
Also, gameplay is very cleverly used to convey emotions (that bit where (Spoiler - click to show)you just can't stop crushing the angel was absolutely brilliant). Finally, I found the final sequence very smart and powerful ((Spoiler - click to show)the game where you must be the last one bleeding, so to speak - it felt like a weird cross between Marienbad and Chuck Palahniuk).
There were also a few flaws in the game; for instance, it feels kind of disjointed, and I'm not sure I understood how everything fit together in the end ((Spoiler - click to show)the basement in the first location with the bottles containing your faces is interesting imagery, but I still don't really see the connection to what I felt was the main theme of the game). Also, Porpentine's distinctive style, of raw, no-bullshit sentences and emotions, means that sometimes it feels a bit sore or like it's missing its target and fails to evoke anything to you, or evokes the wrong thing - I guess it's a risk to take. (One of the things that really didn't work for me is (Spoiler - click to show)the use of the term "your nemesis" in the final sequence: in my head, this particular word feels overly dramatic, and I associate it with James Bond villains - I get that the intent was to stress that this character was absolute evil to you, but at that point I was so into the story that I didn't need a reminder that he was evil: a simple "him" or "the bastard" would have been more effective than "nemesis", which I felt made the prose go a bit over-the-top).
But anyway, this game worked very well for me for most of the things it attempted to do, and is really a very good and powerful game.
On to Howling Dogs!
Porpentine reverses the archetypical character of angel in an evil one, and mixes it with creepy details (Spoiler - click to show)(the face in the bottle, the hands on the cottage) to distill anguish in player's mind.
Once this done, she unveils in a dream sequence the true meaning of the game (Spoiler - click to show)(a metaphor for a child abuse) and keeps then the emotion growing until the amazing end (Spoiler - click to show)(a bloody tile duel).
Add some brilliant uses of Twine devices, as words collapsing, and you get, indeed, another masterpiece from Porpentine.
I played this game shortly after howling dogs, as I was absolutely blown away by that game and wanted to play more of Porpentine's works. It's perhaps not fair to review this work in comparison to the other, though there are significant similarities and differences between the two. Both feature incredibly visceral and beautiful writing, and both integrate seemingly discrete episodes that mix the surreal and familiar into a broader whole. The main difference is that the episodes in howling dogs revolve around and return to a central location, which lends the game a certain coherence, while their angelical understanding is more meandering, without a clear sense of how one visionary scene connects to the next.
Despite the lack of a strong connecting through-line, their angelical understanding does have a driving core message that comes across powerfully even through the somewhat elliptical language and the often outright bizarre scenes. Ultimately, this is a story of the player-character grappling with abuse -- both the abuser and friends and family members who enable the abuse. The end of the game presents a simple but insidious gameplay mechanic that forces the player to grapple with how to confront this devastating situation.
While the game leading up to this final encounter does not quite cohere for me, each episode in and of itself is brilliant. Throughout, there are many examples of inventive uses of links and text manipulation to achieve different aesthetic effects. In some cases, a whole game could be built around what's essentially a one-off experiment in this game. While some of the scenes work better than others, there are several moments that rise to a level of true horror that I felt deep in my body. Perhaps the most haunting being (Spoiler - click to show)the cottage where countless hands fall to the floor. Contrasting with the surreal horror, there are the even more horrifying moments of a cleanly rendered domestic scene in which people in another room are ignoring abuse in the adjoining room.
This is definitely not a game to approach lightly, but if you're prepared to engage -- both directly and obliquely -- with themes of abuse and self-harm, their angelical understanding is a remarkable game.
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Do it. Now.
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