Krypteia, by Kateri, falls into a specific category of CYOA which I don’t have a name for, so I’ll hazard at ‘illustrated browser adventure’: it’s a hyperlink-interface game with a persistent map, an inventory, and graphics for every room. It’s up-front about being centrally about violence and harassment, with a strong focus on the gendered varieties thereof.
The protagonist is a member of… whichever gender/expression grouping centrally involves glitter eyeshadow and platform stilettos; there’s intentional ambiguity here. Barred from joining the questing young men in their coming-of-age quest, they sneak out to conduct their own quest, for… something, doesn’t really matter, the point is the coming-of-age part. The graphics of the rooms shift between images of a forest and a city in the empty hours of late night, their perspectives cleverly aligned. The map is at once a fantasy Great Wood and the deserted streets of a city, both in deep night; The protagonist is at once a fantasy hero fighting or dodging monsters in a forest, and a marginalised person avoiding harassment and violence in an unsafe society. The protagonist fights nebulous enemies and accumulates equipment; one set of gear (hoodie, sneakers) lets them blend an escape notice, the other (leopard-skin, platform stilettos) lets them self-express/do violence.
Right from the start, Krypteia makes it clear that it’s going to be talking about the problematic underliers of Fantasy Adventure and The Hero’s Journey.
Since ancient times, the wise men explained to you, young warriors have learned to subjugate the Other in order to become men. To face what they should despise, in order to become what they must be. That’s great, and all, you think, but… where does that leave YOU?
Krypteia is named after an element, not very well-understood, of the Spartan military:
Periodically the overseers of the young men would dispatch into the countryside the ones who appeared to be particularly intelligent; they were equipped with daggers and basic rations, but nothing else. By day they would disperse to obscure spots in order to hide and rest. At night they made their way to the roads and murdered any helot whom they caught.
– Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, c.100 AD
This is, I think you’re probably meant to understand, a very unreliable account of what The Quest is about. Plutarch is writing about a possibly-mythical ruler who lived over eight hundred years earlier, and about the customs of the Spartans, a people whom we mostly know from accounts written by their rivals, and who were themselves pretty far-removed from the origins of quest stories. In-fiction, the protagonist gets the myth from the ‘wise men’, a bunch of oppressive patriarchs who have every reason to distort history for their own ends.
So while this is, in a sense, a deconstruction of the Quest Story (a theme for which I have an established bias), it’s probably unfair (though tempting) to treat it as making universal claims about what the Quest is about. There are very old quest-narratives that have nothing to do with young men proving themselves. The Spartans were well-known for being weird.
However, a lot of quests – from the reconstructed *Trito cattle-raid myth of Proto-Indo-European to the save-the-world plots reliably delivered to us by fantasy RPGs and videogames – are to do with proving oneself by defeating monsters to restore the social order to its proper state. This tends to involve the guilt-free massacre of some human-like yet unquestionably-loathsome enemy, and requires an extraordinary effort, a temporary stepping outside the bounds of normal accepted behaviour.
Krypteia is about the idea that order and chaos can be mutually-supporting aspects of the same oppressive system, that officially-tolerated kinds of of lawlessness should be understood as the left hand of kyriarchy rather than a separate influence. At heart, Krypteia is a story that takes a well-established queer trope (embracing monstrosity) and a standard fantasy trope (the hero’s quest in the dark wood) and explicitly ties them to the Dionysian. Emily Short has already explained the Dionysian part far better than I could hope to; I’m going to talk a little about monstrosity.
It’s a longstanding trope, which has gained strong currency in recent Twine works, to express outsider identity – particularly queer feminine identity – by a provocative embracing of the monster role, particularly the uncontrolled-feminine-as-monstrous and particularly as a necessary phase of self-assertion and self-defence. The ending involving apotheosis into the most fearsome monster in the woods was precisely the ending I assumed was coming. The triumphant destruction of the oppressor in a climax of self-actualisation is a standard element, whether it involves buckets of blood or explosions of glitter.
The monster is a fantasy of power and liberation – trapped in a situation defined by constant demands to exist entirely for the sake of others, to live in a state of self-denial and self-erasure, the heroine transforms into a gloriously amoral being of unassailable strength and rampaging self-interest, often focused on revenge. The monster needs no external justification, but can impose its own moral universe on others. Monsters don’t do well at egalitarian ethics or even normal friendship: they are a response to wrongs which those structures have failed to prevent. Monstrosity is typically shown as a transitional state, a violent and messy throwing-off of shackles, not a place to inhabit indefinitely.
What Krypteia does is show this as a reflection of a well-established, largely accepted male trope. The powerful, dangerous incarnation of the femme protagonist is identified as wolf, a long-established male symbol:
The institution of Männerbünde or korios, the warrior brotherhood of young men bound by oath to one another and to their ancestors during a ritually mandated raid, has been reconstructed as a central part of Proto-Indo-European initiation rituals. One material trait linked to these ceremonies was the dog or wolf: the young initiates were symbolized by the wolf and in some Indo-European ceremonies wore dog or wolf skins during their initiation.
— David W. Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language
Of course the wolf is also an archetypal Beast in the Wood, the sun-eater, the chaos outside the walls; the dog/wolf duality is a sign of a long-standing cultural ambivalence about violent male power. When Plato talks about the dual nature of well-trained young warriors/watch-dogs, who hate the stranger and love the friend, his audience are surely expected to have in mind what happens without good training, when a Theseus or a Hercules goes off the rails.
The difference is that the male version has a socially-acceptable expression. Straight cis white men get to have hell-raising youths if they want ’em; everyone else must be spotless or damned. But the game’s protagonist also belongs to the domain of secret and hidden things. The wolf in the woods is also a she-wolf. If he who fights with monsters must, temporarily, become a monster, then people seen as monstrous should get to play too. Krypteia‘s endings retain the attitude of deep ambivalence towards monstrosity: the protagonist may not be able to embrace Wolf without being consumed by it. Or maybe she can.
The prose, as you’d expect given the game’s many dualisms, alternates between flights of lyrical metaphor and matter-of-factness, which I think works pretty damn well. There were definitely points where I felt it was a shade too hackneyed or on-the-nose, but on the whole it’s among the strongest writing of the comp thus far.
Perhaps the weakest part of the narrative, I felt, was the brief sequence with the cop: the protagonist, who up until this point has been pretty clear-sighted about the power dynamics of the world they inhabit, suddenly becomes naively trusting. Partly the problem is that this felt disingenuous, a Lucy-with-the-football moment that you’re asked not to second-guess; partly it was because, on my first playthrough, it showed up at the point at which I was mechanically encouraged to feel least vulnerable and in need of outside help. I felt, too, that the game was at its strongest where it left itself most open to interpretation – where the RPG-fantasy and mythic-history and modern-urban-harassment themes were all superimposed – and here it felt as though it became entirely the latter.
There are four endings, of which I found two. There is more to find than one playthrough will reveal, but I didn’t feel that there was quite enough variation to reward more exhaustive play. (In particular, I didn’t have any idea about how to go about finding the Secret of the Elders, and I kind of felt that I could guess what it was anyway.)
Rich as a text, Krypteia is less interesting as a game. You explore the woods, search everywhere, and fight things until you assemble complete outfits, then you use those outfits to overcome enemies that serve as barriers. This isn’t terrible, but I think the obvious problem is that there isn’t much gameplay distinction between the sneaky outfit and the fighty one. Textually, stealth and aggression are shown as being in opposition, even if they’re both necessary: mechanically, they’re essentially the same thing. The game’s obviously riffing on the well-established videogame pattern of sneak vs. frontal-attack tactics, but the thing about those is that they play differently. Once again, I need a bried term that somehow encapsulates ‘opportunity to do something difficult but amazing missed: no praise, no blame.’
There is music, which is moody and appropriate for about five minutes and then gets kind of maddening; after about fifteen minutes I switched to headphones because my partner, normally very keen on atmospheric game music in the background, couldn’t stand it. Ten minutes after that it got to me and I switched the sound off entirely.
For a game which has obviously spent considerable effort on presentation, and which has done so much work on customising the Twine format, it has a very low-fi, Web 1.0, Robb Sherwin-y feel. The text effects, in particular, were forceful at the expense of being legible; I would have strongly preferred a somewhat more subtle, less eye-watering use of font and colour.
I was initially thinking a 7, but thus far this is definitely the comp game which I have done most thinking about and which I am most likely to speak of with enthusiasm down’t’pub, which has to be worth a provisional 8.
* Dogs in the Vineyard is perhaps the most conscious and distilled version of the trope: deviation from the divinely-mandated social order inherently brings demonic influence into the world, and the heroes must root it out, and are granted authority to use whatever force they deem necessary.