ParserComp: Down, the Serpent and the Sun

downserpentNext ParserComp entry: Down, the Serpent and the Sun (Chandler Groover).

Story: An apocalyptic sequence, very loosely inspired by Mesoamerican myth – although I felt there was as much Ragnarok in it as anything. A vast serpent has swallowed the sun, and the mythic-heroic PC also gets swallowed and must Fix Things.

I like a good literary apocalypse (not really as though I can pretend otherwise at this point) and this one has a forceful vision. The rules are a bit different for a story in a mythic or folk-tale mode: I’m more willing to accept a protagonist who is hazily defined, for instance, and in the right hands a monumental inevitability can outweigh a predictable plot.

That said, I felt the tight and inevitable focus of the action, and the vagueness of both the character and the world outside, made this feel more like a vignette than a fully realised story; I wanted something more than ‘the hero must do X; figure out how.’ Neither a 3 nor a 4 feel quite right to me, but by the book it’s a 3.

Writing: Daaaaamn, this is some full-on purple prose. After playing a cluster of games that err rather on the side of low-affect, I’m more liable to be entertained by this manner of thing: it’s like Fallen London/Sunless Sea without the restraint:

Gullet
Enormous crimson globules leak along the walls, running in channels between numberless gemstones embedded in the rubbery muscle.

A glow radiates from somewhere deep below, its faint brilliance ensnared in the faceted gems like fireflies imprisoned in amber.

C’mon, bro, drop an ‘incarnadine’ in there somewhere! Drop two! I gots faith in you! Seriously, though, I am super-glad to see a game which has a strong idea about the prose style that its story needs, and goes all-out to attain that, even if I’m going to have some quibbles.

One of the things I regularly find a bit awkward about interpretations of traditional myth, particularly from non-Western cultures, is that it tends to get cleaned up an awful lot – pre-industrial farming, most cultures weren’t nearly as squeamish about buckets of blood as we are – but this is going in precisely the opposite direction. The game really wants to squick you out about giant snake guts.

Partly because of how much it wants to emphasize that Shit Is Gross And Terrible, there were a few elements that felt like a mishandling:

>x altar
A soapstone grotesquerie sculpted with obscene tableaux wherein animals and humans, death and birth, are represented with deformed organs and visages ambiguously ecstatic or terror-stricken. The altar is soaked with spilled blood.

‘Soapstone grotesquerie sculpted with obscene tableaux’? That ain’t the voice of a traditional myth or of a hero within one, that’s the voice of a Victorian getting all hot and bothered about a culture he doesn’t really understand. (Or Lovecraft, who is an honorary hot-and-bothered-Victorian.) The attentive reader will have already recalled that Overexcited Victorian Guy and H.P. Lovecraft occupy entries #1 and #2 on the List of People Who You Really Should Not Trust To Retell Non-European Mythology.

Lovecraft, in particular, was not a writer whose racism can be treated as an incidental or minor feature; it is at the very heart of his fiction’s worldview, it permeates his style, and unthinkingly following either will likely lead you unwittingly into his nastiness. Here’s a translation of the Lovecraftese:

obscene tableaux wherein animals and humans, death and birth I don’t know what any of these figures represent
represented with deformed organs and visages ambiguously ecstatic or terror-stricken I don’t understand the stylistic conventions of this culture’s art
altar is soaked with spilled blood my religious tradition quit doing this long enough ago that it feels scary and weird

And, OK, we’re talking about an apocalyptic monster, so things should feel pretty fucked-up – but this is a pattern in itself, of going over a cultural tradition and only picking out/combining the bits that make for a really scary Big Bad, the Temple of Doom approach. (Lest it needs saying, I think this is just ill-considered, not malicious.)

And at this point I find myself wondering what the point of making this specifically a Mesoamerican-flavoured story was – sun-eaters and apocalyptic serpents are a widespread enough thing, and the Mesoamerican elements are drawn on so indefinitely, and most of the story takes place in goopy snakeguts land which has no particular relation to any tradition, except maybe Jonah via Pinocchio. So while the Mesoamerican imagery may have served as the initial concept, it feels as if the game ended up using it just as a surface gloss to make things feel more savage and alien, and given that it’d have done better to just drop the feathered part and leave it ambiguous about whether we’re talking Apep or Tiamat or Jormungand.

Anyway. I approve of going for strong prose style, but that needs to come with some judicious editing beyond what’s in place now. At present, the style’s an asset to the game at times, a drag on it at others – let’s split the difference. 3.

Puzzles: This is very much a story piece that has puzzles because that’s how character action is represented, rather than because of any special interest in puzzles. To its credit, this action fits in perfectly with the epic-body-horror tone, but it’s not especially playable: it’s a little too easy to miss the active elements among the explosive profusion of squicky bits.

I think this is a – it’s got a flavour, for sure, and it connects up strongly to the narrative, but some of it is a little too read-author’s-mind. As a caveat, I didn’t manage to figure out the final puzzle; maybe that’s more ingenious than the rest.

Theme: Central to the game’s narrative, not an immediately-obvious concept. 4.

Technical: Promiscuous with its nouns, this nonetheless appears to have accounted for all the details I happen to poke at. There is an ask/tell NPC who has most reasonable topics covered. Parser response messages are customised a good deal to make contextual sense. So there’s a good level of diligence, although I wouldn’t call any of it ambitious. I might have liked a slightly more helpful hint system, given the non-obvious shape of some of the puzzles. 4.

Overall: This has some strong things going for it – ambitious prose, a strong mythic feel, a really strong idea of the mood it wants to evoke – but those same things drag some pretty big problems along with them. This is a 3, but a promising one.

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6 Responses to ParserComp: Down, the Serpent and the Sun

  1. Chandler Groover says:

    Oh dear, that altar wasn’t meant to be Lovecraftian at all. (I actually kinda hate Lovecraft, so it’s a big problem that your Lovecraft detectors went off.) I had intended it as a thematic capsule, since making the serpent give birth kills the serpent, and killing the serpent more conventionally allows you to give birth to the sun yourself. Birth and death, terror and ecstasy, all tangled together as the same thing. I’ll have to make this much more direct when I edit the game. I appreciate the review!

    • Ouch. Tough break.

      I think the really key words in there are ‘obscene’, which is a super-Lovecraftian word, implying as it does intense revulsion combined with a great deal of vagueness, and ‘deformed’, which is a window into a whole shitstorm of squicky associations. The birth and death, terror and ecstasy stuff is fine in principle, but the non-specificity makes it feel a little bit ‘oh, you know, dreadful heathen things, like in The Golden Bough.’

      • Chandler Groover says:

        Please don’t pigeonhole “obscene” as a Lovecraft word! I don’t just mean in relation to this silly game of mine. The altar text obviously needs to be redone. But an obscenity can be a fantastic thing (ditto a deformity), and Lovecraft is… not fantastic. It’s limiting to automatically view something obscene through a Victorian lens. However, the more reviews come in, the more I consider this game miscalculated, since it was never meant to be squicky. I’ll eventually write up all the problems in a postmortem.

      • Oh, absolutely; any word can be appropriate in the appropriate context. But in this particular context, it formed a troublesome catalyst.

      • (And I look forward to that postmortem.)

  2. Pingback: ParserComp Summary | These Heterogenous Tasks

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