Spring Thing 2015: Mere Anarchy

(Belated, but better than never, no?)

MereAnarchy_smallMere Anarchy (Bruno Dias) is an Undum piece. It feels like more of a short-story-with-aesthetic-variations than a branching plot: the prose is confident and attractive, though, and the aesthetic choices are about aesthetics pleasing enough to hold your attention. In its general narative approach – the premise and delivery of the worldbuilding, in particular – it has a bit of a China Miéville-ish feel to it, a certain aroma of Max Gladstone; political urban fantasy, no question. (I’m not unfond of Miéville, though I agree with the conventional wisdom that much of his output would work better as RPG campaigns than novels.)

Its brevity forces an economy of focus; and the thing with which it is most concerned, oddly enough for a choice-based piece, is not plot or character so much as the methods and paraphernalia of magic, magic as Mission Impossible gadgets. But it does play to choice-based strengths in other ways: the story’s told zoomed-in, moment-to-moment experiential, as if from the perspective of a shaky hand-held camera; this has the effect of obscuring a great deal about the world and its characters, and even about the protagonist themself. The principal NPC, Ilana, provides much of the motive force behind the plot – but whether she does so as a friend, lover or just a co-conspirator is up to the player, and doesn’t have a major impact. The PC’s relationship with her is not central to what the story is about. Of the many things a choice can contribute to a story, a very common one is to stress how inconsequential that choice is to the Matter of the Work, as a signal that the important questions lie elsewhereI was reminded, to some extent, of Sartre’s The Reprieve, where the focus on the moment-to-moment experience of individuals doesn’t reveal the great dramas of nations, as you’d expect in Shakespearean-history mode, but obscures them, portrays them as ungraspable, suggests how little anybody comprehends of these vast, looming changes.

The tight viewpoint has some pretty significant effects. Narratively, it feels a bit more like a revenger’s tragedy than a political fantasy. We don’t really know a whole lot about how this society is ordered: there are some magic-users who are very rich and powerful, and they stay young by harvesting dreams, and they don’t tolerate other magic-users. But we don’t see what dream-harvesting does, really. We don’t see what the difference is between outsider magic-users and regular people – access to exotic materials seems to be part of it, maybe, but that an outsider magic movement can access extremely potent materials makes the difference between them and the masters feel narrow.

Dias has called Mere Anarchy a companion piece to Terminator Chaser, which is also a piece about revolutionary acts with a similar tight focus on being attacked and retaliating with a decapitation strike. Where Chaser is concerned with the level of your response – pretend it never happened, go into hiding, strike back as brutally as possible – Anarchy is more about the texture of it, the fear and adrenaline, the aesthetics of one’s weapons.

I dunno. Perhaps being less easily impressed by revolutionary fiction is a sign I’m getting old and reactionary. But more and more, I think the really difficult question of revolutions – the one which actual revolutions tend to fail at – is not how do we smash all the things so much as how do we thereafter stop smashing things and change around to building something better. So a story like this – which seems to be all about the aesthetic preferences of revolution-as-revenge – initially rubbed me the wrong way along several axes. Fine; it’s not interested in the same questions that I’m interested in. It’s still a well-crafted thing.

The story is mere anarchy because it’s not really about any political aims more complicated than revenge, than smashing an unjust power because it wounded you.  And even as revenge it’s a little abstract, because we’re not told that much about the people who have been lost, or the social system over which the masters preside. The protagonist has no plans for a new order, no goals beyond the act; we’re left with little hint about the vast scope of outcomes that can arise out of revolutionary chaos. The game is not about outcomes; it is about the act itself, how world-changing decisions are made under messy, panicked conditions.

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