Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson) is a Choicescript fantasy piece about intrigue, music and war. It’s very good; if you’re mostly interested in the more writerly end of the Choicescript oeuvre, in courtly intrigue or in evocative worldbuilding fantasy, I thoroughly recommend it.
Its protagonist is a talented string player, engaged on a music tour through lightly-reskinned versions of eighteenth-century European states. Storm-clouds are gathering; a Napoleon analogue threatens to bring all analogue-Europe under his boot, a Russia analogue is his only serious opposition, and a lot of minor powers are jockeying for influence amid the turmoil. Courted by various factions, the player’s personal and professional life is inescapably tangled up with politics.
Certain people in this world are inhabited by Genius, a supernatural quality that involves a potential for great talent in some field. Genius is kind of like a psychic aura, recognising and interfering with the Genius of others, and slightly like a separate entity with its own wants and needs. Many, though not all, of the key players in politics have an apropos Genius: this isn’t quite as big a deal as in, say, the comic Girl Genius, where the strength of nations is primarily determined by the strength of their leader’s Spark, but this is definitely a world more driven by Great Man History than our own.
One of the most immediately striking things about the piece is its use of language, particularly when it comes to descriptions of setting. Choicescript works typically aren’t heavily invested in developing physical setting and atmosphere; the idiom is more focused on snappy, character-driven action, and tends to lean heavily on genre to establish context. In many Choicescript games, the real setting is the PC’s social and professional milieu, not the rooms and landscapes they inhabit. Caleb has been writing parser fiction on and off for the past fifteen years, but even within that physical-setting-oriented medium he’s long been notable for his rich, weird environments and grand, gloomy worldbuilding.
It’s a bright, silvery morning. You are resting your head against the back wall, Genius muttering quiet notes to itself. The carriage window is open to let in the cool autumn air. Cornelius thumps the roof, and you look ahead and see that the land drops away down one of those long valleys, with the gray stone buildings of Orgelmark set out along it like some spiny growths of lichen.
To a great extent, I found myself thinking of Syberia. The main interest in Syberia is not the characters or the puzzles or the complications of the journey, but the gorgeously depicted, mythified version of a Central and Eastern Europe once glorious but now in a state of attractively melancholy decay.
At times the worldbuilding feels a tiny bit much:
“Ah, yes,” says Otto. “Listen, I must be quickly on my way—I’m already running late—but first I should tell you what you need to know about Cerigne. The bulk of the city, the newer quarter, is just along Blutenstrasse here, over the bridge on the other side of the Plumbum. Weberstrasse is a nice wide road that rings the Vault District, where the banks and town houses are. There is a slum, along the northern edge, under the old medieval wall, which I’d recommend you avoid; if you’d like to mingle with the populace, there’s a well-used gathering and strolling place, a square in the east.”
That’s a description that sounds almost like a preamble to a map, as though you’re going to have to remember and use this later; it doesn’t feel like naturalistic speech, unless the speaker is a tour guide sticking very closely to their script. And he literally says ‘you need to know’ this! In fact, this turns out to be way more information than you strictly need: but on the other hand, it’s reminding the player to think of everything in terms of geography. A lot of the politics is specifically geopolitics, of who your neighbours are, whose armies are going to have to march across whose territory.
The grand journey is a somewhat unusual pattern for a Choicescript game: the Choicescript playbook typically operates on a grander scale than a single trip, and it also calls for an ensemble cast of NPCs, who need to be given opportunities to recur. And recur they do! but because you’re on a journey, this isn’t just a matter of you moving in the same circles. It contributes to a sense of paranoia, of spies and machinations: early on you’re told of the existence of a master-spy in Bonaventure’s employ, and everybody else is freaked out about spies, so having the same people coincidentally crop up all the time gets you twitchy.
More than that, though, the recurring NPCs heighten the surreal edge of the piece. Caleb’s IF work generally has a hallucinatory quality – sometimes explicit, as in Lime Ergot, but often just a sense of oversaturated significance, of oppressive abundance, of the Gothic. In dream you always meet people you know.
There’s a basic dancing-about-architecture challenge in Media About Other Media. To some extent, Concerto tackles this in a fairly straightforward way, focusing on mood, speed, theme and keeping the actual music relatively abstract – this is a common and usually quite boring approach, but here it works. Partly it’s because it’s very interested in evoking the complicated feeling of creative mastery, that simultaeneous sense of effortless control and knife-edge precariousness; partly it’s because it shows music as a social act, a difficult but powerful way of saying things.
A nice tension about the way it depicts performance: sometimes there’s conflict between the thing you’re good at, and the thing that will have the effect you want. One of the central features of creative flow is that your internal censors get turned off, and this is a performance art where you don’t get to go back and fix things in the edit. So often there’s a meta-choice about whether you want to make your art good, or whether you want it to say the thing you mean to say. The tone of a Choicescript game is, to a large extent, established by the player’s sense of how difficult it is to succeed at all the things you want, about how much you have to triage your priorities, about where the story falls on the spectrum between escapist fantasy and realist compromise. A Choicescript piece with ostensibly dark subject-matter can end up feeling fluffy if it makes things too easy on the player.
This is… kind of inexact, I think it works best when there’s a subtle mismatch between what the player wants out of the game and what modes of success the game is willing to provide. The first time I played, I muddled back and forth between factions I didn’t quite understand yet, and ended up not really getting anything I wanted and feeling guilty about my role in events. My initial idea of the character I was playing wasn’t exactly supported by the stats, I didn’t get quite the kinds of feedback that would have built on my half-formed conception, and I ended up feeling as though I had a player-character not entirely formed, someone whose disappointment with themselves as a person formed a mirror to their political dilemmas. That’s more interesting, really, than the characters you get when you’ve got a better grasp on what’s on offer, and can make someone who’s consistently Bold and extracts full value out of all the Bold options and boldly unlocks all the bold storylets.
There are different ways of accomplishing this effect! Hollywood Visionary, another Choicescript game about Making Art, does it by giving you lots of options, allowing you to fine-tune your approach, then making you pay the price if you over-commit. Visionary is mostly concerned with the quantifiable, rational side of creation – design, production, project management. Concerto is more about the other side of creativity -spontanaeity, flow, the moment of creative mastery – and generally offers you a limited set of options, each with multiple effects. In Visionary the constantly-present risk is that you’ll exhaust yourself, or run out of budget: in Concerto the risk is that you’ll put on a bad show, or send the wrong message in your pursuit of a good one.
If there’s anything that’s soft-pedaled here, it’s the romance side of things. Not that there are any serious failings – and indeed, there are a handful of really good moments scattered throughout – but the Courtly Intrigue is much more interested in spies and political signalling than in trysts and scandal. Regardless of what choices I made about the protagonist, they came off as someone who found it easy to get into relationships but wasn’t really deeply affected by them. The Choicescript idiom is really good at creating big supporting casts, but not great at making them individually interesting; Concerto doesn’t transcend this.
I’ve already talked too much about works that it reminds me of, but most of all I got vibes of a certain school of post-war fantasy – Tolkien, The Baron in the Trees – here is a Europe fired by futurism at its most ravenously destructive, a beautiful world that will irrevocably pass away regardless of what is done. You can play a fierce radical, welcoming war for its glorious aesthetics and transformative power, or a preservationist, trying to understand folk-music and keep it alive, using your own compositions as a way to record the zeitgeist for future ears. Insofar as there’s a Message, it’s that art becomes more intensely, inevitably political during transformative periods of history; and its big issue is ultimately a reflective choice, a question about one’s feelings on the world’s passing. This only works because Meropa is successfully developed into something worth mourning, a thing that feels real and complicated and shot through with beauty.