Swigian (Rainbus North) is a surreal, grim, mythic Inform piece about… well, you kind of have to figure out what it’s about as you go along. At its opening, you’re in a wood, by a lake; the narrator says
I don’t like talking. Let’s build a fire.
(Shades, here, of the lapidary opening to For a Change: “The sun has gone. It must be brought. You have a rock.”)
The most obvious thing about it is the aggressively taciturn voice. It’s curt, gruff, concerned with the practical and gruffly impatient with attempts to consider aesthetic or press for more detail:
The lake? That is what it is. I’ll tell you everything that’s important the first time.
It shortly transpires that there is something sinister in this world, but the gruff delivery doesn’t want to dwell on what it is, only what must be done to avoid it. You need to build a fire, to stay near water, to avoid lingering in certain places.
They will see you. Go now.
Swigian is an Old English verb, to be silent. So it wasn’t too long before a light came on. Who in the Old English corpus is particularly fond of quiet? I was approaching the mead-hall, and, well, who approaches mead-halls from the dark, from the bog, bent on violence? So I hit a sweet moment where I thought: yes, I get it, I’m Grendel. It’s an effective moment of realisation, the perspective-shift from being worried about monsters in the wilderness, to, ah, yes, I’m the beast. “What if I’m the bad guy” is a game cliche, yes, but I’ve rarely seen it so effectively handled.
But just as it seems as though you’ve figured it out and have a script to follow, things shift, go weird. Events stop running together in a way that makes sense. You kill an opponent and follow him underground into a series of subterranean tombs and bleak landscapes; you perform tasks of unclear significance; you feed, on things that are called ‘meal’ or ‘snack’ but are probably human bodies. The basic shape of the story is a journey, but the low-description delivery gives you only a very vague shape of your surroundings, and less about their significance or context.
The things you are actually doing are very simple. Mostly the correct act is obvious, and if not then the narrative voice will quickly remind you. The resulting continuous flow of action is just about right for a dream-like experience.
Throughout, the same taciturn delivery, avoiding descriptions or explanations, clearly inadequate to making sense of all this; I began to read it less as the voice of a gruff, practical warrior or woodsman, and more as the voice of someone unable or unwilling to comprehend everything going on around him. Grendel is both player-character and narrator, it seems; but the narrator understands more than you do, is unwilling to share, and gets snippy when you press for more. “You are not lost,” the narrator assures you as you move through a series of identical mist-obscured spaces.
Various readings of Grendel – that he is a troll, a berserk, a draugr, Agnar son of Hrothgar’s rival Ingeld, a dragon – are reflected here. You place a coin in your mouth and climb into a coffin. You are a skulker in tombs, in high and barren places, in still water. In the tomb complex, you put things in order: there are rooms of the dead ordered into commoners, warriors, nobles, kings, and you re-crown a dead king. You re-order scattered treasures in a hoard, things disturbed; you are a destroying monster, but not inevitably a force of chaos. Towards the conclusion, you encounter a serpent – and serpent here we can take as dragon, wurm – who finally mentions the names Hrothgar and Beowulf, but by then this warning feels irrelevant, because your fate is not in your hands, and the mead-hall is long ago. The serpent is the only character you speak to, and the conversation is linear and brief; you get the sense that Grendel wants it done with as quickly as possible.
At about a third of the way through I was primed to really love this. The middle felt as though it lost its way a bit; after a while my sense of ‘I don’t understand what’s going on but I feel I’m making out a shape of it and it’s pretty cool’ shifted to ‘I don’t understand what’s going on, and either it’s because the game doesn’t really have a guiding design here or it’s reliant on allusions and metaphors that I’m not getting.’ I wasn’t completely sure whether the middle sections were about anything, or if they were just random adventures (and adventure-game busywork) with some Nordic-mythic flavour and Ominous Vagueness. So I don’t feel entirely like it lived up to the promise of the early game.
Score-wise, though, this is the strongest game I’ve played so far; 7 or 8.