Next up in the Comp: Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death by A.B., a choice-based game presented as a medieval illuminated text.
This is a work that was very obviously inspired by Harmonia (although it’s made in Twine rather than Windrift): it’s presented as a literal, physical text, complete with marginalia, and it is concerned with Women in History.
It does not, however, have Harmonia‘s smooth, unified visuals. Harmonia threaded a quite delicate line between presentation as a physical artefact and as a thing that was easy to consume; Abbess Otilia is rather more literal about the physicality of the text, and the illuminated manuscripts it’s imitating present a very different challenge to adapt. Its presentation involves a lot of different elements, and their quality is frustratingly uneven, with readability a very low priority.
Basically, the text is designed to make Joseph Humfrey weep tears of blood. The thing about illuminated manuscripts: they were absolutely not designed for an age of accessible media. Nowadays we tend to reflexively think of information technologies, like books, as being designed for efficient transmission of information; but this is a very modern way of thinking about things. Illuminated texts were designed to be beautiful and valuable objects, not accessible ones: they were mostly written in Latin, which most people didn’t speak, were sometimes literally chained to the shelves. They were designed for an age when writing, reading and physical access to books were privileges of a small minority. You were expected to read slowly and carefully – the assumption being that anything important enough to be worth the huge investment of illumination would be worth taking your time over.
It’s difficult to separate the aesthetics of illumination from this context of use, although lots of people have tried – the kind of compromise I’d normally expect here would be some kind of William Morris-lite, or else more full illumination early on, giving way to a more modern presentation. Abbess Otilia, though, is more concerned with evoking the look and feel of a medieval manuscript than it is with making that style readable.
I found the text easiest to read on a vertical monitor, but this loses the rather nice black embroidered background. The shading of the pages suggest that they are to be interpreted as left and right facing pages, but this looks ugly when they’re presented one above the other in a vertical scroll. The larger illuminated letters are crisp and pretty, but inconsistent: some lose the letter among the devices, and some are much simpler than others. The majority of the text is in a hard-to-read blackletter font, with Lombardic capitals; there’s yet another font for chapter titles. It’s not always visually clear precisely what part of the text marginalia are commenting on, especially when two comments are close to one another. On the first page with choices, the choices fall awkwardly on a completely different page. (It turns out that this is because that choice remains in place and becomes body text, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with an infinite-scroll presentation.)
At the same time, it suffers from a lot of the aesthetic shortcomings that happen when you try to evoke the beauty of calligraphy in a digital font. The justified columns produce some very gappy lines, the miniatures look really like a dodgy digital tracing job, and the kinds of gorgeous details you get with hand-lettered fonts are lost. Illumination is beautiful both in overall impact and in detail – in fact, a lot of its impact lies in making the viewer conscious of a profusion of detail. Of course, it’s completely unfair to expect computer-game text to match that level of artistry throughout! But it’s an unfair comparison that the piece demands by sacrificing readability for authenticity. It is still a unusually pretty piece, on the whole – but it’s not a polished one, and it’s paying a high price for that prettiness.
OK. Enough about the presentation and on to the story. At the large scale, it’s not unlike a Choice of Games career-path story, recounting incidents of personal priorities and management style. (Very unlike CoG, every choice has precisely two options.) It’s not immediately clear what the stakes and implications of these choices are, although gradually some themes emerge: the extent to which Otilia cares about the poor, and how she negotiates class, custom and politics to deal with this; how much she is willing to endanger her own health for the sake of others, and whether she makes the right friends. I might have got a better sense of the balance a bit more on replay, but it was awkward enough to play through it once.
The writing would be awkward, I think, even without the additional difficulty of the typeface; it’s a mixture of medieval thees and thous with a lot of very modern vocabulary, turns of phrase and storytelling rhythm. It often feels closer to Walter Scott than to Chaucer.
What is the meaning of this clandestine exchange? Hand it over! Ordered Otilia. Blushing bright red, the girl held onto the letter. Now, don’t thee be stingy, said Otilia, winding it from her grasp.
(It’s kind of chickenshit to pick apart vocab in historical fiction, usually, but the literal-physical-manuscript conceit makes me really really want to. OK, OK, I’ll just do one: the first paragraph contains the verb ‘to utilise’, first recorded 1794. I’m not proud of myself, OK?)
Adding to the awkwardness of the writing, the narrative perspective is sometimes that of a biographer, but more often takes the standard action-to-action, same-perspective-as-the-protagonist of IF, while maintaining the past tense. There’s a mix of specifics (in particular, about liturgical procedure) and vagueness (where is this abbey? what are the actual names of the noble families who set it up?); in general, it doesn’t really give itself enough space to contextualise the decisions you’re making, in part because the visuals of the text constrain how high a word-count it can really get away with. It’s clearly the product of substantial research, but that information isn’t being used in ways that help the player situate themselves. So, for instance, some of the political conflicts involve the abbey’s corrupt steward; it seems as though Otilia can’t just get rid of him, even for clear cause, and there’s clearly some reason for this, but I wasn’t clear about what it was.
Marginalia are used rather less extensively than in Harmonia, and don’t really add very much to the experience. The blurb suggests that there are ‘several hands of the 14th and 17th century,’ but this isn’t obviously distinguished visually. The comments express approval or disapproval of Otilia’s actions, and sometimes appear maybe have their own axes to grind, but there’s not enough of this to really add up to distinct and separate characters.
I really admire what this was trying to do. I think it made some bad design decisions along the way, but on the other hand, this a concept that’s inherently very demanding of several different skills. I think it’s laudable to try difficult things, and what’s here represents a really substantial effort; alas, it falls short of what it’s trying to accomplish. So this is a 5, I think.
(Disclaimer: I am married to the lead organiser of IF Comp, and I’m on the IFTF’s Comp advisory committee. For a breakdown of what my scores mean, see this post.)