IF Comp 2019: Heretic’s Hope

hereticsHeretic’s Hope (Grim Baccaris, Twine) is a dark / weird fantasy story. The protagonist is a lone human in the court of an isolated insectoid culture ruled by a sinister queen: their mother has recently died and they have been appointed to the prominent but intensely perilous role of Pontiff. It’s a piece about mourning and about being a threatened outsider.

This is a very polished piece: the writing is at a professional level, and a very thorough job has been done with presentation. But it didn’t really click with me, and I’m trying to figure out why. I could appreciate a lot of the things it was doing, but I never got to feeling enthusiastic about it.

I found myself comparing it unfavourably to a couple of exceptional works. Much about the premise recalls With Those We Love Alive – and, snarkily, unfairly, I feel that the worst possible thing you could do to WTWLA is to do it without the skin-drawing part and add an Extended Universe with lots of Lore. And I also felt the contrast to Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire – another piece about being inescapably an outsider in the court of a dangerous and hard-to-comprehend power, but one with a great deal more range of mood.

Hope is very much in the same mood palette as Grim’s previous comp entry Devotionalia, a piece in the same setting. A big difference here, though, is that Devotionalia was a very tightly-focused, memory-oriented mood piece where your choices are generally signaled as reflective (sometimes, even, when they’re technically not): and a lot more is going on the present of Hope. You have actual shit to deal with, a lot of characters to consider, the sense that all your decisions are fraught with uncertain political significance, that you are actively despised by many around you. The mood shifts between ‘mourning for the most important person in your life’ and ‘actively threatened but still depressed.’

This puts player agency in a bit of a weird spot, too. Again, your decisions are framed as being very loaded, not reflective at all: but the political workings of the court are shown as a sort of black box, and the narrative feels as if it’s very much on rails. (It’s also a fairly long game by Comp standards, so I didn’t go back to confirm how much that was the case; it’s possible that I’m very wrong about it.) So you’re making quite a lot of high-pressure decisions without getting very much feedback on them at all. That reflects how Eser is in a position that, in theory, carries substantial influence with it, but has no idea how that might be exercised and in practice gets ordered around and chastised a lot. But it’s also really tiring!

And I think that the sequences which might have offered some tonal contrast weren’t as strongly-evoked. The fond memory of your mother was… fine, but it was very clear that this kind of mode is not the author’s comfort zone. There’s a section – possibly an optional one – where you talk with the human crew of the ship, which feels a bit like ‘let me show you my OCs’ and a bit like an awkward speed-dating sequence. I get that it’s trying to sketch a social group that might offer an alternative to insect society, rather than being about pinning one’s hopes on a single person; but fewer characters, in more depth, might have had a better effect. I dunno.

Another possibility: I might be a bit close to saturation point on some of the core motifs it’s using for alien-ness. Hyperfecund vegetation has been a New Weird thing for a while and yeah it’s good, but it’s also familiar, and I think that if you were writing in Twine c. 2013 then you just automatically did at least one thing with horrifying alien carapace beings. So my reaction was not so much ‘holy shit this is weird’ as ‘OK, right, one of these.’

I struggled with how to vote for this! It was not for me, but I feel it deserves high placing. It clears the ‘did I get anything out of this’ bar, but I had to think about it. It is objectively a much more ambitious piece, both technically and in terms of what it’s aiming to do with character and theme, than games that I appreciated a lot more. I think that most likely puts it in 7-8 territory, but I’ll have to think more about it.

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