IF Comp 2010: The 12:54 to Asgard

As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game, if appropriate.

I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with a couple of years ago: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. In 2008 that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale, and it made my reviewing process a happier one in 2009, so I’m sticking with it. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.

Next up: The 12:54 to Asgard

This is not a fair or comprehensible game, I’m afraid. It starts off with a fairly engaging, if buggy and underhinted, scenario about a guy trying to fix the exposed wiring and leaking roof at the studio where he does maintenance, and then he dies, and then we slip sideways into a mixed-mythology universe of weird. Quirky charm and humor abound, but they aren’t enough to provide the direction the player badly needs.

Other people have pretty amply covered the issue about unplayability in their reviews, so I don’t want to carp on that too much here. I did go all the way through the whole thing with a walkthrough, and I can’t say I fully (or even mostly) understand what happened in it. If it were playable, it would then almost certainly be way, way way, way way way too long for the competition.

But I do have a few thoughts about the actual content to put out there, after the spoiler break.

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The afterlife encountered by our player combines elements of Greek, Norse, Jewish, and Christian mythology, and draws especially on some Biblical parables that we have to act out, especially those that touch on being accepted into heaven. There are references to the beginning of the world and also the apocalypse. It all feels very symbolic and sort of over-saturated: all the colors are vibrant, all the trees are enormous, all the smells are rich and all the objects are made of very precious substances.

What this reminded me of most — the investigation of an afterlife in which every thing and experience is Turned Up To Eleven and in which we draw on goodies from all of western mythology — was C. S. Lewis. The bit with the skin peeling off the desk of the gameshow host reminded me especially of Eustace and the dragon skin. Singing ouranos into existence is reminiscent of Aslan in Magician’s Nephew. There were tinges of The Great Divorce here and there also.

And this made me a bit touchy, because while I think C. S. Lewis had some good and useful things to say, there are many other places where I think he’s horribly wrong; and the presentation of his wrongness in the form of pompous allegory annoys me more than would a straightforward essay on the topic.

I also think you have to bend the Norse and Greek traditions pretty hard in order to make them fit into the props cupboard for a Christian stageplay.

So. This is not necessarily a guide to Rob’s thinking; it’s just a thing that the transcript reminded me of, as it was flooding by in response to my walkthrough typing.

To the extent that I do have an idea what this is supposed to be about, though, it’s this: here we have a grumpy old protagonist who apparently hates everyone who knows, who goes through life with a permanent scowl on, who is generally looked down on and ignored by his colleagues. They don’t seem to respect him very much, and he repays that disrespect, unsurprisingly, with disrespect of his own. Moreover he’s kind of a petty thinker, the kind of guy whose greatest happiness comes from having his hammer and screwdriver each hanging on their respective pegs: and while orderliness of the workspace is useful, it’s not exactly the Great Cosmic Good. And yet when this guy dies, he doesn’t just blandly come to terms with his past life and then proceed to heaven or hell as assigned. On the contrary, he has a very hard-to-read adventure in which just a couple of his passing actions are the absolution of Adam and the creation of the universe from Chaos.

He gives Odin a train ticket, also, though the walkthrough leaves it pretty unclear what that achieved.

At any rate, what has happened to this grumpy fiddly old dude is, apparently, the awakening or self-discovery of some deeply powerful spiritual being, either because in some weird way he is (a?) (G/g)od or Christ but just forgot that fact whilst alive, or because there exists in all people some sort of divine potential on this scale.

I’m not certain, because the theology involved here would be fairly unorthodox for those religions I know anything about, and because I’m not sure I understood the game well enough to grasp the argument. But the meaning of the transformation is much greater and more interesting because it has happened to someone who seemed unloving and spiritually small than it would have if the protagonist were a conventionally good or wise person.

This seems like it ought to be powerful stuff, but it’s all enacted in the form of giant carved sapphire turnstiles, and none at all in the form of the character having plausible reactions to all this. He’s so powerfully specific a character in the first scene of the game; why not after he dies? He seems increasingly to accept his incredible surroundings, and his own powers and actions, without any commentary at all. Maybe this represents his becoming more divine and less human? But it’s a journey with few clearly marked or comprehensible stages. And that means we’re moving away from a personal story that could, however strangely, have a coherent character arc, and into one where the allegory is most of the point.

Anyway. My biggest complaint about many of the other games in this comp is that they’re polished exercises but don’t have enough to say. This game is, I think, clearly trying to say something — possibly something I would disagree with, I’m not sure, but still something on a fairly major level about the nature of humanity and personhood and the soul. But it is, unfortunately, a mess.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2010: The 12:54 to Asgard”

  1. Where does Lewis have “good and useful things” to say? This is not a rhetorical question. I have tried to read two of his books, and those definitely weren’t the ones where he had anything good to say, so I would be interested to hear which are the good ones. (I have read “Mere Christianity”, which presents arguments so shallow that the book feels like an insult to one’s intelligence; and “The Screwtape Letters”, which is quite possibly the most loathsome book I have ever had the displeasure of reading. His fame must be based on something else, but the general Lewis fan seems to love everything he wrote and is thus not a very good source of information.)

  2. I waited 3 years to look at any of the responses, because I knew they would be pretty much what I thought they would be, because I knew how I’d review it if it weren’t my game. As my only public comment, I’ll repeat what I said to Paul O’Brian this past January, paraphrasing what Quentin Tarantino said to Charlie Rose about Brian DePalma’s famously ill-received movie, Bonfire of the Vanities: “This is the kind of epic disaster only someone who really knows what he’s doing could possibly make.” Which made it fascinating for Tarantino, but not for the average audience member.

    Also, it was a thrilling thing to work on. It’s the only time I got to deploy Inform6 storytelling modules I’d been working on in a published game. And of course, as usual, some of the obvious problems were because I had to scale things back that I had developed more fully but were too buggy to deploy. Especially for a Comp game, but the deadline was what made me commit to it.

    Maybe I’ll make up the difference with future games, and this will be a curiosity of great interest in my catalog. Or maybe it’ll be the last game I released, and thus be even more of a terrible curiosity. Either way, wow. I released it, back in October 2010. What a thing.

    Rob

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