Today’s review from the Spring Thing 2011 collection is Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by Adam Thornton. More after the tag. Oh, and a warning: this is not a PG-rated game, and neither is the review.
Short summary: if Curses had a smuttier, plottier twin — with easier puzzles and fairer hinting and a lot more sex — this would be it. It is layered thick with IF tributes (especially to Curses itself) and literary jokes, quotations in numerous languages, and throw-away references to disputes in the interpretation of classical texts; also farting, grues, and sewage humor. The general personality of Apocolocyntosis won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Thornton’s oeuvre, but it is, I would say, both more ambitious and more satisfying than his previous work. A solid evening of playtime, even though I did resort to the walkthrough at a couple of points. Mostly the built-in hint system sufficed, however.
This will annoy Adam Thornton no end, I imagine, but I’d dispute the status of this thing as pornography. In porn the sex is the point; in IF porn, one solves puzzles in order to get to the sex scenes. Apocolocyntosis goes about it the other way around. There’s a big sprawly plot going on with lots of exciting happenings, and sex is often the solution to puzzles; when it happens, it’s a cut scene that generally doesn’t leave a lot of room for the exercise of personal kinks. (On the contrary, the protagonist is sometimes rather reluctantly seduced.) So, in form, not very pornography-like.
It’s not pornography in purpose, either. It’s nearer being literary criticism.
(Think I’m pushing the boat out? Wait.)
Structurally, Apocolocyntosis is playing off the wild, inconsistent variety of adventures that turn up in Roman novels and Menippean satire (one of which is the source of that funny word in the title). Thornton’s blurb invites us to compare his work to the Satyricon of Petronius, which is indeed full of sexual adventures and bizarre travels, as well as social comedy about the behavior of the newly rich and other funny specimens. (Petronius was an enormous snob.) The break in the action partway through the game, picked up again much later, is a direct reference to the breaks in the surviving text of the Satyricon. The game’s raunchiness owes a large debt to Petronius, not just in its quantity but in its style. Sex is omnipresent and cheap, a bodily function on par with eating. By the end of the game I got to feel that, you know, it was only polite to fuck every NPC I ran into. There wasn’t always a lot of conversation to be had with these characters, but one could always connect on another level. Along the same lines, I appreciated the fact that Stiffy was willing to wade through sewers and charnel houses if it would get him to what he wanted. I’m so used to anything disgusting or unpleasant being used as a barrier in IF that I found it rather freeing to play a protagonist who really just doesn’t care; and this went a long way to reconciling me with scenes that I didn’t especially care to picture in detail.
But it’s not all classics all the time. Apocolocyntosis is also riffing — often in the same moment, sometimes with a single allusion — on the wild, inconsistent variety of old-school IF. There are a lot of rooms and a lot of puzzles. Item and description density is often low: many rooms don’t have too much in them, and the point is to keep moving. Most NPCs exist in a purely quest-giving capacity. I think (though I didn’t do this myself) that it might be possible to get into an unwinnable state. This is not to say that Apocolocyntosis hasn’t learned any of the design lessons of the last 15 years. On the contrary, it does a lot to minimize unnecessary travel and unwieldy inventories, stuck points and confusion; and it includes nods to reviled puzzles such as mazes and darkness without actually making these problems unpleasant. But in flavor and scope, it rewards the nostalgia of those who have loved IF since at least the mid-90s.
Apocolocyntosis has a lot to say about Curses in particular. It lifts Curses’ use of such locations as Pharos, Alexandria, ancient Britain, Mme Sosostris’ tent, and the Unreal City; and Adam matches the Unreal City with Stetson’s garden, a location based on the rest of the same stanza. Curses lets us meet Homer; Apocolocyntosis brings the young Vergil on stage. Curses shows us the room that runs the universe where moving the wrong lever will change Planck’s constant; Apocolocyntosis gives us a similarly controlling view of the world, except its version of the universe runs on dice and RPG figurines. There’s school-of-Nelson wordplay in which a pun resolves before your eyes: the “two wrinkled Dougs” joke is a raunchier entry in the same line with the “it’s a wrench but you take it” joke in Curses.
The essence of Menippean satire — and of Curses too; who knew Graham Nelson and Petronius Arbiter were peas from the same pod? — is an unabashedly scavenging imagination combined with a love of virtuosity, often in preference to such piddling virtues as coherency, tonal consistency, or plausibility. The scavenging and the virtuosity are features that Apocolocyntosis shares. Quite a lot of the content of Apocolocyntosis is about reading and being read; about influence and intertextuality. The game has a set of references and a set of footnotes, and acknowledges influences obsessively if by no means completely. It constructs most of its own meaning by critiquing other people’s.
Playing all this I was reminded of an old rec.arts.int-fiction post of Adam’s:
I know *I* don’t want to be like Graham: for one thing, he doesn’t make enough dick jokes in his games, and I *like* dick jokes. More generally, I characterize myself as a Dionysian sort of fellow–at least by comparison to his Apollonian public personality–and I really have no desire to change that. I admire Graham’s work without feeling that I should adopt him as a role model.
And that is what Apocolocyntosis is, for large stretches: a counter-Curses, garishly footlit by the hero’s glowing blue cock.
It’s possible that some of this is meant more negatively than I took it. If you leave Hades by the gate of ivory — the gate of false dreams — you wind up stuck (and subsequently dead) in the opening of Adventure: classical IF is a lie. Certainly the dull identical men in the Unreal City, with their GRAHAM name-tags, could be read as a harsh comment on the source material (or its author). But I don’t think that’s the gist, overall. I think that in order to answer certain aspects of old-style IF in general and Curses in particular, Thornton first needs to label and define his points of contrast clearly. And as seen from the Stiffy-verse, that other world has to be dull and false and colorless because it represents the unphysical, the body-less. Its counterpoint is a heady garden of flowers and rotting corpses, where the odors of life and death mingle.
Apocolocyntosis transcends in-joke or parody or tribute. It completes the picture, it rounds out the meaning, of works that have gone before. To the puzzle-rich, erudite, but chaste and sometimes rather lonely universe of Curses (and much old IF in general), it adds dimensions of chaos; of acceptance of the body both in pleasure and in squalor; of the ludicrous as an antidote to misery. Adam refers to his worldview as Dionysian, but there’s relatively little of the ecstatic or mystic aspect of Dionysus here, and even relatively little straight-up drinking. With its irreverence, its wide-ranging travel, its polyglot jokes, its hermeneutic narration, its absurd turns of luck, its ithyphallic underworld-visiting hero, its ultimate assault on Argos — even its curse-obsession — Apocolocyntosis belongs to the domain of another god.
It’s possible that Apocolocyntosis requires too much specialist knowledge to find a wide audience. It may be doomed to be downloaded mostly by AIF-seekers who rapidly get frustrated when they find out what truncated and bizarre wank-material the game actually provides. Personally, I found it compelling, not least because it conveys a whole argument about life, and about the aspects thereof that are missing from the traditions of our medium, by way of a consciously old-fashioned game crammed with dick jokes.