Their Angelical Understanding is a choice-based interactive fantasy story, and sometimes interactive poem, about being hurt and about how we respond to that hurt.
Their Angelical Understanding tells the story of a woman who has been scarred and wounded by an angel, while everyone around her did nothing. She has gone away to a monastery, where for a time she lives in recovery, keeping her face in a bottle. When she begins to feel safe again, she sets out on a journey to confront the things that have hurt her. The things she encounters are heavily symbolic and often correspond to internal rather than external reality, in a way that reminded me obliquely of the second half of The Neverending Story.
There is a huge amount to say about this even just as a technical exercise: Porpentine brings an astonishing number of feelings and experiences out of what might seem a very limited tool set. The standard Twine colors and text sizes are gone, replaced by larger type on pages of changing color. Each page of text is quite short, creating a rhythm more like poetry than like a conventional choose-your-own-adventure story. Certain settings are accompanied by sound — moody, atmospheric sound, sometimes soothing, sometimes jarring and frightening.
The nature of the interaction varies too. Sometimes we are given room descriptions, where a link might be the name of an object to examine or an action to take or a place to go. Sometimes clicking a link will change the text to something else, using the cycling/replace Twine effects seen in an increasing number of stories.
Or take this moment, from early on:
The link here doesn’t represent the name of an object to examine or an action to perform. It is instead a label we’re putting on the thing we’ve just read about, mentally acknowledging (as the protagonist) the meaning of our past life as a player of the red tiles game.
Then, too, there are words that crumble when we probe them. At one point a passage speaks of the protagonist’s destiny, but if we click on that word, it is replaced with “lol” — undercutting the idea of destiny, embedding some self-awareness under the brave surface.
It was especially interesting reading this piece just a day or two after Alan DeNiro’s Solarium, which uses some similar link effects and some very different ones; which also speaks of angel-like beings, guilt and recompense; which also tells of long journeys across damaged places, but is also very different in mood and meaning.
More about the content after the spoiler space.
Victor Gijsbers has written about his disappointment with the thematic content of the story. In his playthrough, he got what he felt was a pat comment about love:
But my traversal of the piece ended when the protagonist realised that it doesn’t matter whether other people love you, as long as you recognise and increase your own capacity for loving…
…as far as I can see, the piece uses what are often very powerful tools to convey a message that is quite superficial. This is my basic ambivalence. There is much to love here. But my joy is tarnished by the sense that behind the poet, dr. Phil is grinning at me.
I had a different experience. I chose to follow the paths about forgiveness at the end, rather than those about love. The text that followed described how it is necessary to go beyond posing as a forgiver, past a desire for moral superiority and the high ground, in order to forgive someone in a way that is actually meaningful.
Aside from this, however, I found that Their Angelical Understanding was effective for me not as a thesis about how to live — which I think may be what Victor is looking for — but as a polyptych of emotional states and processes that go with having been severely wounded. There is the need to spend some time apart from the world in order to gain a little breathing space; the inward-turning anger; the urge for self-destruction or just to make it stop; the desire to confront the one who caused the pain in order to reach reconciliation or revenge or something else yet; and also some other stranger things that possibly don’t have a ready name.
So for me the meaning of the scene where one finds one’s face in a bottle is not a statement, “one first has to find the courage to be oneself before one can set out to confront one’s fears” (to quote Victor’s formulation), but an experience of how that process can be surprising and difficult. To me, selecting features for myself from the options was an exercise in being a little startled by the options (I’m allowed purple eyes?) but then of reflection and reclamation (which of these features would I say most fits me? I’ll claim it for myself).
In the same vein, I understood the scene of the raining hands — one of the most disturbing parts of the story for me — as being about our capacity to deal with others’ pain when our own pain is still so severe. Hands are the site of wounds, the thing that bleeds in the red tile game, but they are also also the means of agency; hands and hearts are closely tied together in this story, and we’re allowed to choose at one point whether we’ve been wounded in the hand or in the heart.
So the rain of hands (also-hearts), which we are constantly trying to clean up, suggested to me the way that when we are in great distress, sometimes we also become acutely sensitive to the distress of other people. Because just about everyone is wounded to some degree in some fashion, and the world is full of terrible things, it can seem as though grief is hailing down on us, unstoppable, and it’s hard to endure long enough to be of any help. Our cramming of hands into every receptacle, into drains and closets and iceboxes, is an attempt to make even enough space for ourselves to survive inside. But it also communicates why and how one can be helpless in the face of someone else’s pain.
Alongside all these ideas — if less mentioned in the reviews I’ve read — are some questions about the value of labor and the way we pay people for what they do.
In New Heart City, Porpentine envisions a world in which different tokens of value are assigned for producers, middlemen, and transporters. Our damaged traveler sets out to cross the world carrying a set of these tokens, and has the opportunity to give them to people she meets along the way — though, as it turns out, it’s still possible to get the amounts wrong, and get irritated responses from people. At one point we encounter a “construct” — something like a robot — which responds to attempts at payment with the remark, “I’m not a human being. My labor is worthless.”
If the hand is the part of the body that performs labor, what happens when the hand and heart are united? How do we recognize, how do we value and pay for, work that is not just physical but spiritual or emotional labor, in a way that does not distort the work itself? How do we sustain ourselves without refusing the produce of our labor from people who might need it, but not be able to pay for it? What about paying for things with currencies other than money? Porpentine has a Patreon page to support her own future game-making, where she talks about how she wants to make her work available to people for free. This is clearly something that is more than an abstract question for her; nonetheless I’m not sure that Their Angelical Understanding is itself advocating for a single particular answer, so much as exploring another aspect of the relationship between hand and heart.
Here were a few moments in the story that I struggled with myself.
— a choice where the the player is invited to say that they have gained the grace of water, or become angry like a knife left in the fire. I chose water, because I have trouble with anger. I can rarely hold onto the feeling that my anger is righteous long enough to use it as a source of strength. Anger for me is a thing that has to be metabolized before I can take action. Occasionally I have tried to fight this aspect of myself, to use fury as a fuel as I see some other people do, but when I try to do this, I always regret it later, because I act hurtfully and without good judgment.
So when I was given the option not to be angry, I felt that I was being given the chance to pick how I myself would wish to respond, but then the text of the story turned my choice of water to sound vengeful also. This was disconcerting.
— the point after having been attacked by the angel which speaks of having to give up being seen as a good person. While I think it is sometimes true — and especially in the case of rape, which seemed to be the specific analogy here — that speaking of one’s abuse leads to being vilified further, I could also see this rationale being used as a justification for vengeful reactions. I was uncomfortable with the conclusion as stated. Possibly I was meant to be uncomfortable. This is an uncomfortable topic.
— the moment when my opponent forfeited. Considering the cost in blood, I wouldn’t say that this was too easy, exactly. But it did not chime with my own experience as strongly as some of the other portions. One sometimes has the fantasy that if one’s pain were just understood, the people who caused it would back down, apologize, reconcile. In practice I have rarely found it worked that way, myself — in my experience sometimes it’s possible to bridge surprising gaps, most reconciliations contain also a certain amount of letting it be okay that you’re not completely understood, and accepting the value of the relationship despite its imperfections.
So even though some of the text does bring up how people change and how hard it is to sort out the past as we might like, the forfeit itself felt to me like a wish fulfillment rather than an account of how things are, when so much else had been so unflinching.
In any case. These are personal reactions that others might not share, but the work offers considerable food for thought.