Spring Thing 2015: Mere Anarchy (Bruno Dias)

I didn’t run reviews during Spring Thing because of having my own Back Garden entry. I’ve also changed my review policy for comps: moving away from trying to be thorough (a goal at which I didn’t always succeed anyway), and focusing on covering games about which I have a fair amount to say and/or that I really want to recommend to other players.

For Spring Thing, that starts with Mere Anarchy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 3.04.58 PM

Mere Anarchy (Bruno Dias) — this is a choice-based game in Undum by the author of ParserComp’s Terminator Chaser. As usual for Undum games, Mere Anarchy looks really good — Undum is still in my view the prettiest-by-default of the available choice systems, and the only real strike against it is that it offers so little by way of authoring tools. I’m impressed that Dias submitted two such complex games in such a short window. And this is a fairly complex piece: I think the state space is smaller than in Squinky’s The Play, but there’s a fair amount going on relative to most Undum games. Many early choices quietly play into the descriptive text later, even if they don’t substantially branch the story.

Mere Anarchy describes itself as “urban fantasy”, which led me (despite the title) to imagine cops-who-are-also-werewolves literature. This is less trope-y and goofy than that, but “urban fantasy” still fits. The protagonist is a magic user in a modern city environment, in which a wealthy cabal controls most of the high magic and which has been having lesser magic-users killed. The story details the preparation and execution of a strike that might be considered a terrorist attack, a coup, or a revolution, depending on your point of view. There’s not much leeway about what you will do or how it will come out, but you can choose details of how the protagonist will act and what their motivations will be. Many of the choices here are about the protagonist’s inner life rather than anything else.

The story also makes good use of exploratory links, of the kind that replace text or expand it in place. Perhaps my favorite instance is one in which you’re exploring the contents of a magic shop, and click again and again to see more things on the shelves. This goes on for implausibly long, building up a large paragraph of assorted objects, unless you give up first: for me this captured the compulsive nature of curiosity even when there are urgent other things to be doing.

Both that segment and many others also benefit from specific descriptions of the magical items, their color and scent and weight and material and overall thing-ness. They are often a bit funny or a bit horrible or a bit of both at the same time: “a glass torus with a monarch butterfly flying laps inside it.” I was reminded occasionally of the house style of Fallen London. Though this world’s magic is not presented as a fully implemented usable system, there’s enough here to give the gist of it.

There are also a couple of points that read as puzzles — decide (despite little forewarning of what you’ll find) what to bring with you on a break-in, for instance. I don’t think you can really fail at these points: I played through several times with more or less well-advised selections (as far as I could tell), but nothing I did prevented the story rolling onward. So the pseudo-puzzles are more of an experiential feature than a challenge: like the intricate contents of the magic shop, they’re there to ground this world’s fantasy in usable specifics and to establish that some challenges exist for the protagonist. This worked pretty well for me, and motivated me to come back with different tool collections to see how a different kit would work against the main obstacles.

What happens at the end of the story is pretty horrible, no matter how much you feel the cabal had it coming, and the narration doesn’t shrink from that fact. This is fitting. Here is a portion of Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the poem from which the title “Mere anarchy” comes:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The protagonist of Mere Anarchy does take action — passionate intensity, perhaps? — but we’re left with a sense that this is a bad outcome and that inaction (lacking all conviction) would also have led to a bad outcome. There’s a final reflective choice in which we can apply our own meaning to what has happened, but to me it rang hollow, seemingly on purpose, as though to say that of course there is no neat capstone to be put on a sequence of events like this.

That is of course a reasonable thing for a story to do, but I also felt that the underpinnings of the class struggle were weaker than the rest. We’re shown, in the very first scene, a massacre against the hedge-magicians; a little later, we’re told the Dragon Cabal is responsible; but this dialogue passage is abrupt and expository, especially in comparison with the rest of the story. There’s better material in the later sequence in which we see the cabal’s offensively gratuitous wealth and its exploitation of dreamers. Still, I would have appreciated some more depth on the political situation, even if it changed nothing about what my protagonist was allowed to do.

This is formally and structurally a very very different piece from Terminator Chaser, but thematically they’re both taking on a question of class struggle, and of how much a protagonist in a disadvantaged position can do against the murderous brutality of the overlords. With Terminator Chaser I also found myself asking for more backstory, though in that case I may have failed to find some of what was there by not using memory/thought verbs on the right topics. To be clear, there’s a lot more in Mere Anarchy; I just would have liked deeper development of certain portions.

In any case, this is an assured piece of work that handles a number of potentially tricky things — flashbacks and memory, protagonist interiority, highly changeable text — so deftly that one might not even be aware they were challenging. Well worth a play, even if I wish it had delved deeper in one area.

4 thoughts on “Spring Thing 2015: Mere Anarchy (Bruno Dias)”

  1. I too wish I could have gotten more depth of backstory in there, and especially that I had managed to spread out the exposition better so it didn’t feel so much like an NPC infodump. I’m already a lot worse at writing dialogue than I would like to be, and exposition is a particular stumbling block. Unfortunately I ended up having to cut content to meet the Spring Thing deadline; for instance, the original plan was to have three possible targets for the attack, not two – the middle one was cut for being too similar to the first one. Similarly, I cut an alternative to the underground sequence because I couldn’t find something interesting to do with it. So unless I wanted to pull out of the comp and delay the game, expanding on the backstory wasn’t really in the cards.

    It was a hard decision, but I ended up paring down the scope of the project rather than delaying its release partly because I felt I had a degree of commitment to deliver a game for an exhibition/comp I really wanted to succeed, and partly out of a strong desire to ship (I don’t know if you experience that). I also tend to think it’s better to leave people wanting more backstory than to deliver too much of it, though I should probably recalibrate my bias there.

    Regardless: I think the “annus mirabilis” trick of releasing a game every month is going to stop with my shufflecomp entry, so I should be able to put in a bit more time into those in the future.

    (Despite my desire to explain myself, I’m always really thrilled to get a review from you; a positive one even more so.)

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