I’ve been meaning to catch up with All Hope Abandon for years now: back in 2005 when it came out, it pulled down a number of XYZZY nominations (Best Game, Best Story, Best Setting, Best NPCs, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Individual NPC). It’s one of a handful of religiously-themed IF works reputed not to be especially preachy. Eric Eve is a theologian, and his story starts out with the protagonist listening to a stultifying lecture on the relation of the gospels to one another and to the historical Jesus.
From there, the protagonist experiences an ambiguous health event and moves to a surreal allegorical hell-scape. Hell, when you get there, is in the process of being “demythologized,” thanks to trends in theological scholarship. A demon is taking down the lettering over the gate.
Some of the game incorporates lessons about Biblical scholarship into the gameplay proper. The hell section features, among other things, a puzzle on the methods of criticism used to guess which gospel elements likely came from Jewish tradition or backdated early Christian tradition, and which might reflect historical truth. THINK often provides some genuine insights into the current situation, unusually for IF. And much of the game’s setting concerns a contrast between the old way of understanding spirituality — a landscape of angels and demons and lashing chaotic seas — and a more modern way, which is portrayed as even darker and gloomier, mechanized and full of warfare. (There are also other puzzles that are more standard text adventure fare, like trying to find some ink to refill a pen.)
It’s harder — or at least it was harder for me — to say that there’s a consistent message behind all this. I have various thoughts about this, but they’re pretty spoilery, so I will put them after the break.
We’re in search of Hope (about which more in a minute), and the more fatuous forms of Biblical scholarship are shown to mire Hope and threaten to destroy it/her. Being reunited with Hope is a win condition, and losing her is a loss of the game as a whole. At least some of the time, the game seems to be concerned with the state of the protagonist’s soul, and seems to portray lectures about the Q Source as something of an impediment to the soul’s well-being.
But it’s not always clear whether we’re meant to paint modern theology in general as problematic. Or is the problem, in fact, a discrepancy between theological intellectualization and faith, between theories about a possible historical Jesus and a personal commitment to follow him?
Perhaps curiously for a game that visits the Garden of Eden, the mount of Golgotha, and the empty tomb, All Hope Abandon doesn’t commit itself on the question of God.
There’s a moment when we visit the site of the crucifixion and find three empty crosses. The left and right cross have markings to indicate the crimes committed by those crucified, but the sign on the center cross is empty. Traditionally, the sign on Christ’s cross would be depicted as INRI, an abbreviation referring to his claim to be king of the Jews: a message with political implications. In the game, we can put a word there of our choice — hope, integrity, love, truth, or several other things. The options are all positive abstractions. But every option is an abstraction, not a person; not someone the contemporary authorities regarded as politically dangerous, and also not an incarnate god.
At another point, we’re offered a high and a low road into the afterlife. The low road is easy, gentle, and obviously incorrect. Follow it, and we find eternal oblivion, which sounds okay, except that oblivion is a hopeless condition. In order to win, we must leave this area behind and trudge up the hard and narrow path instead.
If anything, the devil gets a bit more representation, though even that’s on the ambiguous side. Visit the shore of a chaotic sea and you may have visions of a sinister, Satanic face. But you can also find the snake in the garden, and it’s a cheery, cooperative sort that warns you off eating the tedious apple, and helps you with rescuing Hope.
Who is a woman, obviously. That’s the other thing.
The game’s handling of women is a bit uncomfortable, and I say that even with the awareness that Christian allegory tends to assign ladies to portray various virtues. Pilgrim’s Progress does at least send Christiana out on a journey of her own.
Throughout All Hope Abandon, you are seeking a woman-trophy by the name of Felicity Hope, who is sinking into an allegorical swamp, and whose main character note is being blonde.
At one point (quite late in the game), she challenges you about whether you believe in gender equality; saying yes is part of the losing, not the winning sequence. This doesn’t go anywhere as detailed or as developed as the end of Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which enraged me even when I was much younger and less feminist by instructing its major female character, “Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.” Even then, I was pretty irked by the implication that this was woman’s only natural goal, and that having, for instance, an academic career was not a suitable purpose for me. There, at least, Jane has a personality, and some internal thoughts.
All Hope Abandon simply requires that you, as the stronger male character, must save Hope because the opposite arrangement is physically impractical. She exists in the real world as well as the surreal hell-scape, and in both worlds you are apparently in love with her, despite knowing almost nothing about her. You are told that you admire the Gestalt of her face, a comment so absurd that I took it as a (pretty decent) joke at the narrator’s expense. But all the same Hope is never given a personality to speak of.
On the other hand, if you’re not careful, you may instead run into a green-skinned demoness and wind up tempted by her. You’re allowed to specify what kind of temptation you’re into, and if you go for sins of the flesh, you wind up expiring thus:
It is the most amazing experience of your life (or should that be death?), so that the more she gives you, the more you want, and the more desperately and passionately you want it. And still she goes on, feeding your desire until desire becomes obsession, obsession turns to addiction, and addiction becomes total enslavement.
Within a few hours ever growing desire for Agrath has banished every other thought and feeling from your mind, and still you carry on rutting with her, your need for her ever growing, your thought and will and humanity ever diminishing, until you become no more than an Agrath-bonking automaton.
*** YOU ARE AGRATH’S SEX-TOY FOR ALL ETERNITY ***
Other possibilities include asking for money, so that you wind counting your cash eternally; asking for food, so that you are eternally eating until you drown in your own vomit; asking for fame, so that you are mobbed with admirers and can never escape their demands for autographs. If you ask for sleep, you will get oblivion, which is to my mind the least distressing of the possible options.
So here is the sense of the worldview I took from this game. It shares a traditional Christian sense of sin and purity. It is disturbed by lust, which is a sufficiently dangerous phenomenon to lower the narrative voice to such unaccustomed terms as “bonking.” It dislikes intellectual carelessness. In the manner of Tolkien and Lewis, it has an aesthetic horror of the modern, that being industrialized and dominated by war. It insists on the hope of eternal life and refuses the possibility of a bleaker, more total atheism. As for the cross, it is lurid (shown under a black sun that pulls light out of the sky) and yet painless (no particular focus on the physical reality of a crucifixion).
All Hope Abandon manages, in a curious way, to spend all its time in the Empty Tomb and yet perpetually to avert its gaze from the actual matter of the Resurrection. Which of the details of the tomb story are best attested? What can we conclude from the texts? Do we agree with the criteria applied to those texts? Don’t we think it’s funny how certain scholars swaddle the whole matter in an excess of German? And these questions are fair enough, of course — even the last — but they do not give the path to the heavenly city, which All Hope Abandon shows us perpetually on the horizon.
So both the theological and the romantic angle of this story seemed to me to be missing something: the other party. Here is salvation, but no Savior; love, but only a paper beloved.
After I played, I found myself thinking about Connie Willis’ Passage, which speaks to the conflict between the desire to hope for an afterlife, and the scientific certainty that none exists. It felt to me as though the narrator of All Hope Abandon desires the consolations of religion, but cannot rationally justify them, and thus will not argue for the existence of God — not even within the confines of metaphor.
One final point: in the interpreter I used, the Greek quotations lacked breathing marks and accents, and had the final sigmas confused with mid-word sigmas. I assume this must have been a lapse of technology, but it was disconcerting.