This game is either called Stiffy Makane: Apocolocyntosis or Mentula Macanus; it can’t quite seem to decide which. While I’m sure there’s some sort of obscure Latin-derived meaning for this apparent confusion that would leave me smugly chuckling into my professorial beard if I were a brighter sort, I’m afraid I’m like Shakespeare in having “little Latin and less Greek.” So, we’ll just call this one Stiffy.
Stiffy, then, is a sprawling old-school piece — the most old-school yet in what has so far been a surprisingly old-school competition — set in a Free Love version of ancient Rome which would shock even HBO. Two reviewers whose opinions I respect a lot, Sam Kabo Ashwell and Emily Short, both compared it to Graham Nelson’s classic Curses. I can certainly understand where they’re coming from in doing this. What I can’t understand is their actually liking this game; I hated it with a passion.
Stiffy considers itself, amongst other things, funny. Now, humor in IF is always a hit-or-miss proposition for me. For every comedy game that makes me laugh, there are several that only make me impatient. I’m afraid Stiffy falls into the latter category — but the way that it fails to amuse me is rather unusual. Most funny IF is kind of friendly and self-conscious about it. “I really, really want you to have a good time,” it says, “but I just don’t know quite how to overcome this or that limitation, so instead I’ll make a joke about it and maybe, instead of you being annoyed with me, we can laugh together… maybe?” Even when it fails — and it usually does — this sort of humor means well. After all, it wants to make me laugh. How bad could that be?
Stiffy‘s humor, however, is of the smug, condescending stripe. It has neither the lusty good spirit of a Shakespeare nor the angry satirical edge of a Swift. It doesn’t laugh with me, doesn’t challenge me; it smirks at me. The very best humorists are moralists at heart, laughing to keep from crying at the inanities of the world. But this game has no capacity for moral concern or outrage. In fact, it has no capacity for any real and human emotion. And so what we’re left with is a thin gruel of tedious intellectualism — and of course lots of sex that wants to be transgressive but isn’t. It’s just boring. It’s the “edgy” kid at university who enrolls in Human Sexuality 101 and walks around with a battered copy of The Story of O but has no clue how to actually get it on with anyone.
Graham Nelson has influenced my thinking and writing to an extent that is almost embarrassing to admit. One thing I love about his style, whether it’s in Curses or Jigsaw or those endless asides and digressions in the old Inform Designer’s Manual, is the way that it refuses to confine itself to a single intellectual sphere. Nelson is a much smarter and more educated man than I, and he doesn’t hesitate to share his erudition in virtually everything he writes. Yet he has the peculiar genius of making all of his esoteric knowledge inspiring and interesting, of never making his reader feel like he is showing off just for the sake of it. It was many years in happening, but the fact that I spent the last half of last year reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time is really down to that vignette of Proust I experienced in Jigsaw a long time ago. It sounds trite, but I feel I’m a better person for having read Nelson, if only because through Nelson I came to Proust.
Stiffy, while I suppose it reflects almost equal erudition, doesn’t inspire me at all. Its self-satisfied tone and sparse, brittle storyworld only awakens long-dormant anti-intellectual biases I didn’t even know I had any longer. (Anti-intellectualism is of course a birthright of every American.) This is IF as it might be written by the father from The Squid and the Whale: the professor for whom A Tale of Two Cities is “minor Dickens,” who cannot think of a stronger adjective of praise than “dense,” and yet is still even more pathetically desperate for a blow job from the local hottie than is his son. This is art with all of the magic of life boiled away, leaving behind just a residue of formal logic and literary references.
Objectively, this is the most polished and complete of any of the games I’ve played so far in this Spring Thing; certainly it would seem to realize all of its design goals beautifully. Subjectively, however, those goals are so antithetical to everything I enjoy about IF or, indeed, art in general that I can’t bear to give it a very good score. So, we’ll start with a nice neutral 5, then subtract 2 because it pissed me off so fucking much. Your mileage may vary.