Stiffy Makane: Whateverthehellcyntosis

06 May

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.

Score: 3



8 Responses to Stiffy Makane: Whateverthehellcyntosis

  1. Sam Kabo Ashwell

    May 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Yeah, I… I think that writing about sex, and writing that’s heavily reliant on literary references, is always going to be on a knife-edge where taste is concerned. Like, I adore if on a winter’s night a traveller, but I can’t really offer a defence to the substantial number of thoroughly well-read, smart people who think it’s wanky beyond words. (I don’t even know that one needs to be made.)

  2. mamalujo

    May 7, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I guess I’m biased since I’m enjoying this game, and love all the footnotes and references; still I think you could give more of an argument than “I feel its laughing at me” and “It’s so smug and self-satisfied, and I’ve just reawaken my inner anti-intellectualist”, if you’re giving such a poor grade to a game you admit to being ” the most polished and complete of any of the games I’ve played so far in this Spring Thing”

  3. Victor Gijsbers

    May 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I must say I completely disagree with you. When you say that “the very best humorists are moralists at heart”, perhaps you are right — but many excellent humorists are not. There is a strong and venerated tradition of non-moral humor, the clearest form of which is the literary nonsense of writers like Morgenstern, Lear and Carroll. It is this tradition, which also encompasses less nonsensical works like the Satyricon and (perhaps) the Golden Ass, to which Apocolocyntosis belongs.

    I would venture that the essential aspect of this kind of humor, that which makes it relevant to human life, is its insistence on the possibility of play. Carroll plays with language and logic; Apocolocyntosis plays with the literary tradition, especially the Ancients, Eliot, and classic IF. It takes its source material very seriously, because real play is very serious; but it also treats it irreverently and with wild imagination. It rewrites the classics, and makes us see them with other eyes. For instance, Vergil modelling the Aeneid on my misadventures, including his hilarious choice for “bough” just because it starts with the same letter as “banana” — what a hilarious rewriting of both Vergil and Frazer! Not everything was equally good, and some of the passages seemed a bit dull compared the overall quality, but still, I was very impressed. I found it a very entertaining work.

  4. Jimmy Maher

    May 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    “For instance, Vergil modelling the Aeneid on my misadventures, including his hilarious choice for “bough” just because it starts with the same letter as “banana” — what a hilarious rewriting of both Vergil and Frazer!”

    Honestly, Victor, you could have written this sentence in Dutch for all that it means to me. :) What we may have here is a failure of education (my own, obviously). Still, I can only call them like I see them.

  5. Victor Gijsbers

    May 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Especially for you: “Bijvoorbeeld, Vergilius die de Aeneas besaart op mijn avonturen, inclusief zijn hilarische keuze voor ‘bough’ alleen maar omdat het met dezelfde letter begint als ‘banana’ — wat een hilarisch herschrijven van zowel Vergilius als Frazer!” :)

    But seriously, did you get to the part with Vergil? After you have told him about your journey through the underworld, he says that there should be “a poem” in it, but complains that he cannot call it the “Stiffyiad”. He then hits on the name “Aeneid”, and starts reinterpreting everything you have just told him in such a way that they turn into scenes from the actual Aeneid (his epic about Aeneas). The fact that you went into the underworld with a golden banana is something he finds particularly unsuitable, so he searches for another word that starts with a “b” and then hits on “bough”. This is funny because Frazer’s very influential anthropological study “The Golden Bough” is basically an attempt to explain the single line in Vergil which states that Aeneas enters the underworld with a golden bough.

    But I think that the references are probably a red herring if we wish to understand how we could have such different reactions to the game. I think the core difference is that whereas the game felt playful to me, to you it felt condescending and smirking. I can see how that would completely destroy the game.

    Could you explain what felt condescending about the game? (That is a real question, not a polite command. I can easily imagine that one could _not_ explain why a game feels a certain way.)

    • Victor Gijsbers

      May 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      (Most useless comment ever: where I wrote the word “besaart” which nobody here understands because it is not an existing word, it should read “baseert”, which nobody here understand because it is Dutch.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      “Could you explain what felt condescending about the game? (That is a real question, not a polite command. I can easily imagine that one could _not_ explain why a game feels a certain way.)”

      Yes, that’s tough, but perhaps I can give an example from, as it happens, the very first text the game displays.

      The first time I started it, the game opened with a “dedication” to Steve Breslin, a fellow who started a number of flame wars on the Usenet groups some years ago. I wouldn’t quite describe him as a troll, as I think he was genuinely possessed of strong opinions about the relative merits of different IF technologies. He wasn’t the most open-minded sort, however, and when most people disagreed with those opinions he quickly got nasty.

      This dedication annoyed me in at least two ways. First, this obviously wasn’t a real dedication, but rather a smirking, sarcastic jab in keeping with the tone of so much of the game that followed. It’s just mean-spirited, and mean-spirited humor is not my cup of tea — except, of course, in cases where it’s really deserved. (Breslin always struck me as more of a sad figure than someone to really get angry with.) Secondly, I happen to know who Steve Breslin is, having spent (wasted?) a fair amount of time on over the years. But how many others have that knowledge? For them, it’s just a cryptic reference delivered with an almost visible smirk.

      “Mamalujo” said in his/her earlier comment that I felt the game was making fun of me. Actually, that’s not quite what I meant, and not quite what I thought I said, although I can see how the “smirking” reference could be taken that way. It’s more a case of its just fundamentally not giving a shit — or, more likely, trying to give the appearance of fundamentally not giving a shit — whether I get anything out of it or not. I guess there’s a place for art like this, but obviously it’s not art that appeals to me. My favorite writers have ideas or stories that they desperately want to communicate; they want to connect with their readers.

      I of course later learned that there are many of these “dedications” that are randomly chosen from each time the game begins (included among them is the most infamous Usenet troll of all, Jacek Pudlo). But how am I to feel about the figures mentioned in these? Are they homage or ridicule?

      I’m literally about to have to walk out the door and so cannot make this as clear as I’d perhaps like, but maybe that can give some idea of why the whole “too cool for school” attitude of this one bothered me so much. I know this is a very subjective judgment to which no one else need feel bound, but I want IF to grow outward and embrace the wider world, and I think it can best do that right now through more accessible, welcoming, even (yes) full-hearted works. In that sense, this game is exactly the direction I don’t want the form to go. Perhaps that is part of my visceral hatred of it; or perhaps I was just having a really bad day when I played it.

      If it’s any consolation to anyone, something tells me Adam Thornton would be very disappointed if he didn’t get at least one review just like the one I wrote. So, hey, I’m only playing right into his hands in the meta-narrative of IF that is so important to this game. :)

      • Jacek Pudlo

        October 19, 2011 at 4:16 pm

        _Mentula_ is a game within the picaresque tradition. Now, while this tradition has given rise to some truly rich static fiction (Tom Jones, Kim, Huck Finn, etc.) it doesn’t seem to be well-suited for IF. The problem is that when your protagonist must travel a lot, the scenery must change a lot, hence the “sparse and brittle” storyworld you’re complaining about. There doesn’t seem to be any straightforward solution to this. If I remember correctly, the entire city of Alexandria in _Curses_ consisted of six objects.

        If you look at the examples I provided, you’ll notice they are all named after their protagonists. The key to success in the picaresque is a strong, colourful hero, and it is just such a hero that Adam has failed to create. Adam’s answer to Tom Jones, Kim and Huck is a hero defined solely by his erection and his creator’s erudition. Imagine Encyclopedia Britannica with a penis and you’ll get the idea. This may sound cruel, but I’ve known tomcats with richer personalities than Macanus.


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