IFComp 2011: Cana According to Micah

Spoilers follow the break.

In what is probably my least-expected reaction in the Comp so far, Cana According to Micah comes as a breath of fresh air. This is the game that made me realize how unfair I was being by not calling out mediocre writing when I saw it — unfair, that is, to games like this one. It’s not that the prose here is the flashy sort that calls attention to itself, but it’s competent and, more importantly, it’s meaningful. Every sentence tells you something, even if it’s just something about what the player character considers important. As well, there’s a very comfortable texture to the interaction; the text you’re expected to read between command prompts is neither too thin nor too thick, particularly in the room descriptions, whose brevity reflects the PC’s familiarity with the setting.

All this may seem like faint praise. Surely this competence, as i have described it, should be the minimum we expect of a Comp game? Ah, if only it were.

Competent authoring is made all the more surprising by the fact that it’s Bible fanfic. It’s the story of the miracle of water into wine, told from the point of view of a servant at the wedding. That is, it takes the same approach to scriptural adaptation as last year’s The Bible Retold: Following a Star, expanding on a small role, one mentioned in a single sentence and not even named. It’s not nearly as silly as TBR:FaS, though. There are jokey bits, such as when you spot Coleridge’s ancient mariner, who’s apparently more ancient than I thought, haranguing a bridesmaid. But even stuff like that tends to feed into the game’s religious themes. Once you have a handle on what the mariner is saying, you can tell the story to the officiating rabbi and his retinue, provoking questions: What is the point of this long, rambling story? If, as the mariner insists, it’s all true, what does that tell us about God?

Not that God is at the top of most people’s concerns in this story. Most of the action is set firmly at the level of the historically mundane. Your chief concern is simply that the party is running out of wine, and the first brace of puzzles is all about locating and procuring a jug that went missing (stolen by John the Baptist, it turns out, who’s more or less running wild these days). Jesus himself isn’t really Jesus yet; the miracle at Cana was his first, so until you reach the point in the story where he performs it, which is basically the end, he’s just a part of the community, someone close enough to the families involved to get invited to weddings, and definitely not above criticism. You can ask pretty much any NPC about anyone else in the game (and even about some biblical characters not even mentioned) and get a meaningful response, so everyone has some kind of opinion of him; the rabbi, for example, says “That boy is entirely too smart for his own good”.

As for me, I was a bit taken aback by how unhelpful Jesus was. Once you convince yourself that the last of the wine is gone — John the Baptist can really tuck it away, it seems — you can ask him for help, and his response is basically “Why should I care?” This is the one part where I got stuck enough to need hints. Someone more familiar with the source material 1Or someone with the presence of mind to look it up. I guess my failure to think of this at the time shows how successful the game was at getting me to think of this as my own problem, rather than a re-enactment of a fixed story. would know where to turn: John 2:3 says that it was his mom who talked him into helping, so the next step is to find her in the crowd. But if there were any in-game clues for this, they went over my head. It gives me some suspicion that there’s more like that than I noticed — things that I was biblically-literate enough to recognize but that other people might have trouble with. That’s just speculation, but religion is famously a source of “dog-whistles” audible only to those raised in the right culture.

When it comes to representing Christian doctrine within the game, it chooses aspects that are strangely uncommon in Christian games, given how central they are to Christianity.

The game gives you couple of opportunities to do terrible things, things that you know are wrong. The first concerns that last jug of wine: one way to get it out of John’s hands is to let Herod’s soldiers take him away. The soldiers even ask you to identify John with a kiss. The pointed comparison with Judas would probably seem clumsy if the request didn’t seem so ridiculous, but funny or not, it makes it clear that what you’re being asked to do is a major misdeed. The thing is, it’s also the obvious approach to your problem. The alternate solution requires actions that don’t have any obvious connection to the wine problem, things that you just have to experiment with, whereas the evil solution is just thrown in your lap by an NPC. Furthermore, it comes early enough in the story that it isn’t entirely clear yet how the game is structured; for all I knew, it might have been the only solution. After all, we know from scripture he has to get taken prisoner eventually. My point is that the game stacks the deck against you somewhat here. If you want to choose the path of righteousness, you have to actively resist the easy answers.

The second major choice doesn’t work so well, in my opinion. There’s a red-headed orphan girl, named Anna, who follows you around and acts as sidekick throughout the game, sometimes offering useful suggestions when asked. When she’s helping you gather water, little orphan Anna almost falls into the well, and you have to make a snap decision: save her, or save the bucket she was filling. The author pulls a couple of tricks to try to make this decision less ludicrously obvious, but they didn’t work for me. For one thing, he puts some emphasis on your strict orders to not return until all the water jars are full, so losing the bucket means failing there. But losing a bucket just doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Buckets are replaceable. Human lives aren’t. The other thing the game tries to do is play up the idea that Anna is an annoyance who the PC really wants to get rid of. But I just didn’t share that feeling. Goodness knows I’ve felt that way about a great many adventure game sidekicks, usually because they keep on offering unasked-for hints about obvious things, but Anna was actually useful to me, and that’s the surest and easiest way to not be annoying.

Perhaps the author is being subtler than I suspect here, deliberately giving us a moral choice with a patently obvious answer in order to make us more fully understand the earlier choice, which the player could make without realizing it was a choice. But I kind of doubt that. At any rate, the game doesn’t let you try to find a replacement bucket, but Jesus just shrugs off the discrepancy in the water, approving of your priorities. My other decision, to betray John, he was pretty angry about, even though, like the player, he seemed to already know how John’s story ends. But — and this is the important part — he forgives you, no matter what you did. (Even losing the bucket would require a little forgiveness, I suppose.)

And that’s more or less the point of the work. An epilogue, set three years later, puts the same player character at the Potter’s Field where Judas Iscariot lies dying, and echoing Jesus at Cana by begging you to bring him water. Whether or not you choose to show him this small mercy, and repay the mercy shown to you earlier, is up to you, and the game doesn’t pass judgment on you either way. So even a failure to forgive is forgiven.

I’ve seen games with moral choice systems where your choices ultimately have no real consequences, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a lack of consequences that’s not only deliberate, but crucial to the theme of the work.

1 Or someone with the presence of mind to look it up. I guess my failure to think of this at the time shows how successful the game was at getting me to think of this as my own problem, rather than a re-enactment of a fixed story.

4 Comments so far

  1. matt w on 5 Nov 2011

    There is or must be a consequence to your choices — I got a completely different ending scene, I think because I kissed the Ancient Mariner instead of John. (Something I wouldn’t have thought to do without the hints, but then I was relying on the hints virtually throughout. This game made me sympathize with the people who don’t understand games about baseball.)

    Did you find a different alternate solution? Because on its face that one didn’t seem any less evil than betraying John. I mean, nothing bad actually happens, but I didn’t see any way to predict that.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 5 Nov 2011

    Hm. I did manage to get rid of the mariner by other means — specifically, by giving him a honey bikkie to gum up his mouth and make him stop talking. But you can’t do that until Amos is around to bake the things, and I don’t think he gets back from the market until you’ve got the jug.

    The hints suggest that you can sic the mariner on the soldiers rather than the other way around, deliberately provoking the resolution you got accidentally.

  3. matt w on 5 Nov 2011

    Hm, I must have just overlooked that “tell mariner about soldiers” had the same effect as “kiss mariner,” though now that I check it that’s clearly stated in the hints. This is a pretty typical IF NPC interaction problem, I guess; unless you have a multiple-choice menu, it’s often pretty hard to see exactly what you’ll be doing when you do something to an NPC. I mean, it’s not obvious that “tell mariner about soldiers” means “get mariner to start telling his story to the soldiers,” yet it’s hard to see how the game might make it clearer. (Come to think of it, this probably extends to non-IF games where you’re trying to do something to NPCs that doesn’t involve shooting or stabbing them.)

    Good point about Anna. It wasn’t just that she was helpful (like the friend in Duel in the Snow; even after I realized that he’d set me up to be killed so he could run off with my wife, I was still grateful because he told me the verb that let me get rid of that damn thirst message), but I found her actively endearing anyway. She did have the “six randomly cycling messages for an action that gets done fifty times” problem, though.

  4. IFComp Reviews, Part 7 « Saucers of Mud on 17 Nov 2011

    […] because Anna is annoying, but I thought she was perfectly charming even aside from the fact that she helps me solve puzzles. There was sometimes an interaction issue in that it wasn’t clear exactly what telling […]

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