[IF Comp 2013] "Their Angelic Understanding" by porpentine

The Interactive Fiction Competition is back! Spoilers behind the break.

Their Angelic Understanding is a complex work that encompasses both choice-based narrative and typographical interactive poetry, while telling the story of a woman who has been hurt and is now seeking to regain herself. My reaction towards it is highly ambivalent, but the piece is certainly worth checking out.

I haven't been following the CYOA scene very closely. Indeed, I'm not even sure what to call that scene, or if there even exists a coherent body of people. Nevertheless, I assume that Their Angelic Understanding stands at the forefront of current experimentation. The only form of interaction it features (with one very small exception) is clicking on highlighted words; but porpentine does so many different things with this seemingly simple mechanic that it almost boggles the mind.

This is also where my ambivalence begins. Some of the things she does are extremely effective; others don't work very well. There are, for instance, too many moments when you are just clicking on what is effectively a "continue" link. There also are several sequences, like the one at the very beginning or the one in the house with the hands, where the player is exploring and interacting with a physical environment. This is something which parser-based IF is very good at, but which feels forced and unnatural in CYOA-style games. Perhaps most specific to Their Angelic Understanding, and also most bothering, are the situations where the player has to choose one of several highly abstract poetical phrases -- and has to do that not just without knowing what her choices will lead to, but even without the context needed to make much sense of the phrases themselves.

But for every moment where the interactivity falls flat, there is another moment that impresses me by its creativity. "Everything is going to be just fine," the screen reads, and the "u" is clickable. Click it, and another "u" appears; which can be clicked again; and after a while there's the phrase "Everything is going to be juuuuuust fine". The protagonist's unsuccessful attempt at self-reassurance couldn't be clearer.

(I'm not sure that was the exact phrase, and I don't have a transcript of the game. But it was something like that.)

That's a small thing, sure, but there were many of these small things, and they helped to strengthen my conviction that this medium is powerful. For that alone, Their Angelic Understanding is worth playing.

The substance of the game is the highly abstract, highly poetical, highly symbolic attempt of a scarred woman to break out of her retreat into an emptiness and isolation. She has been hurt by 'an angel,' and much of the game consists in the search for this angel; though the real confrontation is one with the human being whose actions and inactions were the real source of the protagonist's pain.

Here, again, I am ambivalent. A perfect example to illustrate my feelings is something that happens at the beginning of the game: the protagonist opens a cabinet in the monastery’s cellar to get a bottle with her face in it. That's right, her face. Her nose is in there, her lips, and so on; and she has to drink the bitter drink to regain her features.

This is a great scene, because, well, there's a closet full of bottles containing faces! What a fresh, delightful and horrifying idea. But it is also a terrible scene, because its thematic meaning -- one first has to find the courage to be oneself before one can set out to confront one's fears -- is far too obvious and heavy-handed. Porpentine's symbols are great, but their meaning is not.

Before drinking from the bottle, the player can choose different descriptions for the features seen in it, thus customising her character. These descriptions are great: characterful, diverse, no-standard. But this choice is also thematically and structurally inappropriate. It doesn't fit the theme of the game, because that is all about dealing with the life you've been dealt; we humans precisely do not have the freedom to choose our own faces. Nor does it fit into the structure of the game, because, as far as I could determine, your choices here never come up again.

Perhaps the common theme here is that Their Angelic Understanding is very good when we focus on its elements, but loses much when we focus on the role those elements play in the whole of the game. The protagonist looks at the hoody she's been wearing, and the game asks us "Is this still you?" That feels like a deep question, one that's about defining and redefining yourself. But once we realise that this hoody has not been given any meaning through previous appearances, and will not be given any through future ones, we realise that it's not a deep question. Our choice doesn't create meaning, but merely the illusion of it.

For me, the game's most memorable moment was the tile playing scene near the end of the piece. I was horrified; I was elated; I clicked my choices while watching the screen through half-closed eyes. That was beautiful. The earlier scene with the dead angel? That was beautiful too. Here we feel the true power of porpentine's writing and imagination.

But do these scenes click into a whole that is as good as the parts? If my interpretations are correct, they do not. It's not just that some scenes seem to be there simply because they felt like good ideas, and are not meaningfully linked up with the rest of the tale. (Why don't the regrets that I burnt come back into the story? What is the house full of hands doing in the game, given that hands never return as a motif?) No, what I found most problematic was the way that the game's theme was finally resolved.

To remind ourselves: we are following a scarred woman. She starts wearing her own face and goes out into the world to confront her fears, which are embodied in the form of an angel. It turns out that those fears aren't real -- the angel crashes into the earth, dead, and the protagonist realises that it was never what happened to her that mattered, but the reaction of others. She then sets out to confront those others, or that other, which brings us to the horrible and beautiful tile game scene, where she proves that she is willing to confront others even if it means that she must drain herself as well. And then ...

... well, perhaps there are other endings. But my traversal of the piece ended when the protagonist realised that it doesn't matter whether other people love you, as long as you recognise and increase your own capacity for loving.

And here's my problem. If you write a work full of powerful symbols and poetry, a work where angels are agents of pain and casino's deal in blood rather than money, then you should not use those symbols and that poetry to convey dubious lessons straight from a self-help book. It's as if I'm reading a volume by Rilke, and it turns out that Rilke is acting as a ghost writer for dr. Phil.

"Face your fears, learn to trust in your own capacity for loving, and then everything will be all right!" No, it won't. One's capacity for loving does not remain untouched by others, as if all of us have an immutable core that cannot be tainted. Love is the opposite of invulnerability; it makes no sense to believe that my capacity to love cannot be harmed by my upbringing and the betrayals of those who ought to have loved me. It is possible to hurt people in such a way that their capacity to love will be forever imperfect.

That is a hard truth and a tragic truth; but what is poetry for if it is not for teaching us hard and tragic truths? Why did we invent angels, if it was not to hurt us?
[...] For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
Now, I may be reading Their Angelic Understanding in the wrong way, and I would be delighted to hear different interpretations. But as far as I can see, the piece uses what are often very powerful tools to convey a message that is quite superficial. This is my basic ambivalence. There is much to love here. But my joy is tarnished by the sense that behind the poet, dr. Phil is grinning at me.

My temporary rating is 8 out of 10. Perhaps that will go up later; because, don't get me wrong, this will probably be one of the best games in the competition. And yet, I cannot truly embrace it.


  1. There are three aspects of this work that refute any comparison with Dr. Phil.

    1. The self is formed in a plural form -- as they.
    2. These selves are formed not by taking the self as object of thought, or encountering self as an object of beauty, or through self-reflection, but by putting on a face to be seen by others.
    3. These one-selves are formed in the repeated experiences of mis-recognition by others and the process of dis-identification with one's self.
    4.The object the journey is justice for the complicit listener. And the appropriate end depends entirely on the player's understanding of what justice might be in each playing instance. Playing makes justice and justice is made in the playing.

    -- This game does not offer journey into a banal self-help orthodoxy. This could happen if a player filled the productive gaps in the text with the coherence of an equation like this: face=self=identity=self-love. If this happens, then the post-play, critical reading of the game repeats the formative processes of mis-recognition that produce the player-character as one-selves. As the PC wanders a future world in search of justice, so the game wanders through the pages of the web in a series of misrecognitions that may, or not, produce a just reading.

    A work that casts the words of war poet Rupert Brookes, "a radiance of wings," into a dystopian future where the search for justice requires a return to the city from a monastic retreat into facelessness, cannot be easily reduced to a rote Dr. Phil-istinism. If Rilke removed the divine, but kept the sublime, of an O so human angel, Porpentine exiles the sublime from the human realm and posits a process of selving-toward-unpredictable-justice that is radically social, external, contingent. radically, precisely because once the decision to "face" the world, makes one-selves perpetually contingent upon the responses, usually inaccurate, of others.


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