IF Comp 2013: 'Solarium' by Alan DeNiro

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Unlike most of my reviews, this one contains a spoilery addendum, which is marked.

Solarium is all about the arcane and the obtuse.  Its plot and themes reference Gnostic mysticism, while its interactivity demonstrates mechanics that clearly relate to the premise but remain confusing and distant.  My experience with this choice-based web game was slow, often bordering on tedious.  However, the game succeeded in making me feel unsettled, and both the premise and the implementation are interesting enough to sustain through the boring parts.

The story is an alternate history of a world ravaged by nuclear war.  Set primarily in a post-nuclear-apocalypse version of the 1950s, the story tells how disillusioned supernatural entities strive to destroy and to save the world, infiltrating cults and secret societies as they reincarnate through the ages.  Told through heavy use of flashbacks, the plot is difficult to follow, and I never really tried to piece it together.

Another narrative trick is that the first-person narrator refers to another character as “you.”  This technique would have had strong ramifications if Solarium were driven by parser commands rather than by hyperlinks.  Hypertext Twine games, usually lacking the state tracking of other choice-based IF, are already removed from the text adventure's convention of referring to the player character as “you,” since it's hard to justify calling the protagonist a “player character.”  A narrative technique that tweaked and perhaps blurred the distinctions between player character, non-player character, and narrator would be fascinating in parser IF, but I doubt a hypertext story could achieve anything like that.

Its other mechanics reinforce the feeling that Solarium might have been stronger as a parser-based IF game.  There is something like an inventory, but it is unclear exactly what physical relationship the inventory represents.  The game is structured around a screen from where most of the choices are unlocked.  You have to re-read this screen fairly frequently, creating tedium where a parser game might have created a sense of depth by revealing new secrets from familiar rooms.  Still, Solarium does make fairly good use of the browser and of the hyperlink as a unit of choice.

The decade of the 1950s was probably chosen for the setting because of the historical significance of the early Cold War era, which ties in to some threads of the messy plot.  However, it also might have been chosen partly because it was an era of greater religious observance than present.  The open Christianity of the members of the U.S. government is referenced with the implication that the antagonist was using their faith to manipulate their decisions.  The ancient Gnostic religion of Manichaeism is referenced.  Manichaeism and/or early pseudo-Christian Gnosticism seems to form the main premise for the story's universe, and the level of detail in the portrayal of Gnostic myth and mysticism is sufficiently high to impress a non-expert like me.

Solarium's themes, and to a lesser extent its writing and characterization, evoke the outstanding parser games All Hope Abandon and Jigsaw (but I should note that I never completed Jigsaw).  Importantly, All Hope Abandon, Jigsaw, and Solarium all include meaningful romantic subplots.  Although Solarium is far behind those intricate, mystical adventures, it seems like a strong attempt to use some of the elements that made those games great in a Twine production.

(Spoilers beyond this point.)

As a spoilery addendum, I want to point out what appears to me to be a very clever use of religious themes.

As a Christian, I often get skeptical when a work seems to be making pointed use of Christian iconography, wary that the work might be simplistically bashing faith and/or Christianity without truly exploring either subject.  I hope that I'm always willing to be proven wrong about my skepticism of a work's genuine intent.  I also admit that some works that really do have overtly anti-religious or anti-Christian themes are not simplistic, although if they really do address their themes well enough, I find that I can agree with the journey while disregarding the message.

This is relevant to Solarium because an earlier passage seemed to subvert Christianity by suggesting that Christ was the devil, or at least the “archon,” the evil entity responsible for nuking the world:
He kept trying to be what he thought of his father: a bull god in the Urals for a few hundred years, a leader of a white badger cult in Wales (don't bother trying to look for it; you won't find it) for another hundred.

This archon's father is evidently the absentee Creator of the story's universe, so the parallel to Christianity looks pretty strong.  I thought this passage may have been suggesting that one of fanatical spirit's many incarnations was probably Jesus, who created yet another father-cult.

That interpretation is falsified by a later revelation:

I see you at Calvary, as they pierced your side and the blood and water gushed out, hoping beyond hope that The One would pay attention, this time, only It didn't and you died and people kept suffering.

So, the religion-professor-love-interest was really Jesus, not the archon.  While the literal premise is hardly less blasphemous from the perspective of orthodox theology, I wonder if the story deliberately played up the simplistically anti-Christian “devil-as-Jesus” theme, only to intentionally subvert it by replacing it with this less disrespectful alternative.

Is that character ever named?  I can't remember, but I don't think so, playing into a sense of divine mystery.  Making her an explicit Christ-figure actually is a fairly good thematic beat.  It turns dual-personality narrative, with this character as the second-person addressee, into a sort of "sacred Thou" narrative.

When I say the thematic usage was “good,” I don't mean morally good, not from my morality or theology.  I still think the story may have been intended to subvert some Christian themes.  Even if not, the clearest message of the work is anti-religious, a rejection of sentiment expressed popularly in The X-Files – “I WANT TO BELIEVE.”  The archon just wanted to believe, as did the American politicians who caused the nuclear apocalypse, but the Creator had abandoned them, and their faith was destructive.  In fact, this reading almost turns the narrator and the supporting character into noble apostates, finally giving up on the struggle to find spiritual insight.

I'm probably reading too much into these themes, but at any rate, I appreciate Solarium despite my disagreement.  It didn't use the bad-will offensive thematic technique against my faith, and for the rest, I'm along for the journey.  If the mudslinging anti-Christian theme was deliberately suggested and subverted, then that is just plain clever.


  1. hi there, delurking now that the Comp is over. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I really appreciate it. I wrote a long piece on making Solarium over at my own blog, and might address some of the things that you talked about.
    All the best, Alan

  2. Oh and I should note that my notes and response weren't directed personally toward any one person but rather more of an opportunity to think more broadly about writing a story one way rather than the other. The quality of the reviews such as your own are one of the hallmarks of this community in that they provoke good questions. Until later! Alan


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