IntroComp 2014: 'The Cuckold's Egg' by Veronica Devon (Daniel Ravipinto)

Even a casual glance at the implemented scenario in The Cuckold's Egg is enough to appreciate that the game contains both serious themes regarding religion and social justice as well as hardcore fantasy worldbuilding. It appears to wear its anti-religious sentiment on its sleeve; the fourth word in the opening text is the word “faith” used as a curse. This theme is integrated into the setting as the main concept around which the whole fantasy world seems to have been imagined – a world where belief can be literally manifested in some way, where in the face of mythological traditions humans have destroyed the gods by renouncing them.

It is clear that the worldbuilding is deeper than the history, the sectarian politics, and the metaphysical system seen in the introduction. However, the scale of the worldbuilding has little to do with the IntroComp entry being incomplete and more to do with the genre; even the most thorough high fantasy sagas in prose fiction leave gaps in their maps and histories. An organized movement called the Apostasy has swept across the land, demolishing spiritual beliefs and their resulting mythological phenomena while ushering in a new era of progress and equality within a new unified empire. The player character is an agent of some kind of intelligence order affiliated with the Apostasy or the empire, an organization called “the Brotherhood of Disbelief” by outsiders.

The complicated imagery this history of official atheism evokes allows for multiple layers of interpretation. There is the suggestion that the values of the Apostasy might not be thoroughly entrenched in the small rural village where the game takes place. In the fringes of the empire, people still remember the old ways. After one NPC learns that the player character is an agent of the Apostasy (if the player chooses to reveal that information), she begins to describe the location of the civic Hall of Records as “the old te--” cutting off the word “temple” in fear and shame of speaking it in the PC's hearing. The ancient religious symbols adorning the Hall of Records had been physically destroyed, as the scenery object's description indicates:
The arch's apex, as well as the towers at its corners, were broken off long ago, and the symbols that circled its walls have been carved away. It is a common enough and necessary sight - the conversion of such structures into approved shapes, the roods which graced them long since destroyed.
Rood can be another word for a crucifix, as in literature. The use of the word strongly suggests the destruction of churches, despite the fact that the defunct religion is clearly not a real-world historical faith. This profound moment, unavoidable in any complete playthrough, evokes the conquest of Western Christianity by rationalism.

The layers of implication drawn from this imagery can be subtle, while in other ways the game's themes can be as direct as a punch in the face. Significant to both the subtle imagery and the direct tone is the fact that the Apostasy is actually very much like historic Christianity both in its organization and in its mission.

The player's most valuable object is the traditional text adventure encyclopedia that can be consulted on just about any topic. (Not as many topics are implemented as experienced IF players might like, but the ones that are implemented all produce interesting and rewarding messages.) The definition given for “Apostasy” could almost as easily describe the historic Church:
You know the party line of history well enough: of the rising of the meek to their inheritance, the joining of the forgotten and the downtrodden to lay low the mighty. You also know the reality behind the slogans: the uncertainties, the internecine conflicts, the inevitable fragmentation and factionalization.
It seems unlikely that the concept of the meek and the downtrodden claiming an “inheritence” and “laying low the mighty” could not be referring to the traditional Christian rhetoric stemming from the Sermon on the Mount. The acknowledgment of internal debate and sectarian conflict parallels the Church's experience.

The creed of the Brotherhood of Disbelief could almost have been lifted from evangelical Bible class: “The world deceives. The world wishes to be deceived. The truth against the world.” Like the player character, I was indoctrinated with the teaching that truth is foreign to the world and that the world is hostile to truth. I was also encouraged to think of myself as an agent of truth sent to a world willingly embracing falsehood. Though doubtless worthy as an intangible value, I find that this kind of dualistic disconnect between truth and the world of real experiences leads to a strong sense of artificiality.

In fact, artificiality might be one of the more subtle themes raised by the details in the text. The entry in The Book of Lies for the Brotherhood of Disbelief explains why that isn't actually its name:
...disbelief implicity  acknowledges that which it denies. The ideas put forth by this given name are as false and ultimately invalid as those contained within the word Apostasy.

[…]

For we stand as we are, regardless of the words used to define us.

 This premise seems to depict a natural and confident atheism, one not troubled with defining itself against religion due to being more intrinsic and basic than the religions it supplanted. I was shocked to receive the parser's default unrecognized verb response when I entered the command “PRAY,” expecting some diatribe against the audacity of prayer from the player character's voice. Religion is so central to the theme that the absence of any implemented response to the command feels tangible, whether or not intentional. However, the lack of implementation actually meshes with the explicit atheism more strongly than any kind of denouncement or explanation of the impossibility of prayer.

This depiction is challenged by the game's fixation with the concept of religious symbolism. The old temple was defaced to eradicate symbols. Later on, we hear more about “roods and stones and stars and beasts” in a context that may hold potential to extend some sympathy toward beliefs in light of the death of gods. I might be reading my perspective into the text, but the forced removal of the symbols from the old temple seems to have a sad cast. Contrasted with the defaced symbols of old, the Apostasy uses only a crude circle.

I imagine that from an atheist perspective, making the Apostasy parallel to the Christian Church is highly cynical. The narrative seems to be implying that organized atheism can be harmful and oppressive, even if not as much so as organized religion. Despite this potential critique of atheism, there is little evidence that the frequent allusions – or potential allusions – to Christian dogma and rhetoric in the dogma of the Apostasy are anything but a subversive rejection of religion's claim to virtue and to the pursuit of truth. Therefore, the theme of the game can be interpreted as both anti-theist and anti-radical-atheist.

This is reinforced by the most interesting element of gameplay – the game keeps track of the player's decisions either to relate to people as a common stranger or to demand service by announcing the PC's position as an agent of the Apostasy. If the PC intimidates people with the might of the Apostasy to get what he needs, he is later chastised for using “brute-force." At one point, playing as the typical kleptomaniac adventurer causes an NPC to express disappointment in the behavior of a member of the Brotherhood. This seems to be implying that wielding unbelief antagonistically against common people is beneath the dignity of good secular humanists.

Perhaps the greatest mechanical weakness of the game is that it really isn't harder to advance through the story by negotiating than by intimidating. There is probably never a point where the player is likely to want to proceed by negotiation but feels tempted to intimidate in order to get by. Still, puzzles do not feel like a core part of the experience even though the game features a fully implemented parser with a reasonable level of detail in the world model. The conversations are navigable and interactive despite using a relatively straightforward version of the traditional ASK/TELL model.

After briefly researching the definition and etymology of the word cuckold, I translate the title as “the progeny of the spouse of the unfaithful one.” The concept of infidelity in the act of adultery combines with the concept of bastard inherent in the etymological origin of the bird laying its egg in the nest of another. I know what it's like to desperately hold on to a bastard egg, refusing to acknowledge that it doesn't fit the nest and that it is not the honest fruit of my life. I don't know where the full version of The Cuckold's Egg will go with the concept of the truth against the world, but I try to believe in truth above the world, truth that can be real even in my unremarkable experience.

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