IFComp 2020: Minor Arcana

IFComp 2020: Minor Arcana

arcana

Minor Arcana is a Twine game by Jack Sanderson Thwaite. (Spoilers follow.)

The protagonist is a sentient deck of tarot cards, given life by a masked figure whose identity is never revealed. One of the cards is lost and gains a corporeal form, seeking revenge on the protagonist for a reason that’s not entirely clear, though there’s likely some relation to the dark magic that was used to make the protagonist sentient in the first place. Soon after, the masked figure dies, and the protagonist falls into the hands of another sleazy owner who imprisons the protagonist and forces them to cooperate in the tarot readings they do for customers, in which the protagonist is forced, simultaneously, to act as an agent and a sitting duck in the fateful events to come for the customers. After each reading, the protagonist senses a certain moaning sound in the tent, which goes away before they can fully register it. (This summary continues in the next paragraph.)

Two readings later, a customer arrives whom the protagonist senses is their means of salvation. They therefore use a special card within them to break free of the confines of their prison, successfully escaping with this customer. Through a machine of the customer that puts the protagonist in a trance-like state, the protagonist relives their history and eventually reveals that their enemy, the card given corporeal form, was responsible for the aforementioned moaning sound, and turned up after each tarot reading to renew their curse on the protagonist that dooms anyone interacting with them to a terrible fate. This effectively means that the game is a transcript of the words of the protagonist, who has been in the hands of the customer for the entirety of the game. It’s only during the second and third time the customer uses their machine that they prompt the protagonist with questions, likely because they didn’t want to interrupt the protagonist’s thoughts. As for why the protagonist only came clean the third time, I can only speculate that it’s because they are evil, and felt a need to halt their deceptiveness because they ultimately felt bad about taking advantage of the customer’s kindness. This is supported by the protagonist’s apology at the end, which I believe is sincere.

Furthermore, if I understand correctly, the final line, “AND SO BE IT”, recontextualises the story once more: the player is the customer to which this line is addressed, and the game is the machine by which the player/customer communicates with the protagonist. In other words, the player/customer is now cursed. But if this is true, why does the player play in the perspective of the protagonist and not the customer? (Or is this an oversight?)

I’m not familiar with tarot, but according to this site, “the cards are never pulled at random” in a true tarot reading, with each card guided by the user’s “energy” and “unseen helpers” to a “carefully selected space”. What I think this means is that the user doesn’t actually have any influence over the cards they select, which are consciously dictated by forces beyond their senses. If this is correct, the choice of cards presented to the player throughout the game raises the question of whether there is really a choice at all. The game makes this question explicit when it asks “How much control do you truly have? What is there beyond the limit of your sight?”. Indeed, the single-mindedness of the customers, who see only what they want to see, seems to emphasise that the protagonist is merely a passive observer with no agency over the events they foresee, nor the customers’ interpretations of those events, nor their decision to act on those interpretations. Additionally, it’s possible, as mentioned, that the protagonist doesn’t have the agency to choose the cards themselves, or even to choose their observation of the events that follow. No matter how brutal the fate of their customer, the protagonist is forced to watch it unfold in stark, objective detail.

The issue of agency is made more complex by its double-sided nature. On one hand, not having agency means you are powerless, an object of forces beyond your control, forced to obey their every whim, no matter how cruel. On the other hand, having agency means you are responsible for not just what you do, but what you choose not to do, since if you have the ability to influence the turn of events, both action and inaction can be traced to a conscious decision on your part, and by extension, to you. The cynicism of the narrator, who is likely the voice in the protagonist’s head, is very clear here — on both ends, when the choice of the protagonist leads to some undesirable outcome, the narrator is quick to mock the protagonist, be it for their powerlessness (“How much control do you truly have? What is there beyond the limit of your sight?”) or for their irresponsibility (“You favoured this choice, encouraged it even. Didn’t you? Does that make you in some way responsible?”).

At the same time, the issue of agency is undermined by the justification provided for the fate of the customers, namely that the protagonist is cursed. It initially seems that the customers are doomed because they aren’t open, or open enough, to the truth, but we learn later that they are doomed because they are contaminated with a curse that spreads via interaction with the protagonist. This invalidates the questions in the previous paragraph, which imply that the protagonist doesn’t know that they don’t have any agency (since if they knew, there would be no point asking those questions). It’s possible to argue that the protagonist is merely pretending to be ignorant of the fact that they never had any agency all along, so as to fool the player/customer, but this effectively means that the issue of agency, the complexity of which the game dedicated a considerable amount of time and space developing, remains unresolved. I think this is why I’m unsatisfied with the ending — the lack of agency of the protagonist is a possible resolution to the story, yes, with some relevance to the question of whether the protagonist should be blamed, but it does not address the central question posed earlier, namely how to reconcile the two sides of agency (if the above view is a cynical one, what’s the ‘normal’ way of interpreting it?). The fact that the protagonist doesn’t have agency is particularly counterintuitive since it’s not reflective of reality, in which we are in control of our actions, or at least have more agency than the protagonist. The justification of the curse is somewhat problematic in this regard: it’s a mystical explanation that forms the basis for the entire story, and that comes at the end of the story. This gave me an impression of deus ex machina. If instead the curse had been more specific somehow, explaining detailed parts of the customers’ fates rather than the whole thing, it might have been more compelling.

Of course, all of this is based on my understanding of the plot, which could be completely wrong. It’s definitely to the game’s credit that it provoked so many thoughts in me (this review is over a thousand words long), which I really like. I also admire the conciseness of the writing, which I could always understand even if I didn’t agree with its direction. The UI, as well, is commendable: the text is light, legible, and set with wide margins, making it very readable. There is even a feature that allows the player to skip the text delays, which is extremely thoughtful.

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Black sesame. Dark, digestible and diligently made, but I wish it was more consistent.

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