Abbess Otilia's Life and Death by A.B.

To begin with, I love the conceit of this game. It’s telling two stories or, I suppose, providing two experiences. First, there’s the story contained within the text itself, which is a series of vignettes from the life of a medieval nun. Second, and what I enjoyed the most, there’s the story conveyed by the medium - that is, the story (or experience) of a researcher taking an historical document out of a library and leafing through it.

I was a history minor in university and one of my hobbies is amateur genealogy; I know the joy of rifling through an archive and delving into an historical document. It’s obvious that this game was inspired by, and is a love-letter to, that type of research. It means to evoke the experience of reading primary source documents, and it succeeds in all the right ways. The marginalia were a particularly nice touch - I got the sense of a conversation taking place over centuries that good marginalia provide. The bookplate inside the cover and the archival provenance of the book also added to the illusion.

That said, I wanted more of this archival experience. I’m not certain what that would look like, exactly, but I know that it was a unique aspect of the game that twigged my particular interests. When I’m doing genealogical research, there’s often a moment when I find a small piece of information and everything just clicks together. The story of the person I’m researching suddenly makes sense. It’s a transcendent moment when it happens, and if that sort of revelatory discovery could have been included in this game, it would have been beautiful.

Another note about the way the game is presented: I very much enjoyed the ability to click passages and marginalia to receive a translation or a clear, easy-to-read passage of printed text. It mirrors the tedious process of translating manually or trying to decipher centuries-old handwriting without forcing the player to actually do it. It evokes difficult work while remaining transparent to play; it’s a good use of the medium. Again, though, I found myself wanting more. In particular, I found myself clicking on the musical passage and wondering why it didn’t play a midi rendition of the song. If you’re going to use the interactive nature of a game to emulate translation and the like, I say go the whole way and also emulate playing a long-dead tune found in a manuscript. If the goal is to make the manuscript transparent and, I suppose, “alive,” lean into it.

As to the textual story of the abbess, it’s interesting but not earth-shattering. Which is fine, since I got the impression that the meta-experience of archival research is the real point of the game. The story is choice-based, with later consequences flowing nicely from earlier decisions, both on the small scale (e.g. if you examine a water mill, you can describe how to build one later) and on the large scale (e.g. at the end of your life, if you’ve consistently been a compassionate person, you can successfully write a treatise on charity).

For the most part, it works. I usually felt that my choices were informed and had meaningful effects on the narrative. But only usually. On a few occasions, I did not feel that I was able to make informed choices (e.g. when choosing a successor as abbess, I did not find out the full details of familial connections until after I had made my decision) or the choice I made had consequences that I could not reasonably expect (e.g. asking the squire to play his lute leads to the abbess accompanying him on her recorder, opening a path to a scandalous romance; at no point is it suggested in the wording of this choice that the abbess will join the squire).

Also, on one occasion, the consequence of a decision simply does not make sense. In choosing my successor as abbess, if I choose Agnes, I am told that the steward will oppose my plan. He does so, and I am told my plan to install a successor of my choice has been thwarted. Instead another nun, more acceptable to the steward, is installed. That nun? Agnes. So instead of my plan to appoint Agnes, Agnes is appointed. That does not seem like a failure to me; my appointed successor becomes abbess. I suppose the author intended to say that my plan to appoint Agnes and fire the steward to maintain the balance between the families failed, with Agnes taking over and the steward staying on, but that’s not the impression I got from the text at all.

One final note regarding choice. At the very beginning of the game, the following is written:

I had hoped that this meant the choices presented in the game would not be “actual” choices, in the sense of the player changing the course of history by deciding what the abbess had actually done, but rather that the player would be changing what was recorded of that history by choosing what the author of the book wrote. That is, that the “actual” events of the abbess’ life would remain fixed no matter what the player chooses; it would merely be what is recorded of these events that would change. The player would be given the opportunity to decide what the author would focus on, and would thus be able to shape how the events of the story are presented.

For example, the first decision-point of the game requires the player to convince the other nuns to elect Otilia abbess. The player must choose either to explain how Otilia will devote herself to her duties as abbess, or to inform the other nuns that they have no choice but to elect Otilia, so they ought to get on with it. I had hoped that the “reality” of the situation was that the (soon-to-be) abbess had done both, and that the player’s choice was simply to decide which of these two equally truthful statements would be what the author of the book decided to record. Is the author presenting the abbess as pious and earnest, or is the author presenting the abbess as cold and shrewd, when the reality is somewhere in between?

This would have been an interesting commentary on the nature of firsthand accounts as necessarily biased (even if the bias is innocent - as the game itself says, choices of emphasis must be made) as well as on the necessity of reading more than one work to get the full, truest story of what happened (the game implies that the player needs to play the game more than once to uncover the whole story; changing how the author presents identical events in the abbess’ life would allow for the full, truest version of events to become clear after repeated play). Emphasis on these themes would also tie the textual story closer to the meta-textual experience of archival research, as real historical researchers must always be cognizant of bias in works and must always look to multiple sources.

Alas, this investigation of perspectives and biases is not what we get. Though the first choice in the game supports this interpretation, later choices do not. The player is in fact deciding what the abbess does, not how the author records those deeds.

Overall, though - and despite my quibbles and “I-wish-it-had-beens” - I did very much enjoy this game, in particular because it values and validates the experience of primary source historical research as being something of worth and interest. It’s not something that I’ve experienced in a game before, though it’s something that I’ve experienced a great deal - and enjoyed a great deal - in real life. If nothing else, the game is unique and makes this peculiar experience available to those who might not otherwise come across it.

(Oh, and I notice the author of this game is “A.B.” The book in the game is property of the National Library of France. “A.B.” would be pronounced “ah bey” in French… is this a pun on “abbey” or “abbaye”? One wonders…)

And now, apart from the review itself, a few exceptionally minor grammatical errors I came across. I played the original version of the game, and I notice it has been updated to correct grammatical errors, so I don’t know if these remain present in the current version.

On the first page of text beyond the bookplate inside the front cover: “Thus, she is invited to make their own contributions from their own memory of the events.” The pronouns do not match.

Also on the first page of text beyond the bookplate inside the front cover: “It would be impossible to list all events of a lifetime, even if short it may have been. Therefore it will be written only of those occasions most memorable in the story here told. The choice thus selected can, of course, never please all, but the reader will agree that choosing some selection can not be avoided altogether.” “can not” ought to be “cannot”

After scolding Ida for receiving a love letter: “I do not live the splendid live of an abbess.” The second “live” ought to be “life”

I’ve also posted a review at my own blog here.

@ifcomp - Oh, so beautiful, but my poor eyes are not worthy of the calligraphy. Meta margin notes are clickable, I wish I could click main text for a clearer font. I’d be proud to own this as a printed artifact.