Review #5: Faeries of Haelstowne by Christopher Merriner
“They’re a funny lot over in those parts. Superstitious. Someone’s hiding something; don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.” The English countryside, where something always seems to be lurking. Wander far enough afield and you find wicker men burning. The thin facade of modernity breaks down as the first “roundbarrow” emerges from the South Downs mist, the lands become primeval, its inhabitants tied to the earth in mercurial rhythms you have never learned in your airy palaces of dissociative steel. You encounter these worlds as did the first Romans, from whom the outlandish stories of wicker men are derived. You are an outlander; in these people, who were sufficient without your existence, who intend to remain so, you encounter your presence as a stranger thing.
It can be easy, of course, for us to act like the Romans, or those descended from the third Troy, and fear the other, be convinced of their attachment to the past as a malevolence towards the present, as many of these stories do, from The Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz, yet Merriner, with vulpine cunning, twists the story into something more thoughtful, less judgmental. First, Arthur internalizes this disjunction rather than phobically externalize it: we see him entering the village with the sneer of modernity: “He drove through, enjoying the gawping of the villagers (whom he assumed, rather condescendingly, weren’t used to seeing such a fashionable motor vehicle)”, yet over the course of the game his self satisfied bleeding edginess must be worn down, through the encounter with the supernatural inexplicable to his certainties, to realize how much he doesn’t know, how much he needs to learn from the locals. Tellingly, it’s this very point of arrogance, his pride in his car, that receives a due comeuppance: Arthur needs to travel around by bicycle, but it’s slightly busted, so he has to sheepishly ask the groundskeeper to do a trivial repair for him. It becomes rather apparent that Arthur, rather than parading hotshot hauteur to the awe of the locals, is a bit of a bumbler, with his desperate attempt to meld in with the locals in the pub proving sufficiently disastrous to dredge up your own suppressed memories of extreme social maladroitness. If Arthur wants to succeed on his quest, he must first surrender his superiority, seek humbly the wisdoms he has lost. Second, rather than the English officer of the law coming into town to suppress anything that cavorts a bit too Celtic, we get a story of a vicar whose new age appropriations have caused havoc, forcing Arthur to work with a local folk healer to reset the spells of old. This story is a celebration of traditions and cultures in a world beset by the whirlwinds of modernization, and we come to appreciate the elaborate histories which help Haelstowne cohere.
Haelstowne, both Nether and Old, the villages in which the vicarage resides, are patchworks of time, redolent with the scars and marks of eras that have swept through this place in the centuries it has through plague, famine, and war persisted. The vicarage, like the pub, like the church, like every building still mustering the courage to stand, contains the bones of predecessors: “The dining room was a scarred remnant of the oldest vicarage, variously modified, maltreated and improved by succesive [sic] owners over the centuries.” In even the most incidental details, the past suddenly rears up and looms over us, as when we’re told the kitchen table is “a heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak.” The kitchen table is, in its own way, the grave of an old way.
If the small details remind us of the whole they once constituted, then the largest structures find themselves divided, a mosaic of moments of making and breaking. The pub is almost a bulwark against the temporal waves that batter it: “The Myrour, like many a village inn, had dug in its heels and refused to budge when each new century threatened to drag it forward in the name of progress. Consequently, the interior had changed little since the 1600s.” The church retains its pride of lineage though it lies scarred and vulnerable, with high and late medieval woodwork and pews and early modern graves and Puritan effacements and some Victorian shutters and a noticeboard with the stories of a life still ongoing. Even the names, St Wilfrid’s, a saint venerated for converting Sussex to Christianity, at Haelstowne, which derives from Aelfstow, or elf-place, point to histories which still hang over this place, which play out in the present with a vicar embroiled with the Faery Queen.
The 1920s setting gives this temporal tension a heightened relevancy. We’re in a period where people are, after the twentieth century’s first great crisis of transformation, trying to blink their way back into an Edwardian mode that just doesn’t fit anymore. The culture feels like it doesn’t know how to either move forward or backward. Merriner’s writing helps sell this disjunction with evocative dialogue and a careful recognition of the social tensions of the period, especially deft in the deployment of a lively juxtaposition of characters. We see the confliction appear in Edna, our surly housekeeper who seems to resent us more with each day our irruption fails to dissolve, trying to impose herself as a chaperone on our seance with Ottoline, whom we meet as such: “A tall, striking woman with rather sharp features and dark hair wrapped up in a silk turban. She wore pantaloons and a jacket and blouse in a style that Arthur, having little experience of such things, assumed was rather fashionable.” We also get a veterinarian who has both country pragmatism (she’s got a gun cabinet) and modern flair (she rides a motorbike, and indeed her derring-do rather reminds me of George Mallory riding a motorcycle up Snowdonia), with a long history in the region (her ancestors are the Molyneux). This attempt at keeping up foiled by a historical pace that defies keeping up fills this game with nuance that makes its setting feel crucial and considered: a line like “a rather grand shopfront in that distinctively showy turn of the century style that now, three decades later, seemed rather passe” seems especially poignant given the period.
That enchantment with the processes of time creates an interesting parallel with two of the more intriguing puzzles: developing photos and casting a spell. Both puzzles are veritable immersions in the rhythms of the past, forcing us to look around ourselves with new eyes. We find a late Victorian or Edwardian camera, and we find two sets of instructions, and we have to literally follow the book to carefully step by step take a photo, develop it, and print it. This is a game that wants you to wind the camera, to unspool the film, to immerse it in fixer, to wash it, to hang it to dry, to press a negative to print it. Whereas most games might handwave the process of taking a picture, here you are reminded of what taking a picture is like, what it means, how it used to be a complex intention, nearly a mystical ritual intended to capture the sun. Merriner emphasizes the magical undertone of early photography with a catching line: “Nothing was visibly different but the air felt suddenly charged, the shadows cast by the wavering candle flame seemed vividly alive and Arthur had a strong sense of presence. Something caught his eye: a movement, it seemed within the very surface of the film strip itself. Impossible.” A photograph is a tool intended to capture presence, that impossible elusion, and Arthur marvels at the spell he’s cast, one as profound and arcane as capturing gossip in a bottle. If the first chapter forces us to encounter the magic of technology as a physical immersion in the impossible, the last chapter allows us to revel in how that physicality leaves us more grounded and human, with Arthur having to pull together the ingredients and the energies of the world around him to meticulously step by step brew a potion and cast a spell. Thus, the game is bookended with two intricate enmeshments with the natural world, one Victorian, one early modern but rooted in the ancient, both of which require our protagonist to learn from books the secret rites of a magic past.
The game’s obsession with the tactile allows us to viscerally inhabit a space that, with its openworld and somewhat modular design, invites us to slow down, notice the little things, seek out what’s hidden just beneath the surface, if only we will care about it, if only we can see the stories interwoven with the land. I wish the game was a bit more thorough in describing its incidental scenery, since I think that would have played well into its strengths and themes. It seems a little disjointed for a game that wants you to examine the little things, like the ivy or the shrubs, usually responds to examinations of even quite significant scenery details with an “Arthur saw nothing particular noteworthy” message. This makes the experience very gamey, with you not trying to experience the space, but instead merely pixelhunting for items. I was shocked, for instance, when I needed to examine a church which was listed only as a directional heading, whereas in a different game that’s exactly the sort of meandering action I might have done.
A similar issue that prevents the exploration and puzzlesolving from feeling fully grounded is how wobbly the systems are. Often the parser is, where not finicky, persnickety. The game tries to get you to adopt a formalized logic particular to this game, where for instance you might drop an item instead of using it, which is fine enough, except that again it undercuts itself by sometimes forgoing its own logic. One puzzle, which is clever on paper, falters in practice: you need to put a chair under a doorknob to prevent Edna from interrupting your seance, but solving it necessitates the use of precisely the kind of complex command construction (WEDGE CHAIR UNDER DOOR HANDLE) that we’ve been discouraged from using in similar puzzles, like ascending the recess to open the window. Similarly, for the whole game we’ve been instructed to POUR [liquid] INTO [container], yet when you need to empty the witch’s bottle in the sink, you need to EMPTY WITCH’S BOTTLE, which was frustrating. Some other concerns, like custom verbs that could really have used some more synonyms or some more forceful cluing (one tries many constructions before managing to GOUGE PLASTER or PRISE FRAGMENT or STANCH WOUND), contribute to a constant sense of uneasiness, like visiting your aunt who has wrapped her sofa in plastic and who insists on meticulous tea decorum: no matter how lively or lovely the conversation, you’re never allowed to become comfortable and enjoy yourself. I wasn’t surprised when, struggling with the spell, I suddenly realized that instead of trying to stir the brew counterclockwise, I really ought to be stirring the brew widdershins. What a faux pas! Such a mishap falls straight from the pages of Henry James!
Moreover, the game stutters several times with bugs (or at least pseudobugs) that emphasize the wonkiness of the parser. During the development of the photographs, I once got a false positive on hanging the negatives, and so I was confused as to why I had suddenly been gated from progress; many thanks to the patience of Mike Russo, who guided me through several muddles. Some of the bugs are quite silly however, as when I TOOK ALL at the village pub and got Jarbell and Customers. Who says Arthur can’t make friends? Except then I took Jarbell down into the pub cellar, only for him to merrily reset the keg I was holding, which held my completed brew. So I got locked into a state that would have required tedious replaying, and might even prove unwinnable, had I not immediately reloaded a save. So um, that’s the last time I’m putting you in my pocket, Mr Jarbell! Load of good you’ve done me, and after the turn I’ve done you, rescuing Ash!
Despite some annoyances, you’re pulled through the game by the clear and compelling writing, which seems descendant from Charles Williams, with its fanciful thriller thrust modulated by a wry and dry English manner. Faeries of Haelstowne can be quite witty, with evocative characters unflinchingly hitting the right notes, some of which really sing, as in these two exchanges: first, between Ottoline and Arthur: ““Anyway,” she continued, “the fact is, I fell in love.” / Arthur began reflexively to say “I’m sorry” but managed to stop himself by sipping tea.”; second, between Peldash and Ottoline: ““So I … learned the rites both of summoning, and of banishing – for I was not so reckless as to take no precautions at all. Then I went to the wood and performed the ceremony.” / “And then,” said Ottoline, “all hell broke loose?” / “Ahem. Quite.” Peldash looked apologetic.” Merriner has a humor that, while never stepping out uninvited from the evocation of era, nevertheless runs through the game, occasionally with a mischievous panache, as when we examine the shovel: “It knew its place in life and desired to nothing greater.”
While the game lacks Williams’ supernatural flights of intensity, Merriner does supply us with a clarity and efficiency that makes its dramatic setpieces sparkle like clean brook water, as in these two stormy passages which further emphasize the parallel between the photography magic and the spell magic: first, after successfully developing the photos: “Arthur felt a sudden violent change in the atmosphere, like air rushing in to fill a vacuum. Whatever invisible bubble it was that had sealed off The Vicarage from the outside world shattered, the sense of neutrality and calm evaporated, and the air was suddenly prickling and alive with things unseen. Arthur looked at the images on the contact sheet and saw things moving, impossibly but undeniably, beneath the photographic emulsion. He felt the dead hand of terror close around his heart, every hair stood upright and for a few moment [sic] he remained rooted to the spot. And then, thankfully, the fear abated, the charge in the atmosphere faded and the pressure lessened as though an equilibrium had been reached.”; second, after successfully casting the spell in the grove: “Above the roar of the wind, he heard a tumult of voices, high and inhuman, shrieking in fear and rage and growing ever closer as though drawn against their will. From between the trees came faeries, kicking and screaming, clinging on wherever they could to try and resist the invisible force pulling them towards the grove. Arthur cried out in terror as the first of them appeared, hurtling towards him before being sucked into the keg; presently, the grove was filled with hundreds of faeries, rushing onwards to meet the same feet. The wind grew yet stronger, the tortured cries louder as the faeries were drawn back into their own world. Arthur could stand it no longer; he closed his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears, praying that it would stop. And abruptly, it did.” Both scenes employ a strange vacuum effect with clinical precision, with the writerly eye unfolding its theatrics with a studied organization. One would not be surprised to hear that Merriner has had experience as a technical writer, that logicality of progression and smoothness of development reigns the aspect for most of the largely “correct” writing.
That writing carries us along on our deepening mystery into a world replete with mystery and magic, with answers that cohere nicely with the wider contours of the work. I especially enjoyed the climax, where the Faery Queen (about whom Peldash warns me needlessly, having shared with Woolf the self destructive tendency to read it) rides anew into the restored medieval village, time threatening to rip this place asunder forever. The game thrums its engine into final gear for a racing finale, with us desperately dueling the Faery Queen, rescuing ourselves from the fate foretold in the tapestries of transformations into wild beasts (Peldash was briefly turned into a newt, but I am pleased to inform you he got better). We unleash our final foray of ancient magic, and out comes the healer of old, Richard Travais, who undoes the vicar’s meddling and reforces the wards, sealing the faeries afresh. We have learned the ways of the wold, and in so doing, have learned how to stray from the world’s gauntlet savage. In an epilogue, Arthur returns to the town in the 1940s, where the roads, which once “would have resounded with the ring of horses’ hooves, the rumble of carriage wheels and the voices of those travelling on foot” are now pockmarked with pillboxes and hedged with garages, and yet “how little changed this part of the country seemed.” Like with every age to have come and gone before, Haelstowne holds on, secure in its ways, rich with its secrets, ever yet the home of “the immortal Crackers, still perched within his iron cage.”
In its carefulness, patience, and roundedness, Faeries of Haelstowne achieves with dashing faculty a compelling conceit of interactive fiction: that we can, if we can just immerse ourselves in a place, come to understand it, live through it, make sense of the strangeness that surrounds us. A game of ambition written in the nostalgic Adventuron system, Faeries of Haelstowne leans towards the past, teaches us to cherish its hidden enigmas and specificities, yet with a clear eye towards the future, how we might yet innovate new ways of knowing, new gifts to bestow upon the altar of the cathedrals of time.