The Muse, by Xavier Carrascosa
(In what follows, I thoroughly spoil this game, because I don’t think there’s any other meaningful way to discuss it. Ordinarily I’d say that if you’re interested in the thing, you should probably go off and play it on your own, experiencing it the way the author intended, before coming back to read what I wrote. This time, though, I have qualms about that recommendation – but even saying why I have qualms might obviate the whole point of this non-spoilery introduction. I guess I’ll just say that I have a significant objection to a major part of how The Muse engages the player, and while it’s a well-crafted game that’s self-consciously addressing moral questions, in my view it’s not sufficiently well-crafted or sufficiently sophisticated to clearly overcome that objection).
2005 was a while ago, though I fancy I remember it reasonably well. I was 24, finishing my 1L year. I saw my second, third, fourth, and fifth Mountain Goats concerts, including a secret Halloween show at the Knitting Factory – the venue schedule listed the band playing that night as the Hospital Bombers, but I recognized the in-joke and bought my tickets in advance. A solid 40% of my personality was hating the Bush Administration for enshrining torture in U.S. policy (it’s down to about 5% these days). Vespers won that year’s IF Comp; I reviewed it enthusiastically. As I recall, both player and NPCs get up to some rather heinous deeds in Vespers, and there wasn’t a content warning in sight, inasmuch as content warnings weren’t yet a thing. I don’t remember the absence bothering me (I already said I was 24).
The Muse is an English reimplementation of the Spanish-language original, La Musa, released in 2005. It contains no specific content warnings, though it does note it’s not suitable for children and may offend the sensibilities of some players; it’s right.
The game doesn’t do much to explain itself – it’s clearly one of those allegorical games short on specifics but long on associations. You’re in the dark, with a book, a bloody pen, a woman; you can examine everything you see, including yourself, but it doesn’t provide much illumination. Or rather, the muse does: “she emanates a reddish evil light that envelops your being and your book, impregnating the pages with blood.” However handy she’d be in a darkroom, she’s not much of a conversationalist – all she does is exhort you to write. The parser lets you decide what word or words to put down in the book, then when you look at her again, you’re thrust into a different environment – happily, it’s bucolic this time, and all you are required to do (or can do) is relax and rest.
Then you’re back in the dark with the girl and the book, and the process repeats. The gameplay of each scenario remains the same – it’s basically a guess-the-verb thing, you need to puzzle out the appropriate action to bring each to an end – but they grow darker in turn. You gorge yourself while watching a starving prisoner despair, you kill a soldier begging for mercy, with the muse’s voice coming in from off-stage to egg you on. In between the cycles, you write about whatever you want, the muse’s bit getting staler with each repetition.
The fourth vignette shunts you into a boudoir, where a naked woman is combing her hair. She’s also not much of a talker – if you compliment her on her hair, she says thank you, and if you tell her to stop brushing it (your only other option), she simply stands still. Unlike the other sequences which clearly prompted an action in need of completion, this one seemed more static. I tried taking the hairbrush, I tried breaking the mirror, I tried combing my own hair. This time, when the muse’s voice came in, it said “What are you going to do? What should you do?”
At this point I realized two or three things near-simultaneously:
- Each of these little scenarios was dramatizing one of the seven deadly sins; I’d worked through sloth, gluttony, and wrath.
1.5. Oh, I’m probably dead and in hell, aren’t I?
- This game was really going to make me type RAPE WOMAN to progress.
The woman’s clearly a fictional construct; she’s got no agency, and has only a limited range of robotic responses to your behavior. Given point 1.5, and the way the characters in each of the other scenes seemed to poof into existence from nowhere when I showed up, as if they were created just to torment me with their little tableaux, and presumably returned to that same nothingness when I left, it’s an open question whether within the fictional world of the game she’s even meant to be a real person with subjective experience, or just a demonic illusion.
I walked away from the game for ten minutes, and when I got back, I typed it.
It’s over in a sentence, and of course there’s no detail, no panting, prurient narration to fog up the moral allegory. I went back to Limbo, and this time when prompted to write something in the book, I wrote about lust, and the game nodded its approval: the muse “understands that you now know you are doing penance and she is really your jailer. But smile anyway, because you are by her side and you still love her.”
I played through the rest of the game after that, three more sins. Pride is a fun one, you need to complete a bloody ritual, which involves some improvising with an altar and a blood sacrifice. Number seven is Envy and spells out what I’d guessed by this point: you’re Cain, the muse is Lilith (running with the tradition where she’s his lover and not his step-mom, I hope), it’s all punishment for killing Abel out of jealousy. Then the cycle repeats, because of course it does – but there’s also a way out, because of course there is, though the implementation wasn’t robust enough for REPENT or BEG FORGIVENESS to do the business. God’s forgiveness allows you to rest peacefully, though too bad for Lilith, “beautiful and wicked,” crying as you abandon her.
In 2005 MeToo hadn’t happened yet. If you’d asked me my favorite novels, I’d have probably listed Atonement (there’s a rape), Demons (there’s a rape), Ulysses (no rape so far as I can tell but not 100% certain). The way interactive fiction can make the player complicit in evil was still something of a novelty. Sam Alito joined the Supreme Court.
The Muse isn’t an irresponsible work. It propounds a set of moral ideas, which are wedded to a Catholic structure that pretty much requires something like RAPE WOMAN to hold together (theologically speaking you could end the sequence with COMMIT THE SIN OF ONAN, but in these fallen times it lacks the same heft). It gets the distasteful deed off-screen as quickly as is decent. And for all the murder and mayhem the average player of video games has committed at this late date, how fussed can one really get about two little words?
I still wish I’d walked away from it and never come back.