Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

To Beseech Old Sins, by Nic June

OK, anecdote time: when I was in high school, my summer job for a couple years was as a busboy at a country club. This was less exciting than it sounds – and believe me, I’m under no illusions as to how exciting it sounds – but one fun thing was that there was a team-building day where we saw Rent on Broadway (the club was on Long Island). This necessitated a bus trip, and whether or not said bus was formally licensed as a party bus – I rather suspect not – my coworkers decided it would be prudent to avoid inflated NYC liquor prices by getting blasted on the way in, and further decided it would be amusing to peer-pressure the 17-year-old into having a couple of beers (reader, I’d like to say I put up a fight, but I was nerdy and was moved that they cared enough to make the attempt). I only had two drinks, but I was an inexperienced drinker and weighed like 120 pounds, so that was enough to throw me off-kilter for the remainder of the trip as well as – and here we’re finally getting to the point of the anecdote – the entire first act of Rent.

There’s a whole lot of incident that plays out over that initial hour or so, and I’m sure a more sober critic of theater would have found a lot to unpack, but I have to confess that all the relationship melodrama and demimondaine cris de coeurs were lost on me, because in the flush of my first drunkenness, I’d decided that actually the most important thing on that stage was this one particular chair. All the frenetic dancing and singing happening all around it, I was sure, was just meant to provide a counterpoint to the stolid immanent quiddity of this humble chair; people sat in it, gripped it from behind, leaped over it in impressive jetes, but rather than see the chair as providing a backdrop to their actions, the musical’s author clearly wanted the audience to see the cast as a backdrop to the furniture.

I dried out over intermission so thankfully my impressions of Act Two are much more normal, but that experience of fixating on something that in retrospect was clearly of at-best tertiary importance persists; obviously I was totally off base, but maybe I was chasing some elusive insight that could unlock the greater meaning of the piece?

All of which is an excessively long intro to explain why throughout To Beseech Old Sin’s Sturm-und-Drang space opera, I was only half paying attention to the narrative and wondering how sexual harassment laws worked in the far future.
See, the story has the trappings of a Halo or a Warhammer 40k – there’s this squad of giant armored supersoldiers, who are ordered to make a desperate assault on an enemy capital ship – but the shooty-shooty business is largely underplayed, while the setting, as well as the personal and ideological stakes of the game’s main conflicts, are underexplained.

I’m typically allergic to extended infodumps laying out a game’s premise in unnecessary detail, don’t get me wrong, but here I missed them, because it’s both the case that the elided details were necessary to build investment in a generic, and ultimately low-key, shootout, as well as seeming intriguing in their own right (the supersoldiers are referred to as golems, and seem to have alchemical script tattooed onto their bodies, which is part of what empowers them as sets them apart from ordinary humans? Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that). That vagueness extended to the trio of main characters, consisting of the protagonist plus two squadmates – none of them felt like they had especially distinct personalities or voices, and making their names Greek letters fuels the genericism. And the game’s choices don’t feel especially impactful; mostly links either provide more detail or just move the story forward, and this is a low-risk mission that seems impossible to mess up too badly, so while it’s pleasant enough to click through the attractively-presented text, there isn’t grabby gameplay or any moments of high drama to liven things up.

So in the absence of more traditional engagement points to latch onto, the thing that mostly stood out to me was the contextually-inappropriate cuddling. You and your squadmates aren’t just a trio, you’re also a throuple, and seem to spend most of your downtime half-naked and spooning. And that’s fine! Office relationships can be challenging to navigate, but everybody seems into it and I’m sure space combat is super stressful so this seems like a nice, healthy way to blow off steam. Except the three of you keep up said canoodling even when the admiral commanding the squadron comes down to give you your mission briefing, which isn’t just an accident but a deliberate provocation as it’s made clear you knew she was coming but decided not to put pants on nonetheless. Sure, the admiral is presented as a romantic interest – she blushes yet seems intrigued, and your dialogue options with her range from double entendres to point five entendres – but c’mon, this is her workplace, and almost the exact same scenario plays out a second time towards the end of the game. If you really think you’re vibing ask her out for a drink once she’s off-duty, but right now this is textbook hostile work environment sexual harassment.

To stop kidding for a minute, I do get the sense that there is meant to be more depth here; the author’s note indicates that these are recurring characters, and there’s an “other stories in the anthology” link on the festival page. So I’m guessing that some other game provides more in the way of backstory for the characters, establishes deeper themes for the milieu, and otherwise offers more in the way of on-ramps for uninitiated players. Indeed, the author’s note positions To Beseech Old Sins as a lighter interlude from an overarching story that trends grim; in that context, and with more investment in the characters, I’d probably have more to focus on than the state of employment law in this imagined world. Okay, it’s still mostly my fault that I fixated on a mostly-irrelevant detail this time out, but unlike with Rent, I do think the author could have given me a little more help.

7 Likes