Review: Stiffy Makane: Apocolocyntosis

Writing is about making choices and what cripples Adam Thornton’s Stiffy Makane: Apocolocyntosis is their absence. This is a game so huge, so long in its making, one of its testers was diagnosed with cancer and died during development. The author’s dog died too. Both man and beast are lovingly remembered. There is a geological quality to Stiffy, that of accruing layers of sediment wherein living creatures are trapped and fossilised. Much of this horny, sprawling behemoth is a pastiche of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the rest is an eclectic collage, which is what polite people call a bloody mess. Why is there a Gostak chief here? Why is Dolly Parton making an appearance? Who exactly is Magnus Prickus? The Golden Banana? Obscure references to Nabokov’s Lolita? There are answers to these questions but they are private, in-jokey and comprehensible to only a handful of people, of which I happen to be one, and not even I find Adam’s eclecticism amusing. As a tester and a friend I brought these issues to Adam’s attention. His response was that Stiffy was a “broad-brush satire,” implying that satires require no choices. And why indeed should Adam make any choices? It’s not like he has to pitch his game to a publisher or work with an editor or worry about making money from his writing. In interactive fiction anything goes and nothing matters.

Anas is Latin for duck and Henry Miller fucked a woman named Anaïs. One reviewer found this witty. I find it shockingly dreary. It’s shocking because Adam is not a crude man nor is he a stupid one. He’s one of three people in this community who have read and loved Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and yet this is his idea of a literary riddle. It’s as if Stiffy contained the totality of Adam’s cognizance, and every single thought he’s ever had – however frivolous – had been squeezed into it. The impression is one of sterile erudition, of senseless, semi-random name-dropping. The sense of sterility is reinforced by the fact that almost nothing here is of Adam’s own making. Even the narrative skeleton of the work, the character of Stiffy Makane, is borrowed from a game written by a fourteen-year-old. I’m reminded of Tristram Shandy. It too is a largely derivative work, and yet Tristram has unforgettable characters of Sterne’s own making and a homunculus narrator narrating from his mother’s womb. The only flights of fancy in Stiffy are a Jonah-type whale used as a means of public transport and a polytheistic hint system where the right deity must be petitioned for the right clue to be obtained. Had the game centred on these two charming devices, it could have been a magnificent romp with a hero travelling the Mediterranean inside a fish (technically a mammal), solving mysteries, cajoling the gods and expanding the horizons of bumbuggery. It could have been the first work of interactive fiction of literary significance. Instead we are left with an exercise in humbuggery where every single character in The Waste Land gets a cameo and nothing really matters.


if you could do that, you would never have bothered with interactive fiction in the first place.

Stiffy is a game within the picaresque tradition. While this tradition has given rise to canonical fiction (Tom Jones, Kim, Huck Finn, etc.) it doesn’t seem to be well-suited to interactive fiction. The problem is that when your protagonist must travel a lot, the scenery must change a lot, hence the “sparse and brittle” storyworld one reviewer complains about. There doesn’t seem to be any straightforward solution to this. If I remember correctly, the entire city of Alexandria in Curses consists of six objects. If you look at the examples I provided, you’ll notice they are all named after their protagonists. The key to success in the picaresque is a fleshed-out hero complex enough to be subject to moral suffering, and it is just such a hero that Adam has failed to create. Adam’s answer to Tom Jones, Kim and Huck is a hero defined solely by his erection and his creator’s rambling erudition. Imagine Encyclopedia Britannica with a penis and you’ll get the idea. I’ve known tomcats with richer personalities than Stiffy.

This is all my fault. I should have been more than just a tester. I should have been the Ezra Pound to Adam’s T.S. Eliot. I have betrayed a friend and I have betrayed the Gods of Fiction. May they punish me.