According to Cain retells the story of Cain and Abel. I love creative reworkings of existing stories, and the core biblical narratives – with their immense resonance through all of Western culture – are among the most fertile ones. Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of my favourite works of poetry. (I am in fact slowly writing a novel that reworks Milton’s reworking). More idiosyncratically, one of my favourite short stories is Three Versions of Judas by Borges, with its incredible (and from a Christian perspective, incredibly blasphemous) reinterpretation of the core story of the Gospels. As for Cain and Abel, all I can offer is this Dutch cartoon that I think of with some regularity:
“Watch out, Abel! Behind you!”. (Searching for which led me to another Gummbah cartoon where two grown men are lying in bed and a third is standing next to them, pulling the ear of one and saying: “Come on boys! We didn’t get a 200.000 euro grant for translating Mein Kampf into Frisian to then spend the entire day lazing about in bed!” Underappreciated national treasure, Gummbah.)
All of which is just to say that I’m on board with the project of According to Cain. But before we come to what the author does with the existing story, how he reimagines it, let us first delve into the game as an adventure game – for that is what it is, a relatively straightforward parser adventure where we unlock the story by solving a (not entirely linear) series of puzzles. According to Cain is a typical example of what I long ago, in a review of The King of Shreds and Patches, dubbed ‘the second consensus’. After the ‘first consensus’ that a good piece of interactive fiction is a tough puzzle game that requires many hours of thinking to solve (think Infocom and the hobbyist tradition well into the later 90’s and perhaps the early 00’s), came the ‘second consensus’ that a good piece of interactive fiction is a game where puzzles exist to generate pacing and involvement as the author tells us their story. Characteristic of this type of game is that author and player both believe that the player shouldn’t become stuck for long, since that would interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Two techniques are characteristic of (though not universally used in) second consensus games. First, the player is taken by the hand, especially in the early game, to teach them how to solve the puzzles and to assure them that the game will help them progress. Second, and relatedly, the games uses a repeatable puzzle mechanic. Having solved a problem once with some help from the game, the player can repeat the solution later with less help, leading to a sense of mastery and accomplishment without there being an actual increase in the difficulty level of the game. (Such an increase is undesirable since it might lead to the player getting stuck.) In According to Cain, Jim Nelson follows this pattern exactly. We are introduced gently to the alchemical procedures that will form the core of almost every puzzle; the difficulty is slowly ramped up to match our increasing experience; and at the end, there’s a scene (in the final cave) where we can apply several by now familiar solutions in quick succession to escape from a particularly nasty situation. Looking only at the puzzles, According to Cain may not be particularly innovative or deep, but it does what it wants to do and it does it in the right way. The only puzzle that was on the underclued side was the one with the mirror in the cave, but I may have missed out on a hint somewhere.
Another thing that I liked about the puzzles – and now we are slowly starting to talk about the narrative content of the game – is that while the alchemy/recipe trope has been done to death, there were two things that made it seem somewhat fresh in this game. The first is the strong foundation in actual medieval medicine and alchemical theory. (I was fully expecting to have to use leeches at some point, but alas.) The second, and more important, is that the ingredients in this game are not just a random grab bag; and not even a historically inspired grab bag; but that most of them are linked to the daily activities of the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel family. Thus the puzzles help us engage with the question what life was like for these people and how they spent their days. It’s almost a ‘material culture’ approach to interactive narrative.
For the most part, however, the story is told through memories that we unlock with alchemical compounds. I have been critical in the past – and will no doubt remain critical – of games that present their story exclusively through flashback, memories, journal pages, and so on. (See, for instance, my review of Babel.) Having the player character be active in the story creates all kinds of challenges, of course, but taking them entirely out of it and reducing their role to that of uncovering story fragments is hardly an ideal solution. It takes away much of what is exciting about interactive narrative. According to Cain suffers from this defect. But perhaps in this case the situation is somewhat better than it usually is, since we are exploring a story that we already know, the beginning and end of which are already familiar to us, and towards which we, as members of a culture in which this story is influential, already have the perspective of outside observers. Still, it’s a little bit disappointing when in 2022 one is still playing games in the ‘collect story fragments’ mode.
As said, the story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel narrative. I take it that the single most perplexing aspect of the story as told in the Bible is that God prefers Abel’s offering over Cain’s for no apparent reason at all. The Biblical writers do not explain this; their mode of storytelling is light on explanation, which is one of the reasons why these texts are so intriguing and the food for so much thought. (Walter Benjamin is great on this phenomenon in his essay The storyteller: I highly recommend reading the short sections VII and VIII.) But According to Cain doesn’t explain God’s behaviour at all: it resolutely cuts God out of the equation. This is a fallen world, and Man no longer sees eye to eye with the Creator. (In the actual Bible, it takes much longer for God to absent himself.) Instead we are presented with a very human question: what is life like when you have been driven out of Eden? How does the Fall change you psychologically? We learn that Adam and Eve reacted in very different ways, and we see how their dysfunctional parenthood generates a context in which brotherly rivalry can turn into hatred and finally murder. Almost all the events are seen through the eyes of Cain, who emerges as, if not a sympathetic, at least a relatable character. Abel, by contrast, is a massive jerk; although there’s a psychological explanation for that too.
Is this reworking a success? It is entertaining enough, and Jim Nelson adds a number of memorable scenes that flesh out the story far beyond the sacrifice/murder tale of Genesis. Deception, forced marriage, adultery, bullying, apathy, drunkenness, labour wasted, religious fervour, sharply different perceptions of how the parents treat their children – it’s a vivid portrait painted in a relatively small number of words. But it also turns the story of myth into a all-too-familiar tale of family psychology. It reworks the original story into something capable of standing on its own feet, but in doing so it loses access to the power of the original. It does precisely what Benjamin, in the sections I referred to above, suggests ‘real storytelling’ doesn’t do. Which isn’t necessarily bad: the medium that comes to replace storytelling is the novel, and who can dislike the novel? But when you are specifically engaged in rewriting myth, it feels like a missed opportunity.
But there’s one more thing we need to talk about: the answer to the question posed as the game starts. What is the mark of Cain? What is it that God gave to Cain after he had murdered Abel, such that the people who met him would not kill him? Among the interpretations offered throughout history are a horn, a letter signifying the name of God written on Cain’s forehead, and even – another sordid chapter in the history of religious racism – a dark skin tone. Nelson’s answer is so much better than all these. It is, one feels, the only right answer. When one thinks of a murderer in the act of violence, one may be tempted to kill him. But when one thinks of the murderer at a later moment, assailed by true and unfeigned sorrow – then he becomes an object of pity. Then no one will raise his hand against him. The mark of Cain can be only one thing: genuine grief. This is a remarkable invention that adds to the original myth and I applaud it warmly. I can’t think of a better ending to this piece.
And since I’ve already mentioned Three Versions of Judas… would it be too much to say that in the hands of Jim Nelson, it turns out that Cain is the original Man of Sorrows, he who is ‘acquainted with grief’, and therefore the original source of salvation? “God became man in his entirety, to the point of infamy; man to the point of reprobation and abyss.” Only he who has done violence can teach us the meaning of sorrow, repentance, and reconciliation.