IFComp 2019 review: Heretic’s Hope (G. C. Baccaris)

Played 2nd October (most recent update at time of playing: 1st October 6:43pm)
Online version played
Playtime: ~90mins, one playthrough

Heretic’s Hope is a moderate-length weird horror Twine game with lots of CSS styling. The player character becomes the human Pontiff of a theocratic state of giant insects, and they must balance their duties with their grief over the loss of their mother. There are probably multiple endings, but I played through to a surviving ending in Chapter 6.

I was excited to play this – I enjoyed the author’s IFComp 2018 entry Devotionalia very much, and I was excited for more work within the same setting.

The presentation is as gorgeous as Devotionalia. The visual styling is great, with illustrated backgrounds in distinctive bright and sickly and deep-fried colours – I haven’t seen anything else like Baccaris’ games. This game also comes with profile pictures and scene-setting pictures to dress up the text. Music is used throughout, with appropriate music selected to raise tension or fill quieter moments. Heretic’s Hope comes with an improved navigation sidebar (I think? I don’t remember it from Devotionalia) and plenty of interactivity – I’m not sure how much choice matters after just one playthrough, but there are often a few things to click in each passage to play with alternatives or uncover the protagonist’s other thoughts. This is a dialogue-heavy game, and something I love is that each dialogue choice comes with a little stage-action telling you what the protagonist means by it (“Evade,” “Agree,” “Deflect”…). This avoids the Mass Effect problem, and is another tool for getting into the mind of the PC (if, say, a statement is marked as “Lie”).

The writing is good, but tonally it’s kind of heavy going. It’s informed by the protagonist’s mindset, in the throes of grief after burying their mother. They seem to deeply distrust the bugs, and the feeling seems to be mutual. As a result, Heretic’s Hope feels quite hostile and disconcerting, even before the horror starts in earnest. This is fine for weird horror, but I had to take a break after a few chapters to give myself some respite. But this heavy writing creates effective tension when things are going south – I don’t think I’d change the tone, and I don’t see where it would help or make sense to jolly it up more.

As for the story itself… it’s basically fine, but I don’t think it was ultimately as cohesive as it could have been. Stuff might be explained in alternate choices that I missed, but when I was done, I was confused about the nature of certain entities (such as the flower). I appreciate that not everything has to be explained, that some mysteries can suggest a greater incomprehensible cosmology, but push it too far and it feels like some things just sort of happen arbitrarily. Some Chekhov’s Guns didn’t seem to fire in my playthrough – I still don’t understand anything about the nature of the protagonist, and their blessing-curse didn’t seem to do anything apart from make them ill. (Compare Devotionalia, which was about a cycle of rituals rather than a story with beginning and end, but which was more tightly designed in my opinion.)

I’m not sure the game really explored what it means to be holy like the blurb suggests, especially since the PC is not that religious. There’s a cynical view of worship structures here, that we go through the motions of a religion we don’t share while primarily being used as a tool of statehood (this comes through in the climax). As for being human, I suppose Heretic’s Hope touches on it, in terms of exploring grief and connections and memories and survival. Honestly, what I read into this game wasn’t about being a human, but about being made an alien. There’s a strand of imposter syndrome – being forced to fake it and hope you make it, feeling like an outcast, feeling like everyone mistrusts you. (In this case, everyone really does mistrust you, but then again horror is supposed to play on your fears, right?) There’s also a strong theme of prejudice, I think, about being seen as different and thus excluded or patronised unless you can be made useful. I think Heretic’s Hope explores the horror potential of these themes quite well, but it’s not as philosophical as the blurb implies in my opinion.

I’m picking on the game a bit, but I still loved it as I thought I would. It’s a beautiful game, it’s fun to play and tinker with, and the plot as a whole a fun ride. I recommend this.

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