The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis
By: Adam Thornton
[Due to the nature of the game being reviewed, this review contains what the MPAA would probably call "pervasive language and strong sexual content." Also, mild spoilers, both for this game and for Nabokov's Lolita.]
From the "sentences I never thought I'd write" department: I don't think I'm well-educated enough to fully appreciate this Stiffy Makane game. With Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (MMA), Adam Thornton brings us what might be one of the most erudite and wide-ranging IF games ever, and what is certainly the most erudite and wide-ranging IF porn parody ever. Thornton has been talking about Mentula Macanus for quite a long time now — since 2001 at least, when he released his previous foray into Stiffiana, Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country (SM:TUC). Hell, maybe longer, given that Google's Usenet archive search leaves much to be desired. It always sounded to me like a gag — I mean really, a Stiffy Makane game all in Latin? Not even the guy who created an elaborate and technically accomplished science fiction Stiffy parody, complete with graphics and sound, would undertake such a thing, right?
Right. He didn't. Instead, he spent a decade crafting an enormous, sprawling classical epic, with an expanded mission. Where SM:TUC was a gleeful takedown of so-called "Adult" IF, MMA sets its sights on a bigger target: IF itself. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Thornton upends the medium with a work that's simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It's a hugely impressive achievement, and I can't imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can't imagine anyone else even trying.
But before I dive deeper, let me offer a little background, for those who need it and haven't quit reading already. Way back in 1997, those innocent days when AGT didn't yet signify "America's Got Talent", a guy named Mark Ryan unleashed upon the world a game called The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane, which he apparently wrote in BASIC in the eighth grade, then inexplicably ported to AGT and uploaded to the IF Archive. Adam Thornton played it, and wrote a funny review, in which he called it "easily the most amusingly horrible work of IF I've ever seen." (By the way, anybody who wants to witness how delightful the IF newsgroups were back in the days before their troll-induced decline could do worse than to read the ensuing thread. The Graham Nelson comment in particular made me laugh out loud.) This review pointed out the terrible writing, the repellent ending, the freaky non-sequiturs, the risible implementation (including, famously, the ability to DROP PENIS), and so forth. It helped propel the game to "legendarily bad" status, but even so, Stiffy would likely have been soon forgotten if not for what happened next.
Exactly one year and one day after the review, a pseudonym-cloaked Thornton and a still-anonymous co-author released a MST-ing of the game (remember Mystery Science Theater 3000?). A few years later, Adam entered the 2001 IF Comp with Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, a game which, as I said in my review at the time, "[makes] its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less.)" At this point, Stiffy and his stiffy had entered into the community lexicon as a shared in-joke, with Adam always in the vanguard. In fact, at this point, I'd say that Adam Thornton has made a career out of Stiffy Makane, which sounds much less promising than it's actually turned out to be. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis is the zenith of that career.
From the beginning, the game lets us know the territory it intends to cover. A rotating dedication name-checks people from the world of literature, like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as people from the IF world like Robb Sherwin and Graham Nelson. Then follows a bit of untranslated Italian — Thornton quoting Eliot quoting Pound quoting Dante. After that, the game throws you into a scenario in which you battle "the Gostak chief", which will certainly remind some of us of Carl Muckenhoupt's game The Gostak, which itself grew from a seed planted by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, in their book The Meaning Of Meaning. Confused yet? MMA has a helpful bibliographic referencing system to help you along:
>X CHIEF The Gostak chief [reference 2] [reference 3] is a giant of a man, with lank, thinning blond hair [reference 4]. He carries an enormous mace, which he wields as if it weighed nothing at all. The Gostak chief aims a vicious blow at your head. You twist away desperately, skidding on the wet flagstones. The mace smashes into the stone, throwing a shower of sparks. >REF 2 [Reference 2]: Ogden, C.K. and Ian Richards. The Meaning of Meaning, (citation unknown). >REF 3 [Reference 3]: Muckenhaupt, Carl. The Gostak, passim. >REF 4 [Reference 4]: Wolfe, Gene. The Sword of the Lictor, Chapter XXXVII, Terminus Est.As if that weren't enough, the game provides a parallel system of footnotes to complement its references, like so:
Curia Interior The Curia is still under reconstruction; renovations won't be completed for quite some time [footnote 1]. For the time being, the Senate still meets over at Pompey's porch. Frankly, this place is basically just a construction site. Steps to the Forum lead down to the south. An olive-colored velvet bag rests empty on the ground here. [To look up a footnote, use FOOTNOTE number-of-footnote] >NOTE 1 [To disable poncy footnotes, you can type PONCY OFF] [Footnote 1]: The Curia Hostilia burned in 52 BC; Julius Caesar started its renovation, but the Curia Julia (named in his honor) was not completed until 29 BC during the reign of Augustus. I hope you now feel better-educated.Keep in mind: this is a porn parody IF based on a character created by a horny 14-year-old [ed. note: That phrase seems redundant somehow.]. It keeps a sense of humor about itself, but at the same time, there's a clear delight in classical history and the ancient world. Observe:
Cocceio's Cave Cocceio's Cave runs arrow-straight from the town of Cumae, to the west, to the shore of Lake Avernus, to the east. It is a kilometer long and wide enough for two wagons to pass one another. It has recently been excavated on Caesar's orders [footnote 9], but it also makes for a very convenient road for petitioners seeking the Sybil. Regularly spaced torches light your way. >NOTE 9 [Footnote 9]: Lake Avernus is a volcanic crater filled with water, which makes it an ideal protected harbor. Julius Caesar began construction of the port here, connecting Avernus to Lake Lucrino with a canal and thence to the sea. Cocceio's Cave was excavated to allow easy access by chariot to the war fleet housed in Avernus. The port (Portus Julius) became fully operational in Octavian's reign. Thus, it is probably slightly ahistorical to have Cocceio's Cave in this story, as it is likely an Augustan, not a Julian work; nevertheless, it's not badly out of place, and it's a really nifty Roman military construction, so in it stays.The game's erudition extends beyond Roman history and modernist poets. For instance, at one point there's a hotel register you can examine, which yields entries like "Johnny Randall, Ramble" and "Harry Bumper, Sheridan." Those entries don't have a footnote or reference citation, but by that point I knew that there were very few arbitrary choices in the game, so I googled them. Turns out they're from Nabokov's Lolita — Humbert Humbert uses various false names in hotel registries as he searches for Lolita in the latter part of the book. Over and over, MMA rewards research and demonstrates an impressive range of literary reference. In fact, I'd say this game sent me to Google more than any other IF game I've ever played. Sometimes even that was fruitless, as in the time when Stiffy (under my control) attempted to venture into avian bestiality, making amorous advances toward a duck named Anas:
>FUCK DUCK (Anas) You, sir, are no Henry Miller [footnote 24]. >NOTE 24 [Footnote 24]: Hey, you know, it's kind of odd that "Anas" is so close to "Anaïs", isn't it? D'ya think?....nah, couldn't be.Did Miller have some kind of sexual inclination toward waterfowl? Even Google couldn't tell me, unless perhaps my Google-fu wasn't up to par, which is always a possibility. I know that Miller had a passionate sexual relationship with Anaïs Nin, but whether the game's Miller reference extended beyond the superficial similarity of names, I couldn't tell. Again, that nagging feeling: I may have a Master's degree in English Literature, but I don't think I'm well-read enough for this Stiffy Makane game.
MMA's breadth of IF reference is equally impressive. Besides the fact that it expends herculean effort to expand the mythos of an otherwise extremely minor IF character, and the aforementioned Gostak shout-out, MMA touches on everything from Adventure to Scott Adams to Infocom to Losing Your Grip to Kallisti. In fact, at one point it even scores a two-for-one by including Madame Sosostris, who figures prominently in both Eliot's The Waste Land and Graham Nelson's Curses. Nelson, another IF author with an Eliot fixation, comes up again in a late-game scene, one that I thought really encapsulated MMA's humor:
Unreal City Under the brown fog of a winter noon [reference 30]. A graveyard, of sorts, is to the south. A rather fetching garden lies to the west. A low, blocky palace, built of obsidian, looms to the east. A plaza stretches to the north under the towering bulk of an obelisk. Identical men in dark suits and bowler hats scurry to and fro. >REF 30 [Reference 30]: Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land, III.208. >X MEN Each identical man (for they are all men) wears an identical dark suit and an identical bowler hat, carries an identical black umbrella [reference 31], and, incongruously, sports an identical nametag proclaiming, in bright red letters, "HELLO MY NAME IS GRAHAM." I had not thought death had undone so many [reference 32]. >REF 31 [Reference 31]: Rowson, Martin. The Waste Land, I.31. >REF 32 [Reference 32]: Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land, I.63. >FUCK MEN You see no Nelson's Column here.A barrelful of Eliot references, several of which (the Unreal City, the bowler-hatted army) overlap again with Curses, collides with a British geographical/historical reference which also serves as a hilarious anatomical double-entendre about a founding father of modern IF. Deep respect jumps into bed with profound irreverence, and the result is quite satisfying. That's Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis.
NEW MISSIONThornton's 2001 Stiffy game (SM:TUC) was deeply, rightly scornful of its main character. As in the game that spawned him, Stiffy was an projection of a boneheaded eighth-grade boy's sexual mentality, albeit this time seen from a more adult perspective: unsatisfying as a lover, profoundly clueless, misogynist, and homophobic. His ideal sexual encounter is with a Holodeck robot — "jump through some hoops, get to fuck the girl. If only real life were so easy!" — and even she is less than enthusiastic about the experience. SM:TUC demolishes the ludicrous tropes of terrible "adult" IF in part by demonstrating that mechanical sex is the opposite of eroticism.
MMA is a different story. The Stiffy of MMA doesn't have a trace of homophobia, and is enthusiastically omnisexual (within limits, and even those are played for laughs.) He's still an eager lover, but this time he's a good one, as we can tell by the reaction of his partners. His encounters often have a joke at their center (as when Stiffy fucks some version of Archimedes, who teaches him the true meaning of "Archimedes' Screw" and who exclaims, "My lever's big enough. Just give me a place to stand and I'll rock your world!"), but the joke isn't at Stiffy's expense. The descriptions embrace sensuality, in direct contrast to SM:TUC's anti-erotic prose.
What changed? The mission changed, that's what. AIF was always an easy target, albeit a fun one, and between his review of the original Ryan game, his MSTing of same, and SM:TUC, Thornton seems to have said his piece about it. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis moves on to satirizing IF in general, especially the classic Infocom style. The game's writing and design echoes this style — for all its transgressiveness, MMA's puzzles and prose are often quite traditionalist. Descriptions are generally concise, even terse, and there's no attempt whatsoever to sidestep the artificiality of IF puzzles awkwardly grafted to a big long quest plot. There are no mazes, dragons, hunger puzzles, or other such tired figures, but there are heaping helpings of item-fetching, locked-door NPCs, and actual locked doors. The game is unapologetically an epic, old-fashioned puzzlefest, albeit one with a few differences.
Just the carnality itself is a major difference, really. Infocom was writing for a mass market which included children, so their games were necessarily quite chaste, even when they were trying to be otherwise. Credit to them for attempting something a little racy with Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but compared to MMA, even the "lewd" mode in Leather Goddesses of Phobos is ridiculously tame. Thornton's game is IF sex comedy with the restraints taken off, and it works. It's genuinely funny and sometimes even genuinely sexy.
It also uses its taboo subject matter to hilarious effect, blending perversity into IF as skillfully as I've ever seen. Take the puzzles, for instance. In 2002, I released a game called Another Earth, Another Sky, in which you play a super-strong PC and the solution to many puzzles is some variation of SMASH [object]. I thought of that game a lot when playing MMA, in which you play a super-virile PC, and the solution to many puzzles is some variation of FUCK [NPC]. The number of times that Stiffy's stiffy is in some way the solution to a puzzle is both a great running gag and a great subversion of standard-issue IF object and NPC interactions. (MMA's version of the common light-source puzzle is particularly memorable.)
Sometimes, instead, the penis is the puzzle rather than the answer, as in the episode when Stiffy gets the clap and has to seek out a cure. The solution involves a regular IF activity — a mini-quest to seek out a medicinal herb and bring it back to the local doctor — but the context is something you don't see in many other games. Not only that, the actual resolution of the quest turns IF convention its ear too, as we discover that the herb isn't the cure at all, but simply serves to distract while the doctor administers a much more violent and unpleasant remedy.
Sex and gross-outs aside, MMA also provides a few great anti-puzzles, in which the obvious action is the correct one, but the game manages to make you think otherwise with persuasive writing. Take, for example, this bridge across a chasm:
A rickety footbridge — really, little more than flimsy-looking boards laid across twisted vines — spans the canyon to the west, swaying sickeningly in the breeze.Makes you want to look for another way across the chasm, doesn't it? I certainly did, based on my memories of a thousand other rickety IF bridges. They always collapse — that's why they're described as rickety. Plus, I'd already died many a death in MMA getting to this point. So I found a place to jump across the chasm, and failed. I failed tantalizingly, and thought I might succeed with a different approach. Nope. After a few more attempts, I returned to the bridge and decided to cross it, hoping I might get a clue from the inevitable death message. Instead, Stiffy crossed it. The end. The anticlimax was hilarious, and I loved the way the game played a joke on me by exploiting my IF experience. I realized later that I was also holding a set of instructions which explicitly told me to cross the bridge, but it had been so long since I'd looked at those, I forgot all about them. D'oh!
Alongside these are more typical IF puzzles, ranging from the simple (follow a recipe and get the desired result) to the rather clever (dress up as a prophet to fool a god into taking you into a new location.) MMA skewers IF, to be sure, but it isn't just taking the piss — it's a genuinely fun IF game on its own merits.
INNOVATIONAlong with its transgressions and subversions, MMA brings a number of excellent IF innovations to the table. One of my favorites is how it handles repeated questions to an NPC. One of the weaknesses of the ASK/TELL conversation system (which MMA uses) can be a tendency toward repetition. The first time you ASK MIKE ABOUT FISH, Mike should tell you about the fish. But what happens if you repeat the command? Lots of games just would repeat Mike's dialogue, which makes the NPC obviously robotic. However, that robotic behavior serves a gameplay purpose — if the player forgets some crucial nugget of information, the ability to retrieve that information shouldn't be sacrificed in the name of character realism, or else you're just trading one annoyance for another. In addition, topics sometimes have aliases, so the player may not even realizing that from the game's point of view, she's asking the same question twice. MMA comes up with a solution to this conundrum which I thought was rather ingenious:
>ASK SYBIL ABOUT FUTURE "To seize the Golden Banana is a mighty deed, but the Son of Aeneas must look to the Son of Abraham to release it from its sheath." >ASK SYBIL ABOUT BANANA The Cumaean Sybil has already told you that you will need the help of a Jew to unsheath [sic] the Golden Banana.By having the parser intervene when a question is repeated, the player gets the needed information without the NPC having to behave like a tape recorder.
MMA also innovates at the design level, with an intricate story structure surrounded by a clever series of framing layers. It's not uncommon for an IF game (or a traditional story) to start in the middle of some action, advance to a point where it looks pretty bad for the hero, and then flash back to tell the story leading up to that point. It's quite a bit more unusual for the hero's death to actually occur. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis solves this dilemma brilliantly, with a perfect marriage of its classicism and its game-nerd geekery. Not to mention that the response to "X ME" in this section is one of the funniest parodies I've seen of a standard Inform library message.
On top of this, there's still another layer of narrative complexity, as seen in a section where the available range of action has drastically narrowed to only two possible commands, and very boring ones at that. Just when I was thinking "man, fast forward," this happened:
[Here the original text is badly damaged and illegible for many pages. What we can piece together from the extant fragments of this section and the remainder of the work, however, is that Stiffy somehow becomes accepted as one of the Vikings. He wins his toga and the Banana back, acquires the honorific "Sven Stiffy" for his deeds, and meets up with a Druid leading a Pictish revolt. A brief and curious fragment from this last section survives.]Thus the action shifts out of the previous trap, and MMA piles on yet another inventive application of scholarly mechanics to gameplay mechanics, letting us know that not only does the game have narrative layers in itself, there's also a metanarrative outside of the story, in which the whole of MMA is in fact some kind of ancient text in translation, which has not survived in its entirety. Employing this device not only allows Thornton to skip past some of the boring or illogical sections (always with a comic purpose) and also reinforces the erudite side of MMA's ongoing juxtaposition.
These layers are great for comedy, but I think my favorite comedic innovation in MMA is its running gag of warned deaths. Insta-death is all over the place in IF, especially old-school IF, but MMA takes an approach which allows the whole thing to be a lot funnier: every time the player enters a command which will lead to instant death, the game issues a warning first. Then, if the action is repeated, the game delivers the insta-death:
>PUT PENIS IN OPENING It is pitch black in there. Your cock is likely to be eaten by a grue [reference 6]. >PUT PENIS IN OPENING Chomp! A grue bites your dick completely off, as was foretold. *** You have been emasculated by a grue ***There are dozens of these scattered throughout the game, leading to all manner of horrendous demises. Instant IF death is annoying (though UNDO mitigates it a lot), but I thought this was wonderful. Every time I saw one of these warnings, I gave a little tiny cheer inside, because I knew that the next thing I would get to do is steer Stiffy into another hilarious Wile E. Coyote calamity. The more of these there were, the funnier it got, as is the nature of the running gag. (The other great running gag: the game's responses to failed attempts to fuck people. Or things.)
Also funny and clever was the CAST command, which lets us know the models for various characters in the game. These models spring from reality (Ron Jeremy as Stiffy), literature (Baldanders from Gene Wolfe as the Gostak chieftain), TV (Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons as the aforementioned clap-curer), and Dungeons & Dragons (Froghemoth makes an appearance.) I particularly enjoyed seeing Thornton's dogs expressing their separate personalities as the heads of Cerberus.
Finally, I have to mention the ending. I won't give too much away, except to say that it's one of the more entertaining ways I've ever had the plot shouted at me while tied to a chair. A fitting topper to this epic and bizarre game, it partakes of the epic and the bizarre on a grand scale, justifying the game's subtitle and winding up with an excellent closing joke.
IMPLEMENTATIONOf course, smart references and clever ideas only get you so far — it's in the execution that an IF game is made or broken. It should probably come as no surprise at this point in the review that I found Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis to be outstanding in this department as well. The game isn't completely bug-free — it would be very surprising indeed to find a game of this size that had no bugs or errors whatsoever — but it credits multiple rounds of testers, and their efforts shine through. The writing is similarly error-free. It rarely aspires to poetry, but it excels at finding that perfect word to make a graphic detail really vivid, whether you're being splattered with filth in the sewers of Ostia or inhaling the mephitic vapors of a pit that leads to Hades.
Many many actions are accounted for with proper verbs and witty responses. Most first-level objects are described, albeit sometimes rather curtly. There are many fun surprises embedded for the curious to find, including one of the better XYZZY easter eggs I've seen in a while. (Actually, come to think of it, that only seemed like an Easter egg — it's actually necessary to solve a puzzle.) There's even the occasional spate of runic and/or Greek writing mixed in with the prose, thanks to Inform libraries written by Thornton himself.
MMA also pays good attention to detail and logic within the confines of its model world. For instance, Stiffy is often obliged to disrobe, whether for the purpose of solving a puzzle or just for a pleasant diversion to pass the time. Either way, it's easy to forget to put his toga back on him, but invariably the other characters in the game notice when Stiffy is parading around naked, and usually have some witty remark to make about it.
Finally, in case I haven't made this clear, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis is quite the extensive game. Every time I thought it was ending, it would instead open up a new vista of plot and setting, with more surprises and more hilarity. In addition to being long, it's quite deep as well. I noticed this particularly in the Great Library of Alexandria, in which you can learn not just the key fact that helps the plot along, but all about much of the game world and even the greater historical context of its setting.
Glancing at the source code (which Thornton includes in the game package), I can see that there are many more responses I never even uncovered. The expansiveness of the game gives it great access to callbacks, both comedy kind and the IF kind (returning to a location or situation after time has passed and things have changed.) MMA wears its influences on its long, long sleeves, and by the end, it can count itself as an influence. It's a bit like the question Stephen Colbert asked when he interviewed the band Rush: "You're known for some long songs. Have you ever written a song so epic, that you were being influenced by your own song, because it happened so much earlier in your career?" This is a game that took a decade to produce, and it's clear the time wasn't wasted.
Mentula Macanus: Apocolcyntosis was the perfect finish to my mini-journey of reviewing all the 2011 XYZZY Best Game nominees. I rolled the dice and reviewed those games in random order, but the sequence turned out just right. Zombie Exodus was an oddball nominee, unfinished and not my cup of tea, while Six was an utterly charming comp entry. Cryptozookeeper beat them both with music, graphics, spectacular writing, and an epic scope. It took home the XYZZY award, and it deserves all the recognition it's gotten, but for my money Mentula Macanus: Apocolcyntosis has the edge over even Cryptozookeeper. Its careful coding, clever design, thematic boldness and overflowing intelligence have made it my favorite game of the bunch. I look forward eagerly to whatever Adam Thornton has cooking for 2021.