Review: Blood & Laurels24 Jun 2014 0
You're Marcus, a meek, middling historian struggling to survive in ancient Rome. His patron, Artus, is an ambitious general with designs on the Imperial throne. A poison-savvy widow, devil-may-care poet, chaste priestess, wicked Emperor, and—most importantly—a fortune-telling spirit round out the cast of this particular production. All are yours to befriend or spurn. All can use Marcus, or be used by him depending on what sort of tale the player wishes to tell. Many will fail to endure to the conclusion of this production, and damn if it doesn't always seem like everyone's trying to get in Marcus' pants. Or under his tunic, rather.
Blood & Laurels is a work of interactive fiction by Emily Short, and the first release for the Versu digital storytelling platform, of which the author is co-creator. Not a simplistic choose-your-own-adventure, and not quite as “gamey” or puzzle-focused as your classic text adventure, Blood & Laurels is closest to a play, though one where you improvise as you go. As a scene progresses, you can choose to act by tapping a button at the bottom of the screen, which opens a list of dialogue options and environmental interactions available at that time; these can range from the discreet, such as quietly appraising a piece of statuary or sipping some wine, to the drastic, such as insulting the ghostly shade of a former emperor or trying to plant a kiss on... well, anyone, really.
What's nice about this system is that, for the most part, you can choose to act when you please. This can mean inserting Marcus into a scene from the get-go or, just as easily, letting things progress without acting by hitting the “more” button. The odd sequence here and there will present you with several blocks of dialogue or description which you can't break into, and, conversely, the game will usually demand you do something if you try and go through an entire scene without so much as a nervous cough—these latter flashpoints tend to come when another character explicitly demands something of Marcus.
There are ugly spots, though. The terse and economical writing can seem too much so when it's clear the narrative needs to remain vague for player-interaction purposes—X line needs to be written so that dialogue Y, action Z, and descriptions A, B, and C can all follow somewhat naturally from it. I say somewhat naturally, because even with this safeguard in place odd juxtapositions and out-and-out non-sequiturs pop up. Stay too quiet during a romantic encounter and you'll get a string of the same meaningful glances, aimed at Marcus and repeated over and over. Ask about some artwork at the exact wrong point in a scene and another character might politely describe it for you, and then turn-around to insult you for no immediately obvious reason. At their best, these moments leave room for ambiguous readings—perhaps that odd change of topic was motivated by another character's discomfort, or as part of a ploy to keep Marcus from discovering some truth—but for the most part they're just a bit silly, made more obvious by Blood and Laurel's otherwise spot-on literary conventions.
Beyond these drop-down menus and the story scroll is the portraits bar, which simply serves as a reminder of who is in a scene and what their general mood is. Insult a character and their face will switch to “angry” mode, compliment them and they'll blush. Tap on a face and you may see “Marcus looks pleased. 'Artus said something nice about me,'” or a reminder that Gila the priestess is upset with you, in case you somehow forget that after taking up an entire scene with an atheistic rant about how bullshit her life's work is. Top pick-up artistry there, Marcus.
There's a great deal of room here to affect the pacing of a scene, dragging certain conversations out with tangential dialogue and meaningful glances. Not every choice on the player's part has immediate, irreversible impact, forcing the scene down one of a handful of paths—rather, there's almost always some “flavor” options in the actions menu. Eat this, look at that, stare dead-eyed into a fire, etc. Small actions can lend different tones to a scene depending on what order they're conducted in. An early, initial conversation with Artus can either be a revealing discussion on history and the nature of leadership—with the player-reader learning that Marcus was forced to burn a collection of histories he'd written—or an altogether sexier discussion about the definition of virginity, though said interview always begins as a grave “big boss wants to speak with you” meeting.
Things within a scene can go a surprisingly different number of ways, and yet two largely different scenes can still have the same basic result when it comes to the overall plot of a Blood & Laurels playthrough. That plot—and this is revealed quite early on, regardless of your early-game choices—concerns Marcus' fated role in the growing opposition to the cruel, paranoid Emperor. Like Macbeth and Hamlet, Marcus comes to learn his destiny through supernatural means (“shades” from the afterlife, which are basically ghosts with more self-respect). Our protagonist isn't destined to remain a lowly chronicler of history—rather, he's fated to make history, willingly or not.
And so we come to the biggest weakness in Blood and Laurels: the fact that, for its wealth of tonal interactivity and allowance for subtle performance, it's still quite easy to tease out the main paths and branches of the tale, especially since the story is split into two main acts, with the second relying on starting points for each character. Following a cautious route in act one will net you “Marcus the Cowardly,” while a more proactive player will get to start the second half of the production as “Determined Marcus.” Veronius, Marcus' pal and fellow poet, can start as either “the Lover,” “the Friend,” or “the Enemy,”
What's off is that it seems like the path towards, say, Enemy Veronius is basically just the path away from Friendly V and Lover V; you really don't have to do anything except spurn your fellow poet's aggressive advances in order to, apparently, earn a lifetime of hatred from the fella. He's an “enemy” by dint of not being a friend, according to the rules of this fiction. And, further still, his relationship with Marcus doesn't do much to affect the plot of Blood and Laurels. Over my handful of runs through the story I both ignored Veronius and made him my closest confidante, and yet by the second half of the tale it feels like his role in the story is all but over, his potential as a dynamic character curtailed by the narrative equivalent of an Xbox achievement.
The same goes for many of the other major characters. The second half's starting points are catch-all, and give the impression that the two halves of the tale aren't connected as well as they ought to be. The second act even begins with these leading choices which come close to breaking the fourth wall. As Veronius walks in, in one potential version of the tale, the game prompts you with “Let him in because he knows about Artus's plans” versus “Let him in, as he'll be a distraction from Artus's plans.” But... is Marcus actually aware of these ulterior motives? Are they his? They weren't covered in any great depth in the previous section, and suddenly Marcus's intent—which should be based on events or dialogue which have taken place, though the reader hasn't actually seen them—actually seems like it's affecting the reality of this world. (Which would be great, if intentional. Jellyfish gravy and dormouse for all, courtesy of Big M.)
All this is really symptomatic of the fact that Blood and Laurels—as a single playthrough, at least—isn't particularly long. It's difficulty to say, owing to the fact that Blood and Laurels—as an entire collection of possibilities—is undoubtedly massive, but for a tale which largely concerns itself with an underdog's rise to power in Roman politics, two acts feels just shy of what's needed to fulfill the many threads here. I found it difficult to chart a course for Marcus which didn't paint him cartoonishly—he was either a sycophant more concerned about his own life than fulfilling his destiny, or the living avatar of improbable face-heel turns, taking up Richard III levels of plotting with barely-there motivation.
My favorite incarnation of Marcus sat somewhere between these two extremes—concerned with his safety and too unsure to seriously shake-up his benefactors plans, yet at the same time willing to take advantage of his situation by all but forcing an unrequited love (Gila, the priestess) into marrying him. I would have liked to see how that Marcus took to the responsibilities his rise to power engendered but, alas, this is yet another area where Blood & Laurels falls just shy of complete—all the tales I ran through glossed over the details of Marcus's ascendance to the upper tiers of Roman politics, treating the day-to-day of his ambiguous “victory” as epilogue.
The tale here is one of choosing how to act in the face of an unalterable destiny, and not one of how actions can come to affect oneself, and others—at least not in ways beyond, you know, blushing profusely, or being poisoned. Blood & Laurels is a cunning bit of Ancient Roman pulp, with a few fair things to say about notions of power and responsibility, though with little follow-through. Rather, the greatest theme here is fate, that of both Marcus and, by extension, the reader. Even with a stunning breadth of writing—the majority unused in any one tale—it's impossible not to see the rules, threads, actions, and reactions which move these characters down their largely predetermined paths. Blood & Laurels has the framework to support an interactive fiction which could do away with—or at least better hide—such Fates, but such an endeavor might require an even greater sacrifice than that offered here.
Blood & Laurels was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.