Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (PC)

A little background: back in 1997 Mark Ryan released a short game called The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane. It was possibly meant as wankfodder plus juvenile humour, along the lines of early adult interactive fiction like Softporn Adventure or its descendant Leisure Suit Larry, but was pretty cack-handed even by those standards:

>touch tits

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by One of the Bruces and Drunken Bastard

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, original art by Sam Kabo Ashwell It was so extraordinarily bad that, shortly after, someone or other did a MST3K satire of the game, ensuring Stiffy’s status as a running gag. A few years later, in 2001, Adam Thornton released Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country. Entered into the IF Comp, this took the basic attitude of gross-out sex humour and used it to snark at AIF, sci-fi tropes, Chris Crawford and flamewars in rec.*.int-fiction. Stiffy, previously a fairly generic blank-heterosexual AIF protagonist with a side of violent adolescent misogyny, was transformed into a voracious omnisexual with a taste for the outlandishly transgressive. It was both hugely trollish and unflappably good-natured, even if its primary objective seemed to be to give you the beginnings of a boner, then make you throw up, then make you choke with laughter and aspirate your vomit.

Mentula Macanus does much the same thing for the ancient Mediterranean, explicitly in the spirit of the Satyricon. (The title translates roughly as Stiffy Makane: Pumpkinification, a reference to a satire on the deification of Claudius.) The dick jokes are mostly about Classics, but there is also a heavy reliance on Graham Nelson’s Curses and a giant grab-bag of IF and literature. There are, at a really generous estimate, maybe five people in the world who will get all the jokes; you might want to read their reviews instead.

It is a considerably better game than The Undiscovered Country. Possibly this is because dirty jokes about Classics and T.S. Eliot are more likely to amuse me than dirty jokes about cheesy sci-fi. And possibly it’s because it’s not trying to be quite as gross as TUC. (Or maybe I’m just more jaded; it’s been a decade, so I should certainly hope so.) But it’s also an unambiguously better-made piece; larger, more polished, fairer, and designed like a game rather than a series of in-jokes. The lack of graphics helps, too. But it’s also much more of an actual sustained game, rather than a series of jokes strung together with a little railroaded gameplay; this is the first of the games that actually feels like an Incredible Adventures.

As with The Undiscovered Country (and, for that matter, the Satyricon), it sometimes feels just on the edge of actually functioning as erotica, but inevitably veers off into elision or squick. It’s very definitely not AIF, where the point is to sustain pornographic interest for long enough for the audience to get off; here the point is to briefly introduce pornographic interest, then make you spend the next fifteen minutes crawling through a sewer or trying to find a cure for your clap or butt-fucking the mummified corpse of Alexander the Great. But unlike TUC, it doesn’t seem centrally concerned with lambasting AIF; it’s serving its own purposes. (Primarily this is puerile sniggering. But Thornton can write a mean dick joke.)

Stiffy, in particular, is a long way from the original: he’s still primarily driven by sex, but he’s generally quite blase about it. He’s a gigantic perv, but he’s amiable about it. The whole world works by a sort of porn-logic; you can stroll around naked most of the time, your divinely glowing cock astounding passers-by. There’s none of the churning adolescent loathing of The Incredible Erotic Adventures or Kirk-sized ego of TUC. Stiffy’s eyes never pop out of his skull at the prospect of sex, and a great deal of the sex is glossed over or merely banal:

Of all the times you’ve ever boned a slatternly servant on a reeking mattress, this is certainly one of them.

The framing helps: Stiffy feels very much like the Golden Ass, self-centred and venal, pulled by misfortunes from pillar to post, jittering back and forth between comic indignity and sybaritic pleasure. And his quest is also in service of a goddess — in this case, Eris.

>fuck apple

It is pitch black in there. Your cock is likely to be eaten by a grue.[reference 6]

So the whole game is to be regarded as a Discordian exercise, of puncturing egos, poking fun at the serious and having a chaotic good time in the process. The mockery doesn’t necessarily imply dislike; the classics stuff is far deeper than a mere toga-party gloss (well, some of it; it’s perfectly happy to introduce characters called Biggus Dickus), and the subject matter all feels like something loved. (Apart from anything else, nobody who really disliked the notoriously difficult Curses would have persisted at it for long enough to be able to mock it this thoroughly.)

Structurally it gives the impression of a kind of wildly staggering fantastic journey, and at any rate Stiffy himself has only the vaguest idea of how the plot is meant to go. The action jumps around like a flea in a morgue, the narrative is fragmentary, the transitions frequently dangle by the slenderest of threads. It joyfully embraces anachronisms some of the time and then insists on accuracy at other points. But there’s method to the madness, sort of. After the introductory section you move to what looks like a standard adventure-game map, allowing you to travel back and forth between various regions; unlike the conventional adventure-game model, however, each location’s puzzles are pretty much self-contained, so there’s relatively little running back and forth. Rather than elaboration into a complicated content-unlocking exercise, however, this quickly returns to a linear sequence of smallish, self-contained maps with a few puzzles each. Some of feels kind of arbitrary — a jungle? Right, because we’re going after a banana, okay — but then there’s a genre-appropriate sequence of Hades and Olympus and a final judgment. It’s not very focused as satire, going after one thing and then another and then getting distracted and doing a cock joke instead. It makes sense as Attic comedy or Roman satire, which pulled shit as egregious as this all the time.

The puzzles themselves are generally pretty simple, but there are several easy ways to mess your play session up good and proper, and there is much instadeath. There are long sequences devoid of interaction. Formally, this is a game with a lot of design decisions that are either quite bad or somewhat dated. There is much in the way of side-treks and optional scenes, stuff you’ll miss if you play by the walkthrough, and stuff that (were the source not published) possibly one person might find. There’s nothing that could be described as a clever puzzle or elegant gameplay: it loudly proclaims the utterly conventional nature of its puzzles. There are dozens of NPCs, but all are quite shallow — each has a problem you can solve and a static set of conversation responses.

This old-school feel is lightened by a lot of modern conveniences, some more ostentatious than others (there’s a hint system that works by praying to obscure situation-specific deities.) And it’s full — or bloated — with features included mostly because they’re awesome. It’s dedicated to someone different every time you start play. There is both a footnote system and a references system (the latter both excessive and totally insufficient). >SCORE, naturally, lists everyone you’ve scored with. Including inanimate objects. This is clearly a game that was a great deal of fun to write, and that feeling is infectious; it’s the most entertaining game in this year’s Spring Thing. It’s also the most interesting, in spite of doing nothing that is technically very ambitious or avant-garde; it’s a romp, yes, but it’s romp as advocacy.

This is a game that makes writing and criticism, the whole enterprise of Art, seem like what it’s meant to be: something done for the joy of it. By two or more consenting adults.


Editors’s note: Mentula Macanus can be downloaded, for free, here. It will work for Windows, Linux and the Mac. You’ll need an interpreter, but that link also tells you where to get that.