(This analysis was first published in issue 52 of SPAG.)
Metamorphoses is instantly recognisable as a work by Emily Short. Many of her fictional worlds, including that of Metamorphoses, are distant and slightly surreal, described to us as if seen through a veil. These worlds are not our own; they are not even for fantastic or science-fictional version of our world: they follow different rules. What rules? The rules of the symbol, of order, of a totality of meaning.
Objects and people in these worlds do not appear in their individuality: they act as symbols of ideas and principles. And it are these ideas and principles, rather than the objects and people themselves, that dictate what will, can or must happen. There are no brute contingencies; the metaphysical reigns supreme, while the physical and the psychological are relegated to a purely supportive function.
The result is that everything fits together and that everything makes sense. But the fit is so perfect that we can only see the world's surface--there are no cracks through which we can peek into the heart of existence, where chance hides, and ugliness, and the failure of meaning. In many of Short's works, these things do not exist; the world's surface is polished and unbroken like that of an ivory ball; and we are doomed to remain strangers, always at a distance, always looking through the veil that separates us from these perfect, self-enclosed wholes.
This artistic effect works better in some pieces than in others. In Pytho's Mask, it bled too much of the life out of what might otherwise have been an emotionally charged political struggle, without adding real metaphysical depth. It worked better in Savoir Faire, where it accentuated the powers and personality of the protagonist, although it did make it hard to care about his problems. In Bronze, it allowed Emily Short to fruitfully appropriate the fairy-tale La Belle et la Bête, which after all comes to us from 18th century French literature, already highly stylised and set in a universe ruled by Morality. (It is, I take it, no accident that Savoir Faire is set in the same country and the same period; and also no accident that Short's games are often set in the elevated realms of aristocrats at court, and extensively feature highly symbolic and "elementary" objects like mirrors, glass and noble and base metals. Two of her games are even called after such substances.)
But is there any material in the history of ideas that would respond better to this artistic effect than the philosophy of Renaissance Platonism and Renaissance Naturalism? In this worldview, everything is a symbol; the whole world is one organic, interrelated whole where nothing happens without an intelligible reason; and the metaphysical world of Forms is more real than the mundane world of Objects beneath it. This is the worldview that Short chooses to explore in Metamorphoses. If the techniques of elevation, abstraction and distancing that she handles so well can perform their work--turning the base substance of Inform code into the gold of art--anywhere, it must be here; and perform it they do.
The player character in Metamorphoses is, if not quite a slave, at least a servant with little freedom. Her Master is an Italian alchemist. He practices mystical alchemy, and instead of fiddling around with sulphur and mercury in some dank cellar, he sends his servant on spiritual quests. It is on one of these quests that the PC finds herself. She must gather and bring back the four elements--earth, air, fire and water--by entering a laboratory that exists somewhere between the material world and the world of Ideas (which is also the mind of God). The four elements are symbolised by the Platonic solids, an identification that goes back to Plato's Timaeus. Entering the laboratory and finding each of these solids is the task her Master has set for the PC; and she will have to solve several puzzles in order succeed.
The puzzles all involve alchemical transformations of one sort or another. In one room, you will find a dragon-shaped oven that can change any object into one of five substances: wood, stone, glass, metal, or cloth. In another, you will find an asymmetric hourglass that can change the size of any object by enlarging or diminishing it. Most puzzles are solved by taking an object, putting it through the appropriate transformations, and using in the right way. This is a satisfying scheme: you will find out the basic actions you can take relatively early, and after that most of the puzzles make perfect sense. The only puzzle which could have been better clued is the one involving the hook: it doesn't give you much feedback when you try something that doesn't work, and it is not obvious why some of the objects aren't allowed to be used to solve the puzzle. The solution that I finally hit upon--turning the dress to metal--could only be arrived at by trial and error, since there is no reason to believe that a metal dress will be attachable to the hook if a wooden one is not. (It turns out that the metal dress is made of chainmail, but you cannot know this in advance.) However, all of the puzzles have multiple solutions, so it is unlikely that you will get stuck often.
The world is rich and carefully described. As I argued above, Emily Short is very good at conjuring up the atmosphere that this work needs; and it is no surprise, then, that the mood of Metamorphoses fits its subject matter admirably. The half-real laboratory is made both substantive and ethereal by the wondrous sights in every room, such a glass trees, concave mirrors and naked statues holding golden keys. The human factor is slowly brought into play through memories of the protagonist, memories mostly of her Master making her do dangerous and disagreeable things in the interest of his experiments; but memories also of a happier life that she led before that. Finally, a series of paintings on the walls of two of the rooms gives cultural and historical context: we see the protagonist's village, several great cities of Europe, and the New World, complete with noble savages and Spanish ships. These three layers (metaphysical, individual, historical) work together well, and present a rounded view of the fictional world, which remains, however, curiously self-contained.
One thing about alchemy that Short has understood very well is that it is primarily, at least in the minds of its more serious practitioners, a way of spiritual purification. The Philosopher's Stone and the Elixer of Life would be fun to have, no doubt; but what alchemy is really is about is to rid one's soul of all that is base, and to understand the mind of God. Another thing that Short has understood, and that the Master in this game has not understood--or, what is more likely, what he has understood but is too cowardly to act upon--is that it is the process of alchemy that purifies, not its final product. The Master hopes to purify himself by letting his servant do all the difficult work; but the only possible outcome of this scheme is that it is the servant herself who is purified.
And indeed, early on in the game, the protagonist is reminded that there are more than four elements, and that the fifth element--quintessence--will allow her to escape the bonds that hold her back. As she finds more of the elements, more of the four humors that plague her (at the start of the game she is melancholy, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic, the four humors of ancient and medieval medicine, each corresponding with a substance in the body as well as with an element in the world) are shedded, until she is ready to ascend to the highest room and pick up the final element that sets her free. At that point, she can return to the real world at any place she likes--back to her Master, to show she has surpassed him, or to some other place (Paris, London, the New World, death) to escape forever from the memories of her native Tuscany.
It is a beautiful story, splendidly told.
It is not perfect; but then again, at the same time it is too perfect. I now wish to discuss three aspects of Metamorphoses that work against it: its multiple endings; its depiction of Renaissance Platonism; and, most importantly, its relative lack of emotional and spiritual resonance.
The multiple endings do not work. This is not surprising for a game written in 2000; we are only slowly learning how to do this well, and we still haven't really succeeded. The problem in Metamorphoses is that all of them are open to you until the very last move you make, and this means that you can easily "undo" your first choice and then try them all out. You probably will do this, for three reasons. First, there is the standard obsession with wanting to see everything that most of us suffer from. Second, the epilogues are beautifully written, and it would be a shame not to read them. And third, since it is very unclear what the different endings will be before you have tried them out, you'll have to try them out in order to understand what the possibilities are and which one you'd like to choose.
Is this a problem? Yes, it is. If you choose all of the endings in quick succession, none of them will feel real. It is as if you didn't make a choice at all, but just looked at all the possibilities. There is nothing special about the first choice you make, or the last one--they are just terms in a series that includes everything. So paradoxically, by allowing the player too much choice, you take it away from her.
Arguably, though, the multiple endings are there not as a real dilemma, but to show how many possibilities the protagonist has in the rest of her life, now that she has freed herself from spiritual bondage. That is an interesting interpretation, but if it were true, the epilogues should have been written differently--for some of them do not stress possibility, but instead suggest only a new imprisonment (in death, in courtly intrigue, in ignorance). So irrespective of whether they were meant as a dilemma or as the representation of possibility, the multiple endings do not fulfil their role.
There are also some elements of the game that don't fit in well with the metaphysics of Renaissance Platonism, and thus diminish the philosophical and spiritual unity of the story. Some minor complaints could be made, such as that the dragon oven changes things to wood, stone, glass, metal or cloth, while such a classification of substances surely has never been proposed. However, we understand why Short chose these categories, rather than (say) those of quicksilver, sulphur and salt: it is far easier to make interesting and sensible puzzles with them. One other minor complaint: the "noble savage" idea that is expressed in one of the wall paintings is very much a late 18th century invention. It doesn't fit into the historical context of Metamorphoses.
But there is a more significant problem, and it has to do with the mechanical contraptions that appear everywhere in the game, including in a model of the Universe at the top of the tower that figures heavily in the penultimate scene. Mechanical contraptions are, of course, very common in interactive fiction, and this is not surprising: the idea of mechanisms fits in perfectly with the standard end-means rationality of the puzzle-solving and point-scoring interactive fiction protagonist. But it does not fit in with Renaissance philosophy.
For the Renaissance Naturalist, the world is not a clockwork. That metaphor appears only in the late 17th century; since the game can be reliably dated as set in the early 1580s (through the John Dee reference), mechanistic thought could not play a role in it. This is not just a historical accident; it is philosophically important. Renaissance Platonism posits in the superiority of the world of Ideas. This means that fiddling with material stuff and building intricate machines out of it is utterly useless in any quest for spiritual purification. More relevantly when we talk about alchemy, Renaissance Naturalism thinks of the world as a great web of correspondences and analogies. It believes that the human body must have certain properties because otherwise it would not be analogous to the heavens; it believes that plants that look like eyes will cure eye diseases; it believes that one can treat a wound by putting a salve on the weapon that caused it. It doesn't think in terms of law-abiding processes, but in terms of correspondence. Its thought is essentially non-mechanical. Hence, an alchemist working in this tradition would never ever think of enlightenment as the result of applying laws of optics to physical problem (as you have to do to get the Fire element), or the result of building intricate machinery (as you have to do to get the Air element). And it is very unlikely that he would build a clockwork planetarium to represent the Heavens.
In some ways, the analogy-based magic system of Savoir-Faire would have fitted this game better than the mechanical puzzles which it in fact contains. The mechanisms and the alchemy in Metamorphoses do not belong together, and that undermines its philosophical and spiritual unity. Here was a perfect opportunity to rise beyond the means-ends rhetoric still dominant in interactive fiction, but unfortunately, it is not made use of.
My final critical point is that, for two reasons, Metamorphoses achieves little emotional and spiritual resonance. The first of these reasons--and it is one that plagues most interactive fiction--is that it is too short. We would like to have seen the characters in action, especially the Master; we would like to have felt the humiliation and fear of the protagonist ourselves, rather than just being told that she once felt them; we would like to play out more scenes before and after her purification, to see what difference it makes to her actual life. This is all hard to accomplish, since writing IF takes a lot of time; but at some point, it will be necessary for us to start writing longer pieces. However, this is not a specific complaint against Metamorphoses.
The second reason is that its aesthetics of abstraction and distance are a mixed blessing for the game; for while they make it an almost perfect work of art, they also form a significant limitation. We can understand, intellectually, a process of purification that happens through the collection of Platonic solids--but we cannot relate that to actual things we ourselves could do or could go through. We can understand the metaphysics of Metamorphoses, but we cannot see how they affect us. This world is too distant, too unreal, too far away from the chance and ugliness and absurdity of our daily lives. Metamorphoses is a beautiful and delicate work of art, but it is not a work of art you can live by.
If my characterisation of Emily Short's work at the beginning of this essay is right, this would seem to be an always-present danger for her interactive fiction. Because of the techniques she uses and the artistic sensibilities she has, her works always run the risk of becoming too perfect, and thereby inaccessible; too laden with meaning, and therefore meaningless.
This is a risk, not a necessity; but in Metamorphoses the risk becomes a reality. I stand in awe of this work, but I cannot love it. To a lesser degree, this is true of the other works I have mentioned as well.
I would like to contrast Metamorphoses with John Crowley's Aegypt novels. These too are about Renaissance Platonism, about the spiritual quests for understanding and purification of Bruno and Dee and their contemporaries, as well as being about the spiritual quests of people here and now. But unlike Short's interactive fiction, Crowley's novels are full of details that do not have a place in the overall scheme, full of people who try to find a meaning in their fractured lives, rather than having their lives ruled and ordered to perfection by a meaning that is always already there. Thus, Crowley is much more true to life. Aegypt is about us and how ideas influence us; Metamorphoses is only about the ideas.
Now, I believe that Emily Short has written at least two pieces in which she does not succumb to the risk of self-enclosure. In Floatpoint, there are still some traces of it, most obviously in the way that colours, decisions and fates map so neatly onto each other, but these traces do not affect the whole very strongly. But it is especially in City of Secrets that Short allows contingencies, ugliness and individual idiosyncrasies to enter her world, and this makes it the most life-like of her works. I think that it is here, rather than in Metamorphoses, that we can glimpse the future of her art. If she can further increase the humanity of her work, can further increase its resonance with our actual lives, and if she will be able to do so without sacrificing the depth that is already present, then she can become more than just a good and innovative author, namely, a great author--by wider standards than those of our community.