Choosing to preserve

I recently played A Crown of Sorcery and Steel by Josh Labelle, a Choice of Games title that follows up on Labelle’s excellent 2020 game Tavern Crawler. Both games are set in a shared fantasy world, Kanda, in which a fractured civilization battles against the sweeping autocracy of an evil queen Nidana, an elven Scribe who abused her access to protected knowledge to create a near-unstoppable army of automatons. Nidana has slowly expanded her domain over hundreds of years and, in the present of Crown, her control of Kanda is almost total.

This is all standard fare for a work of fantasy, but what sets Labelle’s games apart is the rich and distinctive history, mythology, and sociocultural dynamics of Kanda. Some of this is alluded to in Tavern Crawler, but the much larger Crown really enables Labelle to more fully realize the lore and political relationships between the various groups of orcs, dwarves, elves, and humans. Each of these groups has a cultural history that gets sketched out and integrated into the present story, and the varied political conflicts between these groups continues to shape the present, in which a motley coalition stages a last-ditch effort to stop Nidana.

The player navigates these political tensions throughout the game, so understanding how the past might impact the present is paramount. For instance, human have long exerted a feudal control over dwarves, overseeing their mining operations and taking a significant amount of the mineral resources. Humans justify this exploitation because the resources largely go toward fighting Nidana, but from my vantage (I played as an orc), this was a dubious position to take. Over the course of the game, the dwarves stage a rebellion and block the supply chain of metals used for armaments. The player has to make decisions about whether to support the dwarves and potentially endanger the soldiers fighting Nidana’s army.

Labelle makes great use of the choice-based game mechanic, putting the player in situations like this that demand some action but present no paths without some sacrifice. This was especially affecting, to me, in how Labelle frames efforts to prevent the loss of the various groups’ cultural heritage. Throughout the game, the player witnesses Nidana’s primary strategy of laying waste to symbols and stores of culture. On a playthrough as an orc, Nidana’s army besieges the previously untouched city of Aum, focusing her attacks on museums and libraries: “The history of your people, all the great works you’ve produced over centuries, go up in flames. The sky turns black from the smoke.”

Along with the other quests involved in the party’s preparations to battle Nidana, the player can focus on collecting and preserving bits of history from all of the peoples of Kanda. This raises some really interesting questions about what should be preserved and how preservation should take place. Khattya, the elf in the player’s party, is a Scribe in training, concerned not just with recovering elven history and knowledge but in keeping it alive. At one point, Khattya observes, “For centuries, I’ve watched as the great spells of the Scribes have slipped away…You don’t remember by keeping them written down in scrolls you’ve locked away. You remember by casting them.” At another point, the player can purchase a lock of Nidana’s hair and debates whether to use it to cast a spell that could help in the fight against Nidana’s army or to safeguard it as a historical relic of the Queen’s reign. At another point, Breakwater, one of the last free cities in the realm, is about to be overrun by Nidana’s army and an ancient elf, full of wisdom and knowledge of elven tradition, must decide whether to cast a self-annihilating spell that save the city.

It’s in moments like these that Labelle utilizes the choice-based mechanic expertly. The player has to choose what is worth preserving based on limited resources and limited time. We can commit to preserving some things but not everything — and once we’ve made those commitments, what we’ve given up often cannot be recovered from the past. The relentless forward progress of ChoiceScript games (there’s no back or undo feature, nor the possibility of returning to an earlier save point) hammers this home. Once a choice is made, the player has committed to that path. This can make for some especially agonizing moments: we are aware of all the trajectories that could have been, but we can only concretely experience the results of the choices we have made.

This resembles the real world of cultural preservation in some ways. Though it’s only in the direst of circumstances that some cultural object or piece of knowledge is truly forever lost, something may become irrecoverable in the fullness of its former state if it is ignored at the expense of something else. Sometimes, we simply don’t have a choice of what is lost and what is preserved.

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