[11 October 2013]
Metrolith is a Twine text adventure by Porpentine, a popular and proficient Twine author, in which you guide various characters into an ancient derelict city. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Metrolith and The Nameless City by H.P. Lovecraft as both stories capture the eeriness and wonder of exploring a mystery so vast you can never understand it. Metrolith is never outright scary but it’s consistently unsettling, which is the more impressive feat in my opinion.
Before entering the city you have to choose your character. There are a number of possibilities though only three are displayed at the start of any game. They get cycled out as you click on them. Each character has his own story that will play out depending on how successful you are at navigating the branching paths of the narrative.
Some paths will end your journey in an instant. You’ll investigate something weird and then without warning: “You become part of the city.” The abruptness of such endings is shocking, and while not particularly scary, the statement is deeply unsettling in its ambiguity. You simply don’t know what happens. You don’t even know if you actually died. All you know is that your story is over. It’s now, during subsequent playthroughs, that Metrolith really shines as a horror game. After it establishes that your end can come from any innocuous action, every little choice becomes a matter of life and death. But you still won’t see it coming. You won’t know when you’ve passed the point of no return because the prose imbues every page with a sense of eerie wonder. Things that seem dangerous are harmless, and things that seem harmless are dangerous. And all of it is so painfully intriguing that you can’t help but push onwards.
Your story doesn’t have to end with a maybe-death. Each character’s story has its own conclusion, sometimes multiple conclusions, and some end badly while some end well for the individual involved. The important thing is that these conclusions tell us nothing about the Metrolith. Staying true to its Lovecraftian roots, the city always remains a mysterious thing: You can enter it, and you just might find your way out of it, but you can never understand what this place is or was or what secrets it holds. It is utterly unknowable.
Some of the stories tease you with knowledge, possible connections that form possible explanations: One character wanders through a forest of pillars that seep something from up top, and another character eventually climbs a tower that gives him a vantage point over the stonework. One character sees an odd spider-millipede creature, and another character might turn into one of these creatures in the end (emphasis on the might). But even these possible answers only lead to more questions, more why’s and when’s and how’s. As it should. It’s tempting to play Metrolith over and over and over and over again, trying out every possible combination of choices and characters in order to see what happens, in order to gain just a little bit more insight. Does that white statue ever move? What’s behind the waterfall? What’s in the warehouse?
In this way, Metrolith is a shining example of interactive fiction. Specifically, how the “interactive” part changes our relationship with the “fiction” part. In Lovecraft’s stories, it’s easier to accept the non-answers and lingering mysteries because we know that when a story ends that’s all the information that we’re going to get.
(Though, to be fair, Lovecraft did subvert this expectation in his time by making multiple references to the Necronomicon across multiple stories, giving them a through line that adds just enough authenticity to make people wonder: Sure, The Nameless City is obviously fiction, but maybe the Necronomican is real? Now that we all know its all fake, his stories have lost that mystery.)
In Metrolith, it’s not clear where the mysteries begin and end. Answers could be waiting for me on another playthrough, another branched path. All I have to do is keep walking past the alley, and I’ll discover something that will blow my mind. Or not.
Metrolith effectively evokes the damning curiosity that drives the narrator of The Nameless City. Games are meant to be beaten, and I am determined to beat the metrolith by understanding it. I will explore this city, I will discover it, I will learn its secrets because I know that they’re just around the next corner. Of course this is impossible, and you’ll realize this over the course of multiple playthorughs with multiple characters. Your arrogance will guide you into the city, into that place of wonder and shock and fear, over and over again, until you’re finally forced to accept the humbling truth of your own inferiority.
You will never know the metrolith.
But if you’d like to try, Metrolith can be played on Porpentine’s website (where you should also check out Howling Dogs, A Place of Infinite Beauty, and, well, all the other games Eric Swain mentions in his “Porpentine of the Twine” post).
A direct link to the game is available here.