Blood Magic and Rebel Scum

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Choice of Rebels: Uprising – the rebellion lives.

Choice of Rebels: Uprising is an interactive text game from Choice of Games. I previously reviewed their game The Daring Mermaid Expedition, and have also played several of their other games, notably the Affairs of the Court trilogy. As implied by the name, the game’s plot involves an uprising against a corrupt empire in which you, the player character, play the role of both instigator and leader. As in all Choice of Games offerings, this game is rich and divergent, with hundreds of choices large and small that can affect the outcome of the plot.

One of the game’s main strengths is in its worldbuilding. The world of the Karagond Hegemony is richly drawn and thoroughly outlined in the attached codex, which is accessible from the game’s stats screen. The centuries-old empire has swallowed up the nations that preceded it and morphed their religion into a doctrine in support of their brutal hierarchies. This world order is held in check by theurgy, a vastly powerful kind of blood magic restricted to elite practitioners, and requiring the yearly sacrifice of thousands of serfs to power it. The game does an elegant job of intertwining the cultural and historical elements of worldbuilding with this deeper, more metaphysical aspect of the plot. While at times confusing, it also provides a richness that long-time readers of epic fantasy can appreciate.

Choice of Rebels also boasts the scope of a classic epic fantasy; the full text of the game clocks in at about 600K words, even if a single playthrough covers only a fraction of that. Adding to the replayability that’s always been part of COG’s brand, here you can choose to play the hero of the rebellion as either the young scion of a poor but noble house, or as a helot, the empire’s underclass of serfs turned chattel slaves. Your backstory also allows you to choose to focus on one of the Hegemony’s several injustices, whether it’s the harvesting of human lives to fuel arcane rituals, or the violent suppression of national sentiment, and the cultures that thrived before the Hegemony’s assimilation.

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The mobile background art is evocative of the corrupt imperial blood magic.

COG have built their brand on choice-rich branching narratives, and customizable player characters with complex skills, personality axes, and relationships. In Uprising, skills are rudimentary but critical, measuring the character’s relative prowess in matters physical, mental and social. There is no way to gain or reduce them after the initial character-building segment, although they affect every part of the plot. You get a great strength and a complementary weakness, and against each of these three skills, there exists a rebel character who has it as their main strength. It’s possible, therefore, to offset your rebel leader’s weaknesses by relying on their trusty followers — assuming you do in fact trust them.

Trust is at the core of the game. Rebellion is dangerous business, and in the Karagond Hegemony treachery is especially brutally punished. Captured rebels face not a simple execution but rather the horrifying blood-extraction machines that are used to power the Hegemony’s arcane army. For the aristocratic rebel, this treason is one of the few ways in which they can find themself facing the Harrowing. Conversely, for the helot rebel, Harrowing is an almost inevitable end, deferred but never truly avoided, except by the slim possibility of a successful uprising.

The first chapter of the game introduces most of the rebels’ core cast, starting from the charismatic firebrand helot Breden, whose gender, like that of the hero, is selected by the player. Breden is a purposeful and versatile character, who serves potentially as a friend and ally, an enemy, or a love interest. They are also the instigator of the rebellion’s earliest roots. Here is the player’s first notable chance to put their rebel leader’s skills to good use. A cunning rebel, for example, can accurately judge the enemy’s readiness — or lack thereof — to make battle against an angry mob. Successfully navigating this inciting incident makes a big difference in your reputation as an outlaw, which is kept and calculated separately for all the major factions in the district.

But while the initial act of violence sets the early tone of the game, the second chapter, which is built as an elaborate, multi-variable resource management game, allows you plenty of opportunities to tip the scales in whichever way you should choose. Target wealthy merchant caravans at the risk of alienating the trading classes, or take on such formidable targets as the Alastors, the Hegemony’s brutal law enforcement, to sow maximum chaos (excuse me, ‘xaos‘) and increase your anarchy score. My initial clashes with this system were confusing, tedious and dispiriting. I was glad to discover, in my second game, that much of the work can be compartmentalized by handing it off to your second-in-command. It will not allow you to unlock the achievement for bringing the entire band of brigands alive through the winter, but it will let you focus on bringing down the institutes of power, rather than nickel-and-diming endless sacks of barley.

COG games also often feature romantic subplots. In Uprising, the romance element is introduced both by Breden, a remarkably attractive stranger that drops into your life out of nowhere, and by a second character, whose identity is determined later in the game. Through a series of choices sprinkled into the narrative, you can implicitly set your hero’s orientation. To this end, the game is programmed to always provide both a male and a female love interest, and in both cases their interest in the hero is spelled out quite clearly. It’s even possible to play your hero as someone who recognizes attraction when others experience it, acknowledging the love interest’s attractiveness despite being themself asexual. What’s more, I appreciated that it is possible for your character to fall in chaste love with their love interest. Romantically-inclined asexual characters are not hugely common, especially not in games.

One or two games are not nearly enough to plumb the depth that COR:U has to offer, not even with the handy walkthroughs that can be found on the COG official forums. This is both an advantage and a drawback. After all, the game is still massive in scope, and not every player has the energy, much less the time, to experience every possible combination of choices. Nor even the most major ones. With skills alone, there are six possible combinations, twelve when you factor in the player character’s two possible backgrounds. Then there are the personality trait variables, which in this game serve as a brief description of the character’s approach to the philosophical problems presented by imperial politics.

As a player, I quickly realized that I would not be able to satisfy my need to extract the most from this game without creating at least four separate characters. This is especially true considering that, according to game author Joel Havenstone, Uprising is the first installment of five. Still, after a game where I replayed each chapter three times in order to get it just right, I began to wonder whether my endurance was up to tackling Uprising‘s particular brand of complexity. The game’s story and lore remain compelling, but once certain secrets (and achievements) have been unlocked, some of the setup involved in creating unique playthroughs starts to feel repetitive.

One of the notable features of COR:U as a fantasy epic is its relationship to “grimdarkness”, a term that has variously been used as a genre descriptor or an outright insult. For my money, I will generally only classify a story as grimdark if it wallows in senseless violence to the point of neglecting every aspect of the story and characters. This approach, I am aware, is not typical. COR:U, then, doesn’t meet the criteria of grimdark. While the game’s setting is predicated on brutality of unimaginable scope, and the violent scenes are sometimes graphically described, I could point to a dozen places in the game that could have been more graphic and more sensationalist, where instead restraint was exercised. Now, there’s more to the differentiation than that, but the fact that not every opening for a graphic description of viscera was taken is not without significance.

By far the most interesting part of the story, in my eyes, proved to be the speculated presence of a traitor among the young rebels. From the very beginning, the game’s text warns that there might be a traitor among your loyal rebels. The specter of the Kryptasts, the Hegemony’s elite spies, is invoked over and over starting from the first chapter. Supporting characters speculate about the player character’s being one, and you get several important opportunities to accuse or speculate on the other rebels’ motivations. From just as early on, however, it’s obvious that the plausible suspect is Breden, the very character who incites you the player to become a rebel to begin with.

Breden’s character arc is crunchy and complex, but conspicuously incomplete. Even more than actually graduating the rebellion to the point of toppling the Hegemony and confronting the Thaumatarch, Breden’s story is the main reason I’m looking forward to future installments of COR. While their position as a possible spy, traitor and saboteur makes them phenomenally unlikable, their story is still compelling and fascinating. The range of possibilities for continuing Breden’s story is irresistibly vast, especially considering that the player can choose such diverse paths as to kick Breden out at the first opportunity (at the very end of chapter one), or stick by them in spite of repeatedly coming under suspicion, all the way through to the end of chapter four. I would hazard to say that at this point, halfway through my third game, I’m more invested in Breden than I am in my own PCs.

I would heartily recommend COR:U to any fan of epic fantasy and interactive fiction who feels ready to stomach its themes of slavery, human sacrifice and dehumanization.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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