Their angelic understanding is a strong title and the title of a work is the first thing you notice. Some titles are easily forgotten, you have to look at the spine or the executable to remind yourself. A good title is memorable and also relevant to the core theme of the work. Final Girl was about the Final Girl of horror movie analysis, Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House included all those things but it was really about loss, Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder was, suitable enough about the Captain’s plunder. We’d expect Their angelic understanding to be about someone with angelic understanding, and that the specific nature of this understanding to be integral to the story.
Well, after writing the above I read Their angelic understanding and on a second reading it appeared that it was really about the after effects of abuse, with the angels as metaphors for external and irreproachable abusers. However, there was sufficient degree of ambiguity that it could have been intended to convey something a bit different. There are a lot metaphors in this Twine and some of them are clearer than others.
The story revolves around a scarred survivor who is attempting to overcome past horrors. She trains to fight angels (i.e. abusers or, perhaps, the memory of abuse), but when it comes to it, she realises that her pain was really about the people that stood by and let it happen, the ones that were supposed to be her friends. This realisation is the understanding that protagonist comes to have about their experience with ‘angels’. At least, this is what it seems to be about.
Take the hands: the protagonists pain/damage is symbolised by her damaged hand. Sometimes its portrayed as blackened and burnt, but other times it’s shown to be scarred (by the red tile game). This latter portrayal is most effective as it ties in with the wider allegorical setting in a stronger way. There’s also a dream of disembodied hands but it’s not exactly clear how that’s supposed to tie into the way the protagonist feels about her own hands (with damaged hands being symbol for hurt).
Then there’s the red tile game itself. A game where players compete to hurt themselves the quickest. The rival in this game is the friend (or it’s allegorical equivalent) who stood by and did nothing to prevent the abuse. The final showdown is a metaphor for confronting someone over old wrongs: you both must undergo deep personal pain in attacking each other. So the hand scarring from the red tile game maps onto the emotional scars from the painful memories. This all wraps up nicely with the richer setting of the casino town New Heart City.
One trouble I had was that the setting was made up of very specific imagistic moments that failed to add up to a coherent setting. It seemed at first that there were two settings: an allegorical world (the monastery, tower and city, with vague geography in between) and a veridical world (of the bedroom, and the domestic elements populating the hand dream) that is remembered in dreams, but this veridical world (of Nintendo and iceboxes) is wrought with the metaphorical imagery of the allegorical world (the angels and disembodied hands), which made me think then that was supposed to be one complete setting. But as a setting it wasn’t coherent. Sometimes Porpentine wants it to be an abstract dreamlike anyworld with jungles and sea and faceless people in monasteries, but other times she’s interested in hyper-specific world building, as with the Casino sequence—
—Even as I write this I realise that this might be a deliberate (or perhaps unconscious) artistic choice, representing the re-coming back into the world after so long feeling stagnant, faceless and polluted— emerging from vagueness into the specific realities of the world (like tipping and commercial zoning laws). When thinking critically about a creation there’s sometimes an ambiguity between trying to make sense of it and writing apologisms. After the fact, I can find sense in the sequence of events, but on first reading I struggled to follow the meaning of the piece. A slower, closer second reading was required, which is either a sign of a rich work or a confusing one (or, perhaps, both).
One strength of the story was that the core form of interaction (beyond proceeding to different sections through a rich and innovative range of methods) was in taking up an attitude to the events. In this way, the reader maintains autonomy over their reading: they cannot really change the events or their sequence (there’s only one world-changing choice and that’s about forgiveness), but they can do what we can always do: decide our attitude to those things that are out of our control.
The other strength is the nuance of vision. She realises that people change and an aspect of the tragedy of confrontation years later is that neither people can be the same people as before. The reflection on the coins, how to assign a concrete value when “all tangible things are tangled up with the intangible” (I’ll feel the same when I come to give numerical ratings to everything).
Altogether, the work is a stylistically rich approach to a very personal theme. The setting evoked could not be believed in: its specificities, like the three-coin system were intriguing but the overall painting of the world was uneven. At its best it’s a disturbing and profound symbolic journey, even when not all the signs could be followed.