Review (Discworld): Small Gods

Hope that the person I borrowed this book from doesn’t mind I read it with Covid-19. (I’ll return to them in a week or two after airing it out….)

So, for anyone following my Discworld reviews, a major theme of my thoughts is the difference between young me and old me’s interpretation of each book.

Small Gods is doubly interesting on this point. Strangely it wasn’t a book that I didn’t understand even when young – in fact for Pratchett its a pretty accessible satire compared to some other entries or rather more accurately the focus is a lot narrower, basically all about religious dogma and political power. (I find while Pratchett usually has one central theme like in Moving Pictures, but usually sprinkles multiple jokes and analysis throughout a book).

But in saying all that I liked Small Gods much more as a grown adult. I think it felt more significant and real, almost not just a story. The character of Vorbius that much more sinister.

So just to backtrack a bit, Small Gods is a stand alone ‘ancient civilization’ story that follows ‘Brutha’ an possibly Autistic man who finds himself caught between his one true God (currently a lowly tortoise due to only having one believer) and Vorbius, the violent voice of authority for his church which seems more concerned with conquering the known world than actually believing in Om.

I’ve mentioned before that Discworld novels seems to evolve quite a bit from most of the early editions being random romps throughout the fantasy land – to tighter more traditional storylines. Small Gods, IMO is the most focussed story yet, even complete with a growing character Arc for Brutha, with rising tension, major climax and everything. That’s not to say that these later books are more “sell-out” in fact Pratchett’s badass plots are among my favourite.

Looking forward to some Lords and Ladies next.

P.S. for an Easter egg I never realized – this book introduced Lu-Tze (Thief of Time) as a minor side-character. I don’t know if he’s snuck into any other stories but I will report back.

The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow: A Spoiler Filled Examination

I kind of stumbled across this game after seeing a brief review from YakWaxLips but this game is right up my alley being simultaneously Lovecraftian creepy and adventure game cozy.

SPOILERS AHEAD (I’m literally going to summarize the whole plot of the game if that’s not what you’re hoping to dig up then go no further :D)

Hob’s Barrow follows Thomasina (great name) Bateman who pens a letter to her mother explaining her actions “that night” and how they began with a trip to Brewley to excavate the titular Hob’s Barrow.

Before I decimate any more of the plot I just want to spare a paragraph for the intriguing narrative of this game. True to the Lovecraftian style of the story, there is a overarching voice-over from Thomisa, as she pens a letter to her mother explaining the events of “that night” which required an explanation of Hob’s Barrow.

Why I quite like this narrative technique is it blurs the line of unreliable narrator and video game. Not that Thomasina is overtly unreliable, just that its not 100% clear whether the game we play is ‘real life’ or part of the letter to her mother – as we also get childhood flashbacks – more on all this later.

Anywho, the story is deceptively simple.

Thomasina arrives to Brewley at the request of a local man – who suggests Hob’s Barrow as Thomasina’s next dig. Thomasina is touring the country exploring barrows for a book dedicated to her father. We soon learn that her Father had a similar predilection for excavation. We also learn that her father has been unwell since her childhood, effectively in a vegetative state after some incident, Thomasina is greatly affected by this. Thomasina also carries a strong sense of common-sense and reality from her perceived no-nonsense father.

As per the trope for these tales, things start to take a sinister turn the moment Thomasina arrives.

Namely this dude asking for a kiss

Again in consistent trope fashion the locals are standoffish to a fault, and the most welcoming are so in a creepy way, making statements like “it’s good to have fresh blood in town.”

The man who originally invited Thomasina is missing, and she has bad dreams since arriving in Brewley. As Thomasina investigates the locale of Hob’s Barrow she learns more about the site – that a pervious dig was attempted by none other than her own father. In fact his current illness appears to be a result of messing with the Barrow. As Thomasina learns more the exact mythology becomes blurry, there are local stories about the Barrow being home to a goblin who may bless or curse the land as he sees fit, but also stories of something more sinister lying beneath the barrow.

Either way the trip has began to shock Thomasina to the core, its hard to know what hits her hardest that her father had been originally on the dig and this caused his injury/curse OR that her father in fact believed in the mystical BS surrounding the Barrow.

Just before initiating the dig its revealed that the original letter to summon Thomasina was no co-incidence, nefarious forces have been working to bring Thomasina to the Barrow as a decedent of her father. Unsure whether entering the Barrow is the key to returning her father to health, or releasing the ultimate evil or both, Thomasina proceeds to excavate the barrow, working through a long series of bizarre puzzles before completing a final instruction from her father to spill her own blood on some soil deep within the tomb.

What happens next dear reader would spoiler your brains and render your eyes unseeing!

Yeah Thomasina releases a massive demon.

In possibly the most ambitious or slightly over the top tonality we are then greeted to a sequence where Thomasina mind explodes two nurses before finally taking a small vase she originally gifted her father and collapsing his skull with it.

The letter to her mother explains this sequence of events, and we see the evil doers of Brewley laughing together as they prepare to worship there new God.

It’s not like its the first Lovecraftian horror put down into video game, but IMO it captures the ‘dear reader’ vibe better than the vicious RPGs and Shooters that are also awesome but don’t capture the weird real/fever dream that these stories portray.

What I really enjoyed about the game was a sense of atmosphere, the music and sounds were perfect. The visuals a perfect mix of innocent countryside and rainy evilside.

Even though the story is quite simple, there are many lose threads open to interpretation and fleshing out the theme. For example a strong thread throughout the game is the idea of progress and moving on. The ‘good-guys’ in Brewley are fairly anti the new railroad that has just been build through town, they feel the town should be left alone and don’t like outsiders. The baddies of course see it as a pipeline for new worshippers.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition of progress and conservatism, moving on and clinging to the past. Thomasina’s story is of course, very Freudian – her whole life is pursuing her perception of her father’s work, in flashbacks we see her annoyance at her mother sometimes holding her back from it. However when this is inverted and she finds out her father isn’t who she thought she releases a buried evil that he originally contained, and confesses all to mother who she blames for holding her back first from her father then from the truth.

The parental analysis of Hob’s Barrow is evident in other ways – one of the earliest puzzles is you encounter Father Roache who requests you provide him with blood letting. Not only is this great foreshadowing but the puzzle is that you use your mother’s handkerchief to collect some broken glass to perform the act. The implication being that Thomasina’s mother tries to protect Thomasina but ends up enabling worse things.

This is all open to interpretation but it feels the whole ‘meaning’ of Hob’s Barrow is about change, the past and how to progress towards the future. Everyone in the story seems to be fighting their past in one way or another. In true Cosmic Horror style there doesn’t appear to be many healthy answers given, this is shown subtly in some cases. In the church there are old fashioned and very tall locked box pews. These were constructions in churches where typically a family or other group could old or be a assigned a ‘box’ to inhabit during church. The existence of a lock (not to lock people in AFAIK) suggests a sense of rigidity and resistance to change. The Father is unwell at Brewley, and its not explained why, (I mean possibly something to do with an ancient evil entrapped nearby) but it contributes to a sense of struggling with change, the congregation of Brewley, even if not outright worshipping the rising evil are moving on from the church.

There are other subtle teases as well, the local ‘witch’ implies that Thomasina’s father might have been a bit of a ladies man, or at least had some reputation for such. This theme portrays tensions between perception and reality, fantasy and evidence.

Even the setting itself seems to lend itself to the theme with the town of Brewley a centre of order in the middle of the chaotic moors, where apparently inhabited by wildlings and mystery.

To summarise the plot of the game – its an extremely well crafted piece! I was planning on fleshing out this post after playing through with the developer commentary on, however there is SO MUCH extra material to process, so its going to be a while before that’s finished.

Gameplay

Just a brief review of the gameplay that accompanies the great story. Hob’s Barrow has reasonably straightforward point and click adventure game style. For the most part the puzzles are a good level of difficulty – nothing that would leave you hanging for weeks (pre-internet) but also not so ridiculous simple you’re yawning.

Probably my absolutely favourite puzzle was a section where you needed a guy to stop guarding your stuff, the solution is to invite him to the pub for a drink, but arrange it so his worse rival is there too and they start arguing over their beers.

There was one particularly stretchy piece of moon logic – the sequence being a local girl would show off her juggling skills if you gave her an apple. To get your next item you need to put a worm in the apple then give it to her, she freaks out and throws the apple at someone else who gets distracted and then you steal her stuff…

Overall while the challenge level is sound, there is an annoying adventure game trope which is hard to avoid. Almost all the puzzles go through a familiar format, where you basically get an initial goal, but the character attached will want something. That something comes from another character who wants something first, and so on, often cycling through several characters and item puzzles as the basic gameplay loop. It’s a good way to expose Thomasina and the player to lots of character interaction but it gets a bit silly at times one such loop went something like.

Thomasina needs to get to the Manor > Servant lady in town agrees to take her if you can find milk > Thomasina tries to milk a goat but has a scary vision > Farmer can’t milk goat due to arthritis > Local witch will do a poultice for farmer if Thomasina brings ingredients > Father Roach has one of the ingredients but is no-where to be found.

And so on, its not the worst style of adventure gaming it’s certainly better than weird timed encounters and pixel hunting, but their are moments of frustration as you’re walking over the same ground often for a slightly different tasks and not feeling closer to the ultimate goal.

A final odd gameplay point is that the game appears very well designed to avoid walking death or soft-locks. Also you can’t ‘die’ in Hob’s Barrow which actually fits the story better, it feels certain style’s of games suit having ‘death’ in them better because it causes a form of tension, whereas Hob’s Barrow’s tension comes from the creeping storyline.

While always spooky there isn’t much overt gore or horror – overall a very 10/10 experience. Looking forward to whatever comes next.