Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Opera Omnia is part of an indie trend where the crudest-looking games often have the most lasting emotional impact. Within an austere Apple II-era facade, solo developer Stephen Lavelle builds an unsettling story about Machiavellian politics and the slippery nature of history.

The game plays out as a dialogue between a manipulative government official and your character, a historian who specializes in migration patterns. The statesman visits you with an assignment—say, wouldn’t it be nice if that holy city happened to be our ancestral homeland?—and you finesse a computer simulation until you “prove” that the past happened just as the state wishes it did.

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The centerpiece of Opera Omnia is a simple interface that’s deceptively tough to understand. Players may stumble through half a dozen levels before they grasp what’s going on. The difficulty comes from the game’s unique concept: The object is not to create a better future, but rather to craft a more convenient past. Once players accept the idea that history is fungible, Opera Omnia eases into darker matters, uprooting the history of an entire race (the “Others”) in the name of patriotism.

Lavelle could have given Opera Omnia more lavish visuals, but the spartan presentation lends more power to a daring story. The boxes and lines of the migration simulator make it easy to abstract your task; only after watching your “winning” theories play back onscreen do you reach the disquieting realization that you may have just provided a scientific rationale for genocide. “Meaning isn’t my concern. Only the facts,” says your historian character. He tends to talk like this, from under his veil of self-delusion, and after finishing Opera Omnia, you’ll feel more of a kinship with him than you’d like.

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Beyond the game: Lavelle, a.k.a. “increpare,” is a prolific developer who works fast: Opera Omnia was released in late February after two weeks of work. He’s published two more games since.

Worth playing for: The crisp, piercing dialogue tells a story through innuendo and doublespeak.

Frustration sets in when: A few of the middle levels drift into pedantry, teaching lessons that smart players will have already figured out.

Final judgment: With a brilliant economy of verbal and visual language, Opera Omnia is a testament to the virtues of minimalism.

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