In a parallel universe, I start this article by declaring how fucking tired I am of games about the 13th-century Catharite heresy and its persecution by the Catholic Church. Sadly, in this world, there is only L’Abbaye Des Morts. Dealing with a dark and obscure annex of European history, creator Locomalito opts for the dark and obscure conventions of classic insta-death platformers like Manic Miner. But because of how it uses these conventions, it is – delightfully – not just a game about the Cathars, but a Catharite game.
Much of what we know about the Catharites or Albigenses is twisted through the lens of the Catholic mainstream and its political allies in the north of France, who waged and ultimately won a twenty-year crusade against the heretics and the nobles who protected them. But the most common view of them is that found in the otherwise dubious Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which inspired The Da Vinci Code (and which used to be copied wholesale on Wikipedia). According to this view, the Cathars radically extended the Manichean undercurrent always present in Christian religion, dividing the cosmos into the domains of morally opposite but equally powerful forces. For the bonne hommes, as they called themselves, the god of Good was “entirely discarnate, a being or principle of pure spirit, unsullied by the taint of matter” – and all material things were the work of an evil demiurge who had trapped the divine and perfect spirits of mankind in a prison called the world.
Creation itself, then, was “intrinsically evil”, and its creator a “usurper God”, Rex Mundi, the King of the World. This ascetic zeal might seem fair for a religion whose holy book refers at one point to our “vile bodies”. But it was deeply problematic for the Catholic doctrine that Christ was simultaneously human (material) and fully divine, as well as for its attitude to Creation in general, on behalf of which he had died. It also had political implications: Cathars would not take oaths, nor marriage vows, and held procreation a sin. These were three things that strengthened the chains binding pure spirits to the polluted earth, but also things on which medieval society also relied for structure. Moreover it’s said that they had no objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide. You can see why they all got killed. For their part, the Cathar ‘perfecti’, or nominal priesthood, caused plenty of trouble for the Catholics. Highlighting the excesses of the opulent Church, and the obvious gulf between their words and their deeds, was a good way of converting people to the cause, and for them, the wealthy, opulent Catholic Church must have seemed the very gilded centre of Rex Mundi’s rule on earth. For a colourful account of the movement, whose accuracy I cannot vouch for, see here.
As it happens, Cathars were also subject to a variety of slurs, from the charge that they underwent ritual starvation to transcend the flesh and thus committed suicide, to Alan of Lille’s bizarre (and at the time unoriginal) accusation that they worshipped by gathering in dark rooms to fumble for and eventually kiss the arse of a black cat. Catharism is also the source of the word ‘to bugger’, via its occasional designation by the contemporary mainstream as “the Bulgarian heresy”.
666 different kinds of buggered is exactly what you get in L’Abbaye Des Morts. You are trapped in a toxic material world. I’m not talking about a Britney/Madonna mashup. Everywhere there are beasts - spiders, snakes, zombies, giant flies with chattering skull-faces, and all manner of creepy-crawlies – all of which are totally deadly to you (as traditional, they kill with a touch). The deadly toxicity of the material is a constant consideration; even seemingly innocuous drops of water can kill you, something I found out the hard way. As Buddha tells disciples in the Fire Sermon: all things are on fire. You move through a ruined world where everything hurts, and matter is damnation. Touch it, and you turn into a little red flame, and then a skull, and then nothing.
This is a really great review. (via @felantron)
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