In the early days of personal computer multimedia (when it was black and white, and before the Internet stole its momentum) there were very few well-trodden paths. Much time and effort was spent simply trying to determine by trial and error what would and wouldn’t work, technically, artistically, and financially. But while the era produced its share of instantly obsolete reference guides, profit-minded shovelware, and other experiments of ambiguous worth, some classics were also born– many of them now sadly forgotten. One of these was If Monks Had Macs, a collection of HyperCard stacks originally released as shareware in 1988, and which grew over time; its most recent incarnation was described by MacWeek magazine as “a 24-piece collection of essays, electronic books, games and music linked together with the very personal touch of author Brian Thomas.”
The heart of Monks is its main menu– a desk with a view of a cloister, the sound of Gregorian chant echoing in the background, a bookshelf and a sheet of writing paper in view. The choice of subject matter is eclectic– almost random, it seems at times, wandering through time and space (Thomas, more or less the curator for this cabinet of heartfelt wonder, sometimes refers to it as a “stew”). Meat and Conversation, then, is one of the pieces of the larger collection that is Monks. In its own words, it is “an illustrated medieval text adventure game full of demonic temptations and other incredibly stimulating distractions. You play the part of a monk with a dangerously overactive imagination who is, inopportunely, besieged by dangerously overactive demons.” It is a game only in a very rudimentary sense by modern standards, and today’s self-styled ludological experts examining it for its design would certainly come away unimpressed. The player is provided with text that evokes a place, perhaps some supporting illustrations, a compass wheel for navigation, and a list of nouns and verbs from which to create two-word sentences. There is only a single combination of words that lets one proceed in any given situation.
But the fun of the game, such as it is, does not hinge on its mechanics– it works through the application of them to its subject matter. “In the Middle Ages monks were silent vegetarians,” explains one of the game’s several fourth-wall breaking footnotes. “At carnivorous feasts they set aside the vow of silence for a little Meat & Conversation.” We join our character just as he is sitting down to one of these feasts, listening to a story told by visiting Russian. His overactive imagination takes over, and we find ourselves in the world of the story, a place as metaphorical as it is representational. Thus, Meat and Conversation does not attempt to get its player to believe that what is happening to him is literal, but sets the stage for the player to inhabit a character who, by some force intrinsic or external, vividly experiences a philosophical and spiritual point relayed to him through a trial-and-error text adventure.
It is no wonder that Meat and Conversation was so esoteric for so long. It was originally only for the Macintosh (a modernized version now works on Windows). It is exceedingly short. It is either incredibly hard or incredibly easy, depending on your experience with old-style adventure games. It deals with very serious subject matter (though not without humor– a hint system is accessed by clicking on a button labelled “temptation,” with a woodcut image of demon on it; the text above it reads, “If you don’t know what to do, the demon below will lead you astray.”). It is dedicated to French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, and the story is quite spiritual, if not overtly religious, depending on one’s perspective. It seems to have very little to do with the isolated and insular world of video games as they are today. Traces of its influence are difficult to come by, and even those who do remember it tend to praise it in terms of its earliness and not its content. Macworld magazine once wrote (of the entirety of Monks), “Without this oddball product displaying the power and potential of hypermedia, applications such as the groundbreaking 1990s game Myst would likely never have appeared,” not something I am sure any working game designer I know would consider high praise.
Now, though, I feel we are better equipped to understand and to talk about something like Meat and Conversation. At the very least, we have a neat mental category for this kind of “oddball product,” the personal game with the big idea: the little art game, the indie apothegm. But while the examples of such that we experience today are often achingly conscious of themselves and the audience for which they are intended, Meat and Conversation feels refreshingly genuine, coming as it does to us from outside the gaming sphere– and outside time, for most intents and purposes. I submit it as an antecedent, nearly twenty years old now, that we should not neglect.