Cygnet Committee

Joan of Arc is a fascinating figure. She’s been many things: heretic, martyr, saint, hero, military leader, feminist icon, nationalist symbol. She claimed to hear the voices of angels: Was she truly in touch with the divine? Or was she deluded—or did she suffer from mental illness? Along with Napoleon and Louis XIV, she’s also been the leader of the French in multiple editions of the Civilization computer game franchise. After playing Cygnet Committee, I learned that she’s a line of canned beans as well. As the company website says, “Joan of Arc® beans valiantly transform any ordinary dish into something extraordinary.” No doubt.

Cygnet Committee invites us to explore many of these different aspects of Joan, especially the ways in which she’s been appropriated—even exploited—by others.

When you start Cygnet Committee you find yourself sneaking onto an island. Your mission is to take down a military cult based on the island that’s been formed around Joan. But as you progress through the game you’ll find computer terminals that update you as to the real situation on the island. These updates take the form of jarring messages spoken by a robotic female voice with a heavy French accent, while clips from the 1920s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc play in the background. It doesn’t take long to learn that the military cult created an artificial intelligence version of Joan, a version they intended to use for their own ends. They saw programming an AI version of Joan to be not all that different, at least from Joan’s point of view, to receiving the divine instructions that the real Joan claimed to have heard.

The player also gets to experience some of what Joan herself experienced. The major puzzle mechanic in Cygnet Committee is sound-based: Like the real Joan trying to discern the true voice of the divine amongst the cacophony of our mundane world, the player has to learn to listen very carefully to the game’s ambient sounds in order to move about the island and overcome obstacles. The player can easily be captured, too—just like the real Joan—although the penalty in Cygnet Committee is much less severe: losing some data chips rather than being burned at the stake.

I found playing Cygnet Committee to be unsettling. Joan is a complex, contradictory figure, and the game’s depiction of the real Joan, Joan the AI, and the forces that used Joan (both real and AI) for their own ends captures those contradictions. At different times during Cygnet Committee Joan comes across as an enigma, a victim, a threat, a marketable brand name, and as insane. Who was she, really? Who is she? Cygnet Committee never answers that question, instead preferring to portray Joan in all of her complexity.

While I’m impressed with Cygnet Committee thematically, I did find playing it to be somewhat frustrating. Moving from nearly any location to an adjacent location requires solving a sound-based puzzle, even one that you’ve already solved multiple times. Eventually that became tedious. A few of the sound puzzles are on timers, too, and these reset your progress if you don’t solve them fast enough. My ear isn’t that discerning, and so every time I hit one of those I thought, “Oh, no.” Fortunately, at least in one case, the game realized that I was having trouble with the puzzle and so extended the time it allowed me. In general, though, I think the game would be greatly improved by not requiring the player to re-solve a sound puzzle that has already been solved. (*) Removing some of the timed text would help as well. For example, I missed the last few sentences of the game because I was trying to take notes as I played, and the game moved on to the credits before I had finished reading the final screen.

Overall, I think Cygnet Committee, with its plot, puzzles, multimedia effects, and twisting explanations of what’s happening, does a skillful job of exploring the character of Joan of Arc in all her contradictory complexity. While most of the aspects of Joan’s life that the game dramatizes I had thought about before, I had never juxtaposed them all like the game forced me to. That’s not to say I think I have a handle on her now; on the contrary, after playing Cygnet Committee my sense of Joan’s nature and impact is even more unresolved. Thanks to the game, though, two images are particularly prominent in my mind. One is Joan as a cygnet, in the game’s words “a baby swan, a being that has not yet grown into a creature of peace and tranquility.” She was only 19 when she was executed. I wonder who she might have become. The other is Joan as a can of red kidney beans. What a trivialization and exploitation of such a complex woman.

Added: As I’ve thought more about Cygnet Committee, I’ve found myself struck by its portrayal of Joan as a tragic figure who lacked her own agency—both in life and with respect to controlling her legacy after death. This is dramatized in the game by the creation of the AI Joan, who is at the mercy of her creators but who also experiences a yearning to be free. She’s able to reject her programmers to some degree, but she’s never fully able to escape. Regardless, I’ve continued to think about Cygnet Committee after finishing it for longer than I usually do with an IF game, which is a testament to the power of its images.

(*) After posting this review I’ve since learned that there are some in-game ways to avoid re-solving some of the sound puzzles.

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