Nuns are having a moment. They’ve been a staple in horror and comedy for a long time, but something seems to be shifting. Rather than a punchline, a source of unease, or an icon of pure spirituality, parts of monastic life—the gardening, the isolation, the company of others engaged in the same things as you—have shifted into pop cultural objects of desire. Something about a life lived at the intersection of spirituality, daily chores and intimate community seems to resonate more strongly than ever.
, an upcoming visual novel written and produced by developer XeeCee, is about a convent where something has gone very, very wrong. It’s also about the establishment and destruction of bonds built over a lifetime, bonds established through conversation, but also through prayer, study, and shared circumstance. After a murder shakes the convent’s comfortable boundaries, its inhabitants are all under suspicion, providing the foundation for an investigation plot, social drama, and a hint of potential romance. Oh, and of course, it’s all set in the fifteenth century.
Misericorde is still under development, though its developer promises the first volume will release very soon, and shared a new trailer via Twitter a few days ago. I played through the demo, which is long—it took me over two hours to finish—and Volume 1 promises “much more content” when it releases. There are a wide variety of backgrounds and sound cues, which add necessary orientation to the textual descriptions. The images of cathedral walls and vine-covered gardens are done in a monochromatic style that draws the eye without distracting from the text.
The narrator in Misericorde is someone isolated even further from the world than a regular nun: an anchoress, a spiritual worker who lives in an enclosed cell—also referred to as a tomb—metaphorically dead to the world, and charged with being an authority to others on Scripture, good living, and other life questions. Her name is Hedwig, and she talks about herself almost like a life advice columnist—any question someone has about any part of the Bible and its reference to them, she can answer. She has little interest in these earthly questions though, at least at first. As she says of her work when you’re first introduced to her: “I had no need to care about fleeting matters. My life was God’s.”
The novel’s conceit is ingenious: as an anchoress, Hedwig hasn’t left her cell in 20 years. Because of this, when a nun is killed, she’s the only one the superior of the abbey trusts to be innocent. Thus, Hedwig is charged with leaving her cell and finding who did commit the crime. Every other nun is a potential suspect, and they’re also evaluating Hedwig as an outsider who they’ve lived next to all their lives, but never actually seen.
Unlike the other nuns, who drink, swear, and roll the Office of the Hours into just two prayers, Hedwig is very devout and full of specific knowledge about Catholic doctrine. Misericorde as a whole is similarly encyclopedic in its knowledge of the Bible and medieval liturgical history. For example, the demo mentions at length John Wyclif’s translation of the Vulgate into Middle English, for which he was accused of heresy. It also namedrops the mystic and scientific writer Hildegard von Bingen, who is an icon to some of the nuns at the abbey. Misericorde makes these figures into near-contemporaries, not quite celebrities, but people who the nuns see as spiritual advisors and heroes (or villains).
Misericorde’s writing is top-notch, really selling the abbey and its varied inhabitants from the start. Fittingly for a murder-mystery, it is very interested in the gap between what people say and what they’re actually thinking. For example, a lot of the demo spends time outlining how scary it is for Hedwig to leave her cell—she is so unused to walking, for example, that she’s forgotten how to use stairs. She covers this fear with a layer of irritation—telling the other nuns off for taking the Lord’s name in vain, or forgetting the omnipresent nature of evil. It’s clear, though, that everyone in the abbey has similar self-protective techniques, like Flora, a teenager who would rather be anywhere else and sequesters herself in the cellar to prove it, or Angela, the second most powerful nun, whose jealousy leads her to suspect Hedwig of trying to steal her job, and perhaps more. At the end of the demo, Hedwig had no solid leads, and neither did I—whatever the mystery’s ultimate resolution will be, it’s not yet clear enough to guess.
One criticism that could be leveled against Misericorde, though I wouldn’t do so, is that of thematic inconsistency. As already mentioned, the game is steeped in an amount of biblical knowledge that’s impressive, and Hedwig herself is highly characterized by her cold dedication to faith, but the other nuns are often goofy and serve as foils for her more reserved personality. The first third of the demo is mostly devoted to giving us backstory on Hedwig and her relationship to the mysterious, murdered woman who visited her; this serious tone never quite goes away, but the game adds in more whimsy in a way that mirrors the genre conventions of a school drama.
The characters speak in informal contemporary English, which works the majority of the time. The nuns are represented by static portraits that add a smaller version of the character’s face above them when they become sad, scared, or angry. While it’s true that hearing “medieval nuns” and “uwu face” in the same sentence would normally give me hives, these occasional chibi-heads and exaggerated beads of sweat make a clear connection between the dramatic contours of a manga and the equally dramatic, though different, emotional registers of medieval theological experience. Anyone who has read the Book of Margery Kempe, for example, will be familiar with the excessive weeping that overcomes her when she sees a vision of Christ, an event that isn’t so emotionally different from some of the distress these characters go through. Margery herself has become a twitter presence, a meme, and the subject of several documentaries. She is a character in a way that can be rare in medieval history, as many of its authors and historical figures remain anonymous. And her rehabilitation online is actually a good analogy for the way some of these characters are presented: emotional, silly, sometimes drawn in overly-broad strokes, but presenting full people that react to embarrassment and surprise in a way that reveals their depth.
Misericorde actually strikes a very impressive balance between providing historical accuracy and having fun with its subject. This is preferable to what we usually see with games focused on the medieval period: games that are determined to be totally self-serious, that meticulously research trebuchet types and realistic swords but remain convinced that their characters, trapped in the dark ages as they are, don’t have the full range of emotions to stand on their own. As a visual novel, Misericorde is nothing without its characters, and it trusts them enough to let them be developed, corny, and emotional. It’s a storytelling triumph so far, and I can’t wait to read the rest.
Emily Price is an intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.