Monday, July 08, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] They Will Not Return

Another review from IF Comp 2018; spoilers ahead!

They Will Not Return by John Ayliff

They Will Not Return tells the story of a robot who spends his life cleaning up after his human owners, until one day a deadly virus wipes out all of humanity. The protagonist slowly comes to grip with this fact and ends up having an opportunity to master himself and thus become free.

In terms of craft, this is a very fine work. The writing is good, with the right amount of detail to bring the environment to life, especially the house in which the first half of the game is set. Letting the player see several phases of its slow deterioration is effective. The interactivity is also designed well: while the vast majority of choices doesn’t matter in terms of outcomes, quite a number of them work as opportunities to express the protagonist’s character. (E.g., will you hide the potentially compromising piece of underwear?) Although I did not replay to check, I assume the very last choices in the game do lead to different endings, and I also think I have a good notion of what those endings will be.

Given that all the demands of craft are satisfied, it makes sense to judge the story in terms of, well, the story, and especially the way it develops its themes. The main idea is surely the difficulty and importance of going from a life of servitude to a life of freedom. The protagonist is the ultimate servant, has a hard time coming to grips with the idea that there are no more masters to serve, and then gets to reprogram itself to be its own master. This is fine in itself, but I don’t understand the game’s obvious attempts to link this theme to contemporary capitalism. We have the house hidden behind a security gate; the graffiti against the rich; the revelation that cures were too expensive for most people; and the revelation that the robotics company was already planning how to make more money from the post-disease world. All of this suggests that the tale of the robot is meant as a parable that shines a light on our own society. But modern capitalism precisely does not work by turning workers into the ideal images of servitude. Modern capitalism makes us all into consumers, into people who want to work more because they believe that this will give them the freedom they most crave, the freedom to become happy by buying whatever they choose. Our happily serving robot is much more a pre-modern type, the “loyal servant” of yore. Hence the tale of the robot and the backstory about its capitalist masters fit together only uneasily.

More crucial, however, is the way the plot’s central problem is resolved. The robot was essentially a servant, doing its master’s bidding. Now it has to confront freedom. The central problem, then, is the problem of freedom, freedom after what Nietzsche metaphorically called ‘the death of God’. Nobody tells you what to do. All external guidance has gone. How then to face the infinity of choice? Well, here is the answer that They Will Not Return gives us: by taking on the role of masters ourselves. (The robot literally reprograms itself in such a way that all the code remains intact, but that they themselves now count as a master.) But that makes no sense as a solution to the problem of freedom! “How should I choose if nobody commands me?” “Command yourself!” Yes, but which commands should I give myself? I cannot understand myself as a master of myself, that is, as external to myself. I have to be myself. I have to make the choices. The victorious ending afforded to the robots is too easy, comes too cheap.

I end up, then, being quite critical about the thematic development of the game. But I want to stress that the very fact that They Will Not Return asks for discussion at the level of thematic development shows that it is a good effort. The game is serious; it wants to make us think; and it is well-written. But for me, it needs just a little more to really stand out.

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