[IF Comp 2013] "Our boys in uniform" by Megan Stevens

The Interactive Fiction Competition is back! Spoilers behind the break.

Our boys in uniform is a short choice-based game that gives us several pieces of text -- a patriotic American song, Army communications from WW2, a description of the plot of a propaganda cartoon -- and then allows us to click on words in those pieces. Most of these words lead to a small snippet of text serving to establish the thoughts of the fictional narrator, an American who is drafted into the army during WW2, and, quite understandably, isn't enamoured of the rhetoric around him that suggests that he should be proud to sacrifice his life for the greater good that is America.

In each piece, there is one word that is a "lie." Clicking it forces you to start anew (or, given how Twine works, press the back-button of your browser twice). There is also one word that is a "truth" and that will take you forward to the next piece. This device definitely doesn't work as a puzzle, since there is no way to guess in advance what the author's interpretations of the words will be. I can't think of anything it does accomplish, except for being a mildly irritating pacing device.

After a couple of these pieces, the game ends with the author explaining the work:
[T]he author asks you to consider why these stereotypes came about. Why were so many Germans members of the Nazi party? Why did so many fight in the war believing that theirs was the side of righteousness? Could it have something to do with an unquestioning belief in what they were told?

And, on the other side of the coin, do we ever question what we are told about America's role in the war?
It is ironic that a game which is about inclusiveness nevertheless unquestioningly assumes that its readers are Americans. At least, the "we" in that last sentence does not seem to include me, as a Dutchman, and certainly doesn't include Japanese or German readers.

But even if the reader is an American, I'm pretty sure that he or she did not, before playing Our boys in uniform, believe that war propaganda movies and censored news articles from the front are reliable sources of information, or give a balanced point of view.

Questioning that which is normally accepted as self-evident is, of course, an important task of art. But Stevens's target is a viewpoint so extreme that nobody holds it, let alone accepts it as self-evident. Well, "nobody" is a big word. Perhaps one might find groups of people here and there who still have a naive faith in American Exceptionalism, but those people will hardly be persuaded by a work like this. Art cannot be used to change the ideas of fanatics. It only works where people are willing to question their beliefs. And anyone willing to do that already knows that there is no black and white in war, that nationalism is suspect, and so on.

The main problem with Our boys in uniform, then, is that is massively underestimates its readers.


  1. Speaking as an American, you'd be surprised, appalled even, how common is the belief in American Exceptionalism.

    That said, I had a higher opinion of this piece than others I know. I was intrigued by the narrator's perspective, reminding me some of Kurt Vonnegut's war-reminisces (Slaughterhouse Five, and others).

    More critically, I had issues with the blurb and the author's afterword. Calling this a "logic game" (in the blurb) is an inaccurate characterization of the game's mechanics. I was put off by the afterward as an unnecessary disclaimer. The author should let the work speak for itself and refrain from trying to explain it.


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