Friday, November 23, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Bi Lines by Naomi Z

Bi Lines ended up taking 34th place out of 77 games. It average grade was a 5.81, but with an enormous standard deviation. I rated it much higher than the average and think it is a game absolutely worth playing.

The following review is very spoilery.

The author explicitly tells us that Bi Lines has to be understood in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the discussions about sexual assault that were sparked by this all-too-political and yet all-too-personal spectacle. What is it, then, that the game is trying to add to these already copious discussions? The answer is formulated by the editor character, Jacobson. After reading the story that the male protagonist has written about his own experience of sexual assault by a ghost, and after the player character has claimed that it was just a fiction, Jacobson says that it's a great story -- it really "captures the female perspective." That, I think, is the challenge that Bi Lines sets itself. To take a male character and nevertheless capture the female perspective; which is, necessarily and in the same movement, revealed to be 'female' only in a superficial way. The game wants us to understand what it is like to be a victim of sexual assault, even if -- indeed especially if -- our own identity makes it hard to come to this understanding.

Two facts stand out about the protagonist. First, he is bisexual. Being open about this has led to conflict with his mother; and whether you are open about it at the start of the game also makes the difference between being able to have a relationship or not. (Samantha, the romantic interest, is portrayed with little sympathy and we wonder why the protagonist would even want to hook up with her. Since this relationship isn't really what the game is about, this is only a minor point of criticism.) So although he may be living in a man's world, our protagonist still doesn't really fit in. He feels that he can't show himself, that he has to keep a part of himself hidden. This is one of the things that make him unable to open up about the sexual assault by the ghost, because, at least in his own mind, his feelings during the assault cannot be separated from his sexual orientation.

The second fact that stands out is that the protagonist can talk to ghosts. In fact, they need him to take care of them, and he has been taught by his mother to spend all his energy and time helping the ghosts. While ghosts may seem a fanciful element to bring into a game about what is very much a real-life issue, I think it is actually the author's master stroke. Although he is male, the protagonist's special relationship with the ghosts has forced him into a typically female role: that of the caregiver and supporter who lives her life in the service of others and asks nothing in return. And of course, he gets nothing in return -- the ghosts have nothing to give him, and his work necessarily takes place hidden from other humans, in much the way that the housewife's work never comes into the public view and is at its best when it is invisible. What's more, when the abusive ghost assaults the protagonist and then disappears, he is obviously beyond revenge. Like a woman abused by a powerful man, the protagonist can have no real hope for justice.

These aspect of the ghosts are surely drawn quite directly from the Kavanaugh hearings. Many commentators have commented on the different receptions given to Anita Hill in 1991 and Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, explaining it not only in terms of changing times and racism, but also in terms of the demeanour of the two women. Where Hill was combative and angry, Ford was quiet and eager to help anyone questioning her. She gave, the commentators tell us, a better performance of the traditional idea of womanhood -- and that is what made her sympathetic and believable to viewers. But believable or not, the powers that be don't seem to be swayed, and mister Kavanaugh turned out to be just as untouchable to her powers of retribution as any ghost would be.

I found the game to be very effective. You are first drawn into the story and the character; then the assault happens, and is over almost before you know it; but then come the emotions, the guilt trips, the insensitive reactions, the decisions to keep quiet, the judging of the victim. None of it is too heavy-handed and all of it adds up to a chilling experience. Chilling, but not negative, since the very fact that I can occupy the "female perspective" is a good thing and a beacon of hope.

Perhaps the game could have been slightly stronger if its theme had been streamlined a little more. It is, after all, about sexual assault, and the theme of bisexuality feels a bit tagged on. I wonder if the game was originally supposed to explore bisexuality, and only turned into a game about sexual assault during those days of furious coding? Something like that might well have happened, given that the deadline for intents to enter was weeks before the allegations against Kavanaugh even surfaced. But streamlined or not, I consider this a strong and very interesting game.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

I'll be posting reviews for IFComp games, focusing mostly on games where I think my reviews can still add something to the critical consensus. A good example of that is Carter Sande's Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, which I suspect to be the most misunderstood game of the competition.

(It probably isn't, because the most misunderstood game is presumably one that I haven't understood either.)

So Geography -- I mean, let's settle on a short name here -- presents itself as an educational tool for learning about Canadian geography by playing a trading simulation. Some reviewers took this entirely at face value and worried whether the game would work in an educational setting. Others did wonder whether Geography was serious or a joke, but nevertheless ended up concluding that it was serious. So let's be entirely clear: this game is a joke; it is satire. Satire wrapped in a perhaps unforgivably clunky user interface, but quite amusing nevertheless.

The protagonist of our game is a commodities trader. That is, he spends his days behind a desk, trading commodities. But the great outdoors beckons and so he decides to take a 30-day vacation, rent a big truck, and try to make it as a real commodities trader, travelling through all of Canada's magnificent and unexplored wilderness... as long as there's a highway through it, of course.

The game is built around the fact that the protagonist has two utterly incompatible wishes. On the one hand, he wishes to make it as a truck driver buying and selling goods at a profit. On the other hand, he wishes to experience the big wide world. But being a truck driver is boring and repetitive, and making money as an independent trader requires research and good planning; while experiencing the big wide world requires, well, the exact opposite of that. So what he ends up doing is a boring, repetitive job made bearable only by his visiting of tourist traps, utterly pre-fabricated experiences that never fail to delight him. Here is a completely representative example:
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, so you figure you've gotta go see Parliament Hill. The Peace Tower stands in the middle of everything, decorated with unique architectural details. You sign up for a free tour, and as the tour begins, you ride an elevator that goes all the way up the tower. Your breath is taken away by the view of the bustling city of Ottawa. You stay up there for a while, enjoying it.

You're glad you took the opportunity to see the capital from a different point of view.
I found the descriptions of the tourist destinations quite hilarious, especially as they never fail to show how everything becomes a shallow cliché to the shallow and clichéd mind. (Unique architectural details! Bustling city! Different point of view!) The tourist traps are also real. One visits the "first bilingual geocaching tour in Atlantic Canada" to get a cool wooden nickel. Surely, this doesn't exist? It does, and it is billed in precisely these words on the Fredericton Tourism website. That's funny, and the fact that our protagonist deeply enjoys all these inane 'experiences' is also funny. At the same time, he is completely blind to any beauty that hasn't been packaged up for him:
You look to your left and catch a great view of Lake Superior. You'd look at it longer, but you need to keep your eyes on the road.
Lake Superior is twice as big as the Netherlands, but our protagonist misses it because he has to keep driving. A bit heavy-handed as a joke, sure, but it had me chuckling.

The game, then, is about consumerist neo-capitalism. We work and work in our boring repetitive jobs, and tell ourselves that our lives are made worthwhile by all the utterly non-authentic experiences we get through consumption. The protagonist is a truly dire example of this. Meanwhile, he willingly goes through a near endless grind of highways, hotels, gas stations, and locations that are identical except for the local tourist trap.

The game is fascinating up to a point, and has a surprising number of different endings. On the other hand, the meaningless grind was, well, a meaningless grind and the awful user interface is, well, awful. The author has done a lot of things well, but has also fallen into the trap of trying to satirise boring stuff by implementing boring mechanics. So I have no problem with people giving the game a low score (I gave it a relatively low score myself); but I do want to point out that there is a lot of good stuff going on behind the bad stuff. There's no way Geography deserved to end up 74th out of 77 game, below two games that are simply broken and cannot be finished.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The interactive fiction competition is over!

The IF Competition has happened. The winner is Alias 'The Magpie' by J. J. Guest, which I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to play. My game, Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 placed at a respectable 16th out of 77. (Relatively speaking, that is exactly as high as Kerkerkruip placed in 2011, when it ended up being 8th out of 38.)

If you haven't checked out the competition games yet, I highly recommend that you do so. For those who are new to interactive fiction, choice-based games are probably easier to start with than parser-based games. (In choice-based games, you generally just click on links. In parser-based games, you have to type commands like "go north" and "put laptop in incinerator".) This year's numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 are all choice-based, so pick what you like!

I wrote many reviews during the competition, but posted them in secret author's forum. You can expect to see revised versions being slowly released on this blog.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The IF Comp is happening (and I'm in it)

The 2018 interactive fiction competition is happening! I participated only once as an author -- back in 2011 with Kerkerkruip -- but this year I decided to do so again. My game is called Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303, and you can find it in the company of no fewer than 76 other new IF games of all sorts. Play and judge, my friends. Play and judge.

(Since I'm an author, I'll be doing my own reviews in the 'secret' author's forum.)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review of "Plowing right through"

From a formal perspective, the parser based interactive fiction game Plowing right through reminded me of nothing so much as of Adam Cadre's Varicella. In that game, the player character is about to carry out a brilliant if nefarious plot that he has thought through perfectly, but the details of which are completely unknown to the player. Inevitably, the player will fail many times before finally coming to understand what the character he is playing has been wanting to do all the time.

In Plowing right through, we find ourselves in the cabin of a time machine, which has apparently already transported us back into the past. The only indication of the player character's identity is a little note in our possession that says: "Good luck Mitch!" Otherwise, we carry nothing but two extremely well-made latex masks depicting an adolescent man and a woman in her early thirties. You are otherwise given no information about the masks, and when you leave the time machine, you find yourself at a wild teenage party in a very posh home. What to do?

As often in this kind of game, the best information comes from dying. If you simply press the return button in the time machine, you travel back to 2018 and then learn that a man named Mark Judge has just been forced by the FBI to release a home video of a sexual assault, a video that dashes all your hopes of dashing all liberal hopes for a generation. Ignominious failure!

I will not spoil the main puzzle too much, but of course one must first wear the female mask (which, on second consideration, looks a lot like a young Hilary Clinton) and then the second mask over it (which one by now understands to be a precise likeness of an even younger mister Kavanaugh). If you pull off the Kavanaugh mask at the exact right moment during the ensuing scene, the home video shown in 2018 will reveal to all voters that the seeming Kavanaugh assault was actually performed by nobody else than Hilary Clinton, who already in the late 70's desired vengeance for her future loss to mister Trump. In the victorious ending she is, of course, locked up by the president, who is so overjoyed that he even lets Rod Rosenstein keep his job.

I have some major reservations about the game and especially about the fact that it treats a traumatic scenario full of real human pain as nothing but a setting for puzzle solving and cynical means-ends reasoning. But of course, this weakness is its strength, for the game is nothing if not true to its subject matter. Those of us who, in the backs of our minds, were trying very hard (and failing) to suppress the thought "I hope he did something really bad to her, because that might derail his nomination" are shown to be, in essence, identical to the Mitch character from the game. In this way, Plowing right through captures the central fact about contemporary U.S. politics: it makes you feel dirty.