[IF Comp 2019] Flight of the Code Monkeys, by Mark C. Marino

As a formal experiment, I like Flight of the Code Monkeys. The idea of using a code notebook that you read through, compile and edit at the same time is interesting, and it works fairly well. Even those with little knowledge of programming will be able to get through all of it, and will perhaps be tempted to experiment with some of the simpler pieces of code along the way.

As a piece of fiction, I’m less convinced. For the most part, the fictional world consists of all too standard science fiction tropes: a world ruled by an AI, people used merely for mindless drudgery, a Resistance that attempts to break the power of the computer, virtual reality as the only form of fun… we’ve heard that all before. The characters are also not distinct enough to breathe life into the story: the protagonist is just an office worker, the personality of his love interest seems to consists of little more than exasperation at the protagonist's thickness, and the Resistance is, well, the Resistance. Where there is something really distinct about the game, such as with the Sandogs coming through the Membrane, we never learn enough about it to make it more than cryptic references. (Maybe you can learn more about it if you delve more deeply into the code, but if so, I missed it.)

As for the neat code trickery – that too could have been pulled off better, I think. You’re making a bunch of changes to the code based on instructions from several people, and this leads to different texts being printed on the screen. I think what happens is that different words get chosen from lists of strings to then consitute different texts.* But the code is obfuscated enough that it would be a lot of work to trace all of it; and so I treated it mostly as a black box. Especially at the end, when I’m told to do things like this:
First Task 298913 (import random)
Then Task 298917 (d= “This is your first impo”)
Finally the section of code below.
I’m willing to click on those things, but I didn’t go through the entire code to see why clicking those pieces of code while skipping the rest has a particular effect. Nor do I need to, if I just want to get a particular outcome. In effect, I’m just following instructions and seeing what happens – if there are any neat tricks, they’ve been pulled by Mark Marino, not by me. Perhaps that is precisely the point; after all, the player character complains several times that he’s always just following orders. But as a player, I’m much more satisfied by the approach of I. A. G. Alpha, where you can only create the winning code once you actually understand how the coding system works.

I recognise that there is a serious probability that I’ve missed out on some of the more interesting things in this game. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this game is, yes, an interesting experiment in a formal sense; but not at this point a truly successful piece of interactive fiction. Let me end by saying that although I’ve focussed on the negative in this review, I did enjoy the 40 minutes or so that I spent with Flight of the Code Monkeys. Also, bonus smiles for the cameo appearances of five well-known works of IF, all of which I managed to identify!

[*] There’s actually a fundamental problem here that is hard to circumvent. If I am to take seriously the idea that I must dive into the code and try to see what it does, than what I’m going to find is that the code prints some messages saying that one or another thing happens. So what? It seems that I, as the protagonist, have to interpret the generated output both as the logical result of the code I’m writing, and as a description of real-world events. This doesn’t quite work! But that’s perhaps too arcane a thought to put front and centre in the review.

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