A postmortem take

Take started as a joke. Here, it’s on my phone:

But because I’m good at ruining jokes, while writing Take it became something else entirely.

Where Synfac was fundamentally about anhedonia, Take is fundamentally about anxiety. Specifically, it’s about social anxiety; specifically, the anxiety surrounding being observed and judged and criticized and consumed in real time by everyone in an ever-expanding radius in your world, which in 2016 is also known as “reality.”

Take was originally going to be more straightforward: you’re in an office, then you go to a reading, then you go to a party, then you go to a man’s house. I didn’t get very far with this, for a number of reasons:

  1. It was boring me to tears, because:
  2. The storyline I had in mind would make this yet another My Office game, at least from the outset; and also:
  3. The world really doesn’t need another story about the tragic lives of New York media people.

So because I don’t actually learn, I went and wrote another story about the tragic lives of New York media people, except allegorical. The journalists-as-gladiators metaphor has been done before, and God knows the sex-as-violence metaphor has been done before, but here we are.

MECHANICS:

Under the hood, Take looks a lot like Synfac. Except a version of Synfac that is a game, not a story, and does not include floater text (though it’s been suggested I add some, which given that this was under pseudonym I found hilarious) and without the messing around with out-of-universe actions. There are objects and sub-objects in every scene, plus a number of hooks from the text that one can take as well. There are three scenes, although this time the second one is an actual scene.

Most obviously, the story progresses on its own, via timed events. In Synfac this was to provide a mechanism for the plot of the story to actually happen, to control pacing, and to ensure the player never (hahahahahaha) runs out of the finite amount of floater text. In Take it’s that, plus a deliberate removal of agency. The PC has one job: to produce content, via having things done to her. She does it on autopilot. There is nothing else that can be done.

The parser-paring code is a quick-and-dirty thing, emphasis on “dirty.” If the command contains TAKE or EXAMINE or one of the meta-verbs, it goes through; everything else is rejected outright. (Testing revealed certain commands that needed to be blocked individually, such as >TAKE OFF CLOTHES. I think this proves the game’s point, really.) The keyword examining was also very quick, and very easy; it’s in the Blue Lacuna source, and I don’t know why more Inform authors don’t adopt it, because it’s about two lines of code. (The whole source is a wealth of player-friendly tweaks, and Aaron has made it public; I highly recommend it.) Happily, Inform 7’s reading-a-command code accepts text substitutions, which meant I didn’t have to add a special check for every single noun and synonym but could just check for “[an object]”. As a result this code is just an average-sized bowl of spaghetti rather than a bathtub full.

Take has a “score” of sorts, based on your reputation and your standing. The key mechanic here is that the more personal and humiliating information about yourself you end up deploying, the better you will do. Because this is a parser work, I am somewhat limited by doing takes on objects; the solution was to provide hooks – again, like Synfac – and ensure that generally speaking, digging deeper into a subject will reveal more and better takes on it. This is counter to what you usually do in parser, so I mentioned it specifically in the About text. Maybe I should have mentioned it more specifically. There is also a score decay mechanism: if you don’t produce any good takes for a while, your score will drop. Publish or perish. It’s random chance, I think a 1-in-5 chance per turn; it used to be a lot harsher in alpha testing.

Take has a lot of what in I6 would be called daemon messages. At first I wondered whether there were too many, and considered condensing them, but ultimately I decided it enhanced the effect: the hyperawareness and flood of stimuli of the PC’s world, or many people’s worlds, where every time your phone buzzes you know that one more person now likes or hates you. These are also random-chance as not to overwhelm the player too much. I think it’s either 1-in-3 or 1-in-4. In the agora, you will get at least one message every turn and likely more, so it feels busier.

The game will not actually progress until you take something. This is for two reasons: to avoid spoiling the joke early, and to prevent people from saying “all you have to do to win is press Z!”

INFLUENCES:

The walkthrough has a short reading list of what’s gone into the hopper. Specifically, I’ve talked about this a lot, but if you write something that the Internet commentosphere – the au jus, to borrow Jenni Polodna’s term – doesn’t like, or more commonly if you’re the thing that the au jus doesn’t like, it’s called a take. It doesn’t matter what it is, or how good it is. The reaction dictates the medium and the message.

The takes that men usually write are thinkpieces. While women certainly write thinkpieces, and there are quite a few in Take, more often they are shunted to the first-person memoir space, a space with limited options. You can ingratiate yourself to enough of the right people to become a editor or a minor media personality, for however long that lasts (the Emily Gould route) You can flame out dramatically and publicly (the Cat Marnell route). You can write something so catastrophically horrible that the world hates you for a day (a route associated not with people, but with sobriquets: Cat Hairball Vagina Girl, Girl Who Mocked Her Frenemy’s Suicide.) Or you can slowly fade away: the most common route. Because there are thousands of other people competing with you, and because nobody would care about a unique writing style even if hypothetical-you had one, the only way to get in and stay in is to produce progressively more humiliating, scandalous or tawdry content. It is as sustainable as the destruction of your life.

No matter what route you go, people will accuse you of destroying journalism, of narcissism, of desperation. The accusations will invariably fall on you, not the system. The one route that redeems you is the one that leads to obscurity and likely joblessness, because the content that’s wrung out of you today is the Google trail that frightens employers tomorrow. A couple of reviewers said things like “no one’s forcing you to write all this stuff.” This is true in a crude sense. If your job is to write software, no one’s forcing you to write software. If your job is to sell people hamburgers, no one’s forcing you to sell people hamburgers. If your job is to raise a child, no one is forcing you to raise that child. If you are alive, there is absolutely nothing forcing you to not drop dead tomorrow. But hey, at least in this case it’s privileged joblessness, and the life you lead is rather glamorous and cushy from the outside. In the setting I tried for a certain sense of opulent deadness and sameness, where fans and haters are identical, yet both are preferable to silence.

ACTUAL INFLUENCES:

A lot of Sofia Hardig – I didn’t do a soundtrack because that would dash the already flimsy pretense of using a pseudonym, but if I did it would basically just be The Need to Destroy. If I wrote it a month later it’d also be Lady Wood by Tove Lo, which is this game in album form. The agora scene is basically the first Israel scene from How Should a Person Be?

IF-wise, we can all think of pieces with this basic structure – Rameses is the canonical example. (Tangent here about how we have learned absolutely nothing from the discussions about that game.) I also replayed Mother 3 recently. Every game in the Mother series has a trick to its boss battle, usually one that serves a story purpose, namely, that of subverting the standard “become powerful, watch numbers go up, vanquish God” RPG convention. The gimmick of the final battle in Mother 3 is that you cannot do anything. You do nothing. You stand there, take the blows, and heal yourself to take more. You take a lot of blows. They are all mortal blows – the game informs you of this – and all you can do is watch your health slowly dwindle, hoping it’ll stop. (There’s an overarching point to this, but it is both a major spoiler and not germane to the gameplay.) I pretty much ripped this off entirely for the third scene; I even quote it once or twice.

Amelia Pinnolla is a character in a WIP of mine. Her name is a reference to “Markets Crash Over Fears Of China Slowdown,” a story in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. (Said WIP is also a collection of linked short stories, like that or Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson. I’ve probably mentioned it before. It’s gestated for a while.) It’s hard to talk about what exactly this story does without completely spoiling it, but it’s an ugly story by design, with a profoundly ugly ending. Both the story in said WIP and Take are modeled after it.

OTHER NOTES:

  • A great deal of people read Emily Short’s review of Take. Unsurprisingly, I found it excellent. Not everything in there is exactly what I intended when I wrote (in particular, the third scene takes place, as I imagined it, in a bar; this is hopefully clearer in the post-comp revision). That said, this is fairly spot on: “Nothing is private. Everything occurs in public, to be commented on and reviewed later. You simultaneously have a reputation and no friends; devastating loneliness and an audience of thousands. Your “combat” scene is being reported to your opponent’s friends, so you can be mocked and criticized. There is no affection between the participants, no trust or good humor. (I don’t call them “partners” because they definitely are not.) The rules of engagement are rigged in a gendered way. By having sex at all, the woman is construed to have lost; she is the one who has to deal with any physical repercussions and any social stigma.”

A couple people have said Take is too bleak. Life is bleak, and life for women is bleaker still. Young women are encouraged to sing out their problems to ol’ Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and god knows where else now, or to any number of performatively woke media sites, run by men who care about them only insofar as their life generates revenue. (Via praise, or via harassment; it’s the same to them.) Everyone is Googleable. Private gossip is public commentary. Girls have lived for years now with a panoply of revenge porn sites and supposedly private apps into which they pour their most personal selves for future dissemination, and with a culture that says this is all great fun. They are told, via other girls’ cautionary tales, never to give out damaging information (even if such information is merely what someone looks like naked, or being naked, does), and that such information is only damaging to girls, never boys. What they aren’t told about (heterosexual) dating is that it entails entering into successive detentes with potentially dozens or hundreds of near-strangers, and the strangers who know those strangers, in which such information is exchanged necessarily: a detente that is held together by nothing yet, if it falls apart, will be construed as the girl’s failure. The elephant in the room in games for the past few years now was born when one formerly woke man decided to publicize his ex-girlfriend’s dating life. Our president-elect was “chosen” despite – for some people, because of – his bragging about sexually assaulting women and coming onto teenage girls, and despite the dozens of women who offered up their associated trauma for public parsing and pageviews. He won the presidency. They won precisely nothing but their own infamy, and maybe some small, bitter comfort squeezed out of the world’s contempt, a small flame that one has to constantly blow on to keep alive. A number of people have called for optimism in the wake of this news, for hopeful and utopian games. I say, fuck that. Optimism is how we got here in the first place. Or, rather, what got us here was claiming optimism, while living reality.

  • On the other hand, there’s no way anyone’s expected to know this out of context, but the PC is a unreliable narrator, because the character of Amelia is an unreliable narrator, about others and especially herself. Specifically, Amelia is hyperobservant and self-absorbed; sociopathic enough to see everything as a game that needs winning, but masochistic enough to hurtle toward the loss. She wants desperately to see herself as detached and analytic, but she is pretty much the personification of social anxiety. In short, she’s either the worst possible person psychologically to be doing this job, or the best. Yet on the other other hand, I wanted her to still be human. A while back I read a short story, which I liked but won’t name. I identified strongly with the protagonist, who wasn’t that far off from the PC of Take. Then I read an interview with the author about that story, and how the protagonist was written to be scary: like a monster out of a horror story. What I had read as an indictment of indifferent, flinchy men and the dangers of trusting them now read like an indictment of women, for being… humans with human desires? What seemed like empathy now seemed like contempt; it was enough to completely ruin the story. I tried very hard to avoid a contemptuous tone; I’m not sure whether I succeeded.

  • The headlines came very late in development after I realized half the descriptions contained headlines anyway. They’re my favorite part. I think my favorite one is “Alone in a Crowd: The Unfought Fighter as Modern Flaneuse.” My least favorite one is obviously “BUG.” I considered including with the headlines an indicator of how good a take it was, for more player feedback but it required more mechanical changes than I wanted to chance that close to deadline. (Short version: When you plan a game as a joke, you don’t make the code maintainable.) This has been added in the post-comp release.

  • Most people found the Easter egg at the end, which I guess means it wasn’t much of an Easter egg. I should look into that. At any rate, it’s at heart another parser joke. It’s also a fairly accurate, in my experience, description of some mindsets.

  • The cover art came about pretty much exactly as detailed in Sam Ashwell’s review: emoji, with some light sprite editing. If you’ve played Known Unknowns, which you should, I am indirectly responsible for its art.

  • The post-comp release is here. Please do not yell at me a year from now on the Internet if I decide to push a bugfix or something and decline to shout it to the fucking rooftops.

I really appreciated the further reading list in Take. I went and read them (It Happened To Me Happened To Me was compelling and dreadful at the same time). It placed the game in its correct context. More IF should have further reading or footnotes.

Eh, that’s not specific to women. It’s true for all users/“customers” of such platforms.

Katherine, thanks for the great write-up!

I had to have it beaten into my skull, but I think the meaning of this game is finally sinking in. I totally missed that dating and sex were involved, for example, and I wasn’t the only one. I saw this as doing the job of this journalist, but it’s really about living the life of this journalist. It seemed the gladiator metaphor was a function of the job, and it was carried through the whole piece. That’s probably where the confusion comes from. I read it all as commentary on your employers, colleagues, and readers.

You mentioned making it more clear that the third scene is a bar, which might help a lot. But perhaps what’s missing is a portrayal of home life? Or, if that’s impossibly boring, a commute? The NY subway might play right into this: odd characters, close quarters, prying eyes, etc. Metaphorically re-imagined, of course. I’m not suggesting you rewrite the game or anything; this is just a micro-analysis of my confusion. Not that I mind confusion in a K.M. game–I’m happy just reading your sentences!

To clarify, it is about doing the job. It is about the lifestyle journalism and/or first-person memoir fields, in which one’s job is to produce content based on one’s experiences. Your XOJanes, HelloGiggles, Thought Catalogs, etc.

That does clarify! Then, my confusion came from just not being familiar with that stuff. So that’s that!

[Thought I already posted this; I guess there was some thread-editing?]

I enjoyed reading this postmortem; thanks for taking the time to write it up, Lucea!

[ Edit: oh er, I see. Well, I’m glad the initial post get re-posted!]

Yeah, thanks for writing an insightful and detailed postmortem.