Discussion of A Chinese Room

I played A Chinese Room, by @MiloM, as a 2-player game with a friend, and after we played through it the first time we talked about it and realized that the two characters had completely different stories, so we switched places and played through it again, and it’s been bouncing around in my brain a lot afterwards. I’m interested in multiplayer IF/multiplayer narrative games, which was what put it on the list for me, and honestly I didn’t think of using the form in the way that A Chinese Room does. I’m not sure how well it succeeded globally but it succeeded for me, I think - but maybe not in the way the author intended?

So, I’d be super interested in hearing what other people who played it (or the author, if he’s willing to talk) have to think about it.

Anyways, spoilers, obviously. This thread assumes anybody who’s reading it has played through the game or doesn’t care about spoilers.

Did making it multiplayer add to the experience? How does it use the interaction between players, or fail to use it?

For me, the multiplayer aspect added a lot, but it was only insofar as having somebody else playing through with me meant that there was somebody right there for a post-game discussion, and having to describe what was going on in the story to my partner after we reconvened meant that the resulting comparisons were really interesting in a way that I wouldn’t have had if I played through them in sequence and pieced it together myself. I played the interrogator first, and she the tour guide, so, when we were like “What happened in yours?” we could sort of readily fill each other in, and it turned into a sort of cooperative reading, which was fun - but anything’s fun when you’re doing it with friends.

I don’t know how the multiplayer form really was supposed to work. There’s essentially no actual multiplayer decision-making involved which requires you to model the other person - the interactions are reduced down very deliberately to a “press button when given color” and, due to the whole premise of it being kind of a frame job, there’s no meaningful communication to be had unless you talk to the other player outside of your character’s frame - and we just naturally didn’t do that. So, I don’t think it’d even feel different to play through as a single-player game, and to a degree that seems clearly intentional, what with the allusion to the thought experiment, and also the lawyer at the end explicitly calling out that asserting active agency in Caroline’s actions is absurd. So, like, what’s added by having the second player over an AI? Simply having a friend? I mean, sure; but if you play Catan with friends instead of an AI, part of the funniness might come when one friend gets insulted by the other friend parking the robber on them and then going all scorched earth on them. Since the multiplayer here was essentially devoid of meaningful interaction (which is I think part of the point) what do you gain by having two people?

Also, as far as I can tell, there’s no branching in each story that’s dependent on the other player’s actions - is that statement true? The first time we played through Caroline got arrested for Doing A War Crime; the second time through, we released all the prisoners, and Caroline still got arrested for Doing A War Crime, and had the same options.

What’s the deal with the Torture Chair?

Okay so my reading of the Torture Chair was that in fact there was literally zero AI involved and that everybody was lying about the whole thing, and the purpose of telling people that there was AI involved was so that they could pull a fast one and people would feel better about doing tortures.

This is mostly because having an autonomous interrogator is absurd in the context of how doggedly the game has placed itself in an exact contemporary time frame, and also that the main thing that seems to happen in the end is that the authorities just sort of shrug and give up on the entire project once they’ve used it to frame Caroline (and presumably a large other number of internal opponents). While the game sort of positions the ethics of autonomous machines as a thing that might come up, it’s treated more as a spurious legal defense and a laughable fig leaf used to push the real power dynamics - Caroline is an internal political enemy and therefore the absurd must be accepted - than an actual thing the game has opinions on. Does that read seem right or was there a whole missed branch we didn’t hit where, in fact, the Torture Chair was real?

What, if anything, is the thesis here?

I feel like the thesis might be something like “In Russia, laws aren’t real,” which, I mean, okay, sure, that’s a thesis you can have. Still it feels overstuffed for that; I mean, literally yesterday I read that Anatoly Karpov, a former chess grandmaster and antiwar politician is in the hospital “mysterious fall.” You don’t need to introduce a convoluted setup where a lady presses a button that goes to a Torture Chair or anything for that, right?

Maybe there’s opinions about autonomous weapons in there, since it’s pretty heavily centered, but it turns out that when challenged in court there’s a lot of vague discussion but really everybody knows it’s absurd and if Caroline stays she gets locked up no matter what (as far as I can tell) which, again, goes back to indicating the thesis is that “In Russia, laws aren’t real.” It feels like a misdirection?

Yo is this an alternate reality?

Okay so this is obviously supposed to be about Russia and Ukraine, down to arguing over who was responsible for the churches splitting up, which apparently happened in 2019. Except that, as far as current events go, Ukraine seems to be - well if they’re not winning the war, they certainly aren’t losing. So are all these people you’re interrogating from the DPR or is it speculative fiction and in this universe Russia won and conquered all of Ukraine?

I guess it must be; there are mentions that the sanctions have been lifted, I think. I guess I answered my own question?

I found it interesting because it’s not really a straightforward text, being concerned primarily with misdirection in almost all aspects of the work. So, you know, points to the author for that. Anyways, if anybody has thoughts, please feel free to discuss them here.


As an author my current attitude is leaning quite a bit towards acknowledging the primary importance of reader interpretation. Obviously I have opinions on everything (even if I didn’t write it, I rarely don’t have opinions about anything), but I’ll try to keep some of them to myself as I’m not sure they’re inherently more valuable than anyone else’s, but might be taken as such. But yes, that’s just an annoying way to say that I’m going to be vague.


And I’m going to start right away. I don’t want to talk to the experiential aspects of playing 2-player (I’m in that unique position of never being able to genuinely have that experience), but I will quickly mention the mechanics.

On the Leon side, what happens to each of the ‘subjects’ is entirely dependent on the number that Caroline chooses. Of course, which number the player playing Caroline chooses is likely to be strongly dependent on what the Leon player chooses. I don’t know if either you or your friend played Caroline ‘disobediently’, but that can lead to the Leon player making choices and those choices not being carried out. Which in turn effects the Leon ending, as which ending Leon gets is (mostly but not exclusively) based on what happened to each of the subjects.

Caroline’s ending, meanwhile, is much more dependent on Leon. There are 4 endings for Caroline (given in text differences it’s not so clear cut how many there are for Leon), with each run giving the player the choice of up to 2 of them, but which 2 depends entirely on what ending Leon got. It sounds like you got the same (more likely) choice both times. (sidebar: it seems that the players who are playing single player are getting the other choice (where Caroline is never accused of war crimes) disproportionately more often. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing but it was an unintentional outcome of my use of RNG in the single player version). Other major plot points in the Caroline story (such as Daniel getting arrested) are also dependent on choices the Leon player makes.

I won’t say any more than that this (im)balance of power was intentional.

The Throne

I’m not going to touch that. I might talk about it later (post comp).


This I also don’t really want to talk about, but there’s something I want to raise as a discussion point. I’ve called A Chinese Room a horror game because horror (sometimes) does something that I don’t find as much in other genres. If there’s a word for it I don’t know it, but I’ll call it experiential horror. Those kind of stories that don’t have a clear thesis, but instead try to elicit empathy from the audience, to bring the audience in to a situation or a character and then, once they hold them, bring in the horror and just let the audience sit in it. The kind of story that wants the audience to feel like they’ve been somewhere, like they’ve had an experience, rather than that they’ve necessarily learnt or been told something propositional. That doesn’t mean that these stories can’t ‘say’ things as well, and I personally believe that A Chinese Room does say things, but my intent was from an experiential first point of view. Whether I succeeded there is a whole other matter.

Alternate reality?

Yes. It’s speculative fiction. I perhaps should have been more clear about that somewhere, apologies!


(I’m not spoiler-fuzzing things here since I assume by this point in the thread, it’s only folks who’ve played the thing who are reading this far).

I think I had a very similar reaction to this game as you did, with some of the same questions about what multiplayer added and fuzziness about the mechanics of the throne (I similarly didn’t see how the AI stuff came into it in any meaningful way; it felt like legalistic sophistry that wouldn’t hold up to Western scrutiny*) – but nonetheless found it well-written and compelling! I wrote a characteristically long-ass review, because of course I did, with my general take, but in terms of some of the more specific questions/thoughts based on your post and Milo’s:

  • Wow, I didn’t realize there was this much of a scope for different endings. I was playing Caroline and I got the “so you’ve been accused of war crimes” choice to flee or stay and face the music; I think my partner mostly chose oranges and reds, which correspond to rougher treatment for prisoners? It definitely felt like this stuff was out of my control, but that felt appropriate. I think I would have liked the story less if the stakes had been lower – similarly, the sequence with Daniel trying to join the protest and then getting arrested was a real high point for me, so I’m glad I got to see it.

  • Was Caroline an internal opponent who needed to be framed? I was confused on this, I confess, since she seemed to be a reasonably quiet and loyal citizen as of game start, but she’s clearly being set up from the jump, regardless of how you play things with Matteo. Again, it just felt like an insane, insanely convoluted Kafkaesque thing to have happen to her, which seems right in line with the theme even if it’s not especially logical.

  • On the thesis, my sense is that it’s about trying to create the experience of complicity with evil, in a couple different ways of which the Throne/light/number stuff might not be the most effective – details in the review.

Oh right, the asterisk. So here’s one game where my law degree is sort of relevant – so from an Anglo-American legal perspective, there are two possible scenarios for analyzing this, based on how credible the handwavey AI stuff is meant to be: 1) the Throne is just an algorithm, which basically translates what the military people decide into a war crime depending on whether Caroline does what she’s told or picks a random number with no context for what the numbers mean; or 2) it is an AI, and is taking the instructions it receives and then committing a war crime.

If we’re in scenario 1, this is just a convoluted application of the regular criminal law. Murder requires mens rea, which is fancy Latin basically meaning you intend to kill someone or are recklessly indifferent to the likelihood that your actions will kill. Obviously Caroline has no mens rea; obviously a soldier who sends a color corresponding to a war crime has it to some degree. At best, the indeterminacy of the algorithm might help you argue down from a first-degree murder charge to a second- or third-degree one, depending on how those offenses are defined in a particular jurisdiction (i.e. going from intentional killing to reckless disregard), but since it’s clear the algorithm was intentionally created in order to fuzz up accountability in this way, it seems hard to believe any lawyers would take that bait.

If we’re in scenario 2, where the AI is basically an independent mind being ordered to commit a crime, we leave aside the potentially-interesting application of the Nuremberg defense to a nonhuman entity because it’s not on trial, Caroline is. The question here is, are the Throne’s actions sufficiently linked to the direction Caroline provided to it that it’s fair to assign liability for its crimes to her? You can do this under the law of conspiracy, but that requires a meeting of the minds as to the aim of the conspiracy, which clearly hasn’t happened here. You could argue there’s an agency relationship, but again, Caroline’s lack of reasonable expectation that when she told someone/thing “5”, it would commit a war crime, means that the Throne isn’t acting on her behalf. So once again, there’s not really a theory that would plausibly lead to Caroline being liable.

All of this is very off-the-cuff analysis, of course, and could be there’d be more of an angle under the civil-law systems used in most of Europe. But still, I thought it was interesting to think about!

@MiloM I’d definitely be curious to read a post-mortem with some thoughts on your process and intentions, even if you understandably don’t want to provide definitive statements on how players should interpret everything in the game – for all that I’ve got critiques, yours is probably going to be the game I rank the highest in the Comp since it gave me a lot to chew on!


I love this, but I’m afraid at this time “Under the advice of counsel I decline to answer the question.”

(I’ll defintiely come back to it post comp though!)

1 Like

Her husband was an opposition politician.

Looking through the source code, I think we should have gotten Caroline a non-war-criminal ending as long as the final color was green. IDK, maybe we did something wrong.

1 Like

That’s true but I have a hard time believing that’s the explanation. For one thing, in my play through at least it was clear Christopher is an “opposition” politician - his role is some combination of supporting the illusion that politics and elections exist to give the regime a fig leaf of democratic accountability, defanging real opposition by holding out the illusory hope that liberal reforms could be possible through the system, and discrediting real opponents of the regime by creating the impression that they’re all corrupt phonies. Like Lloyd, the fixer who tells him what to do, is a representative of the regime.

It could be that nonetheless the regime goes after Caroline to lean into this last point and discredit the “opposition”, despite the fact that just about everything she and Christopher do is on orders from the powers that be. But the second issue is that at least in my playthrough, in neither version of the ending do they do anything to Christopher, just Caroline, when surely he’d be the one they’d go after if that was their goal.

So yeah, still not sure if I missed anything or if it’s meant to seem pointlessly cruel.


Oh, right, I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to Lloyd. I thought that he was ultimately supportive of the opposition but still working within the government, as some sort of inside-outside strategy. But even if Christopher was controlled opposition, I got the sense that he really did believe in what he was doing, and believed that he could challenge the regime and the president (even if he was hypocritical in his personal life). But I don’t know if that is an accurate interpretation.

There’s also the fact that the regime arrested Caroline’s son on drummed up charges. So the regime does seem to have it out for this entire family, for whatever reason, and I thought the connecting thread was Christopher’s political activities. They couldn’t directly go after him because it would weaken their standing with the outside world and hurt their prospects of loosening sanctions, but they could discredit his family. Then again, I suppose there were much less convoluted ways of doing so that did not involve a torture chair…


Huh that is a pretty similar read @DeusIrae.

Thanks for taking the time to respond @MiloM though, I suppose most of it is that we should wait for a couple of weeks for the postmortem. I’d also be interested to know why you chose to have everybody in the story have Anglo-y names (not that, you know, there can’t be a gang of Anglo-y-ish native Russians).

I also didn’t realize there were different endings for Caroline. I think that the reason we didn’t was because on the second playthrough Caroline walked away @cchennnn.

That’s fair. I found that it didn’t really work for me personally. The closest I got to this was in the protest & Daniel arrest scenes, which were the most grounded and least fantastical, and Leon’s dialogue during the interrogations, both of which were almost entirely divorced from the whole torture chair mechanic. And, in Leon’s case, it wasn’t so much that I sympathized with Leon as much as I was like, “I feel like I’m inhabiting this guy’s head and don’t like it.”

While I agree “saying things” and “invoking/creating an emotional experience” are different things they’re also entertwined in that, like, specifics matter. I think personally, while the whole conceit torture chair certainly makes me ponder over the game a lot more I might have personally felt more horrified at a tighter, more closely-scoped game that was more or less two short stories in the same setting, if that makes sense?

Hmm. That sounds more negative than I thought would. I mean, obviously the torture chair plot had payoff for me in at least a heightened interest, or I wouldn’t be making this thread.

But, like, it’s like, for me it was hard to feel much horror because the seeming absurdity and intentional misdirection renders it illegible to me; it’s, like, okay, cool, it’s horrifying for Caroline but really Caroline, you’re not gonna tell anybody about this obviously sus room thing that’s going on? no? well. okay, Caroline. And now you’re arrested for war crimes? Cool beans. It’s not, like, petty everday corruption (after all, she paid a bribe in the opening scene) or her son’s activities or anything that one could reasonably see coming, it’s just kinda like, Bam! War crimes!

Another way to frame it is, like, a reader could reasonably come out of the game going “Well if I were Caroline, I would simply not do the super sus button stuff.” Because, like what @DeusIrae mentioned, it seems like it goes as far as you in the ending and doesn’t really reach to your husband or family - so just, like, if Caroline didn’t do the button stuff she’d be fine, right?

Whereas, like, with Daniel, that worked for me because I both understood the situation and felt like any control I had was imperfect. There’s no “If I were Caroline, I would simply tell Daniel to keep his head down” because, obviously, that’s contested ground, he’s his own person, maybe I’d also even be a little proud of him but I don’t want him to die or have his life ruined - it’s legible, hard, and uncertain, so inhabiting that moment feels hard and stressful and a little horrifying.

Anyways I’m kinda being mean to your game but let me restate that I really liked it.