The Entropy Cage
[spoiler]The Entropy Cage is a short science fiction piece, in which you play a “cyber psychiatrist”, administering treatment and punishment to various “sub-sentient” processes. What emerges is that the sub-sentients are in some way at war with each other, and ultimately the story presented (for me) two rather bleak approaches to restoring order. The story lightly and indirectly explores issues of political organisation (essentially the choice comes down to autocracy versus liberalism), and I got the vague impression that it was also trying to tackle questions of religion (the sub-sentients are at “war” over the search for a mystical “pure random”). There was a backstory, to do with your own suspension from duty, which was never fully resolved: is your suspension and the outbreak of the war coincidental or connected? Have you become (as the game hints, but does not say) not simply a “cyber psychiatrist” but a “cyber deity”, administering punishment or absolution of sub-sentient sins?
I rather wish these points had been more fully explored, because they seemed to me to be potentially rather more interesting than the line I ended up taking. Although I thought the piece was quite well done, I thought it lacked narrative depth.
In the end, my biggest concern was that I couldn’t really understand, even approximately, how my own actions affected the way the story developed. So instead of exploring and planning, identifying possible outcomes and working deliberately towards them, I rather flailed around, thrashing my way towards alternative endings. In part, as Emily Short has pointed out, this is to do with the way the story doesn’t give sufficiently clear feedback about the consequences of particular actions, which are not inherently predictable. But in part I think it’s because of a deeper design problem.
The starting point for this game is that you are an expert. A basic feature of expertise is that the expert has a deep reservoir of knowledge, which enables her to understand the implications of information that would puzzle the non-expert. The expert understands what is likely to be salient, can rapidly develop hypotheses about what the available evidence means, knows what information might be sought to confirm or refute those hypotheses, and has a good understanding of the range of possible interventions and their likely effects. But the player is not an expert, and the author needs therefore to find some way to bridge the gap between protagonist and player–to give the player the sense of expertise with all that goes with it. That means either presenting information and options with commentary (so that the player understands them, from the outset, as the expert might) – an approach which may not lead to a very satisfying experience for the player – or developing a system which allows the player to become, through repeated playthroughs, somewhat “expert” by learning from their own experience of the game (or of course some combination of those things).
I didn’t get that sense. I never felt like an expert: I felt, throughout and even on repeated replays, like a clueless amateur blundering around. Even on replays, the choices I was presented with seemed to give no real opportunity to behave as an expert: I had a very limited range of options, which I could not learn to use systematically in a planned way. So my status as an expert was always and obviously fake.
I’m not sure whether this problem could really be resolved. I’m inclined to think it might be done if the game presented a sufficiently complex set of choices, with sufficiently clear feedback, that over repeated playthroughs the player might in fact acquire something resembling expertise. But, whether or not that is correct, in its current form the options available are too blunt and too crude to give any impression of developing mastery, and as a result the experience fell short for me – I was not able to get the game to ring true to my sense of my own character.[/spoiler]