This game did a really good job of making me uncomfortable. Which was its goal, I believe, so kudos to the game! I’m going to talk a lot about details, so consider the rest of this review to contain tons of spoilers. Which probably won’t spoil the game, I think! The game is a lot more about an experience than it is about surprise.
So: it’s the near-ish future, and you play a married Mormon woman who has the potential, in-game, to become obsessed with an older Mormon man. The Mormonism is played as background; there’s not a lot of in-game specifics that talk about Mormonism, so it’s more to set the stage that both of you have foundational principles in your life that tell you that you shouldn’t have an affair with the guy. Then the game happens and you see how close you can get!
My first playthrough my thought was, “OK, it can’t be that hard to nip this in the bud,” and the game agreed! I got to ‘ending 5’, which I think was labeled something like ‘not obsessed’. (You can’t collect transcripts in Twine! It sucks! Ahem.) It didn’t even take that long. And, interestingly, the FAQ it shows you tells you right at the top that there is no path in which you have an affair.
So, OK, it’s possible to not be obsessed with the guy; I’ll go all-in the other way and see what happens. I restarted, picked opposite choices from my first playthrough, and not only did I not hit the ‘not-obsessed’ ending, but the game continued far beyond where I got the first time. I played a bit longer, decided to take a job at another company where I wouldn’t see the dude any more, and hit ‘ending 4’: ‘avoidance’. OK! Undo, don’t take the job, and the game continues even longer. I work closely with the guy, do a joint project that involves late-night working together and, ultimately, a trip out of state together. I get a lot of menus where the options are things like ‘kiss him’ ‘hold his hand’ ‘do none of those things’, and invariably I pick the ‘do none of those things’, and the game keeps going and going. And finally, I emerge unscathed at the other end of the story at ‘ending 1’: ‘friends’! Or, again, something like that, no transcript, complain complain.
And the reason I told you all this is that my claim is that, perhaps unwittingly, the very structure of the game is saying that ending 1 is the ‘best’ ending, because that’s the ending with the most content. Do normal stuff, early exit. Take a new job, early exit. My guess is that if you choose the ‘kiss him’ options, again, you get an early exit. The only way to get the most content out of the game is if you keep up a balance between being kind of obsessed with this guy, but never do anything untoward about it: only then does your obsession ‘fade with time’, and relaxes into a more healthy working relationship.
I’m diverging a bit from the game itself at this point, but this is the sort of thing that black people complain about white people in horror movies: stuff is obviously going wrong, but the (invariably white) character hangs around investigating, where the sane black-culture thing to do would be to nope on out of there. And I think part of this is because of the stories we tell ourselves: like this one, the claim is that if you nope out at the beginning, there’s no story. Only if you made bad decisions and try to deal with the aftermath do you get the story. (Am I remembering correctly that the same thing is sort of true of ‘A Change In The Weather’? ISTR that yonks ago I posted something like “Arguably, going ‘south’ at the beginning of the game is the best ending,” and zarf replied something like, “Ha, you think?” (Going south ends the game and tells you that you have a fun afternoon with your friends.)) Or the ending of one of the Prince of Persia games: you accomplish your goal, a sad thing happens, the credits roll, but you can keep playing and undo the sad thing that happens in a way that totally repudiates the goal you accomplished. “Ha, ha” the designers say, “You didn’t have to keep playing, but you did anyway! And look at the mess you made.”
So I feel like that design is the same thing going on with this game, writ large: the game tempts you with content to make bad decisions at the beginning, and then tempts you with more content again to make slightly better decisions later, because that’s where the story is. And honestly, it’s kind of unfair! ‘More content’ is 100% the designer telling you ‘you made the right decision’, and to pretend otherwise is, I feel, morally questionable.
The upshot is that if you want the design of your game to not have opinions about what choice the player made, I feel you need to keep the amount of content (and interesting-ness) roughly equal in each branch. I don’t know what the author’s moral opinions of being in this situation are, but the design of the game says, “The best thing to do in this situation is go ahead and let yourself become obsessed, but don’t let it go too far: that’ll result in the best outcome.” And I appreciate a game with something to say, as my standard end-review questions indicate! I don’t know if I agree, necessarily, but it at least makes for an interesting discussion.
Another interesting thing I feel the author is saying through the design: that it’s possible to nope out of an obsession through decisions you make. Another interpretation is that you can make those choices because you’re not obsessed in the first place, but I think the first interpretation is more interesting, and more in line with the game. You’re making choices: you have power over your feelings though your actions. I kind of think this is true! And again, it’s an interesting discussion to have, which I appreciate.
I haven’t said anything about the worldbuilding yet, and this review is already super long, but I wanted to at least say that I felt the author did a good job of imagining a possible near future of social media and AI, and that future’s relationship with our own. I did find it a kind of ridiculous future and ridiculous relationship, but today is so ridiculous that it was definitely believable!
Did the author have something to say? : Yes! I’m not 100% convinced all the things the author said were intentional, but I feel like I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Definitely a lot of stuff going on, and a lot of opinions going on about why this was.
Did I have something to do? : Oddly, I kind of felt like my options were ‘find out what the author had to say’ rather than ‘guide this person through this situation’, precisely because most paths ended up with shorter stories, and therefore felt like ‘quick deaths’, or at least ‘exits’. So I didn’t feel like I was guiding what Our Hero did, but rather discovering what they could do. But this felt appropriate for the story the author was telling, overall.