Shadow Operative, by Michael Lauenstein
(I beta tested this game)
In my unreliable memory, cyberpunk used to be a pretty common genre for IFComp entries, but it’s become a bit more rare these days – Sense of Harmony included many of the tropes, as did Move On in its implied setting, and I suppose BYOD is all about corporate hacking. Maybe the genre as a whole is less relevant as we’ve all gotten used to the fact that we’re basically swimming in cyberspace 24/7 and corporate-run authoritarian dystopias don’t really land as a scary unknown any more? Regardless of any of that, Shadow Operative is a cyberpunk adventure of the old school, as a rogue hacker with a cyberjack in, and a price on, their head infiltrates a megacorp to exfiltrate hidden data that could bring down the whole company. Story-wise it’s a bit by the numbers, but satisfying puzzles and a slick presentation mean this one definitely scratches the shadowrunning itch.
Starting with that presentation, since it’s the first thing you notice when starting the game, it’s anything but a throwback: while written in Inform and fully playable by the parser alone, there are also a lot of conveniences in various sidebars, including a usable map, hyperlinks for important objects, a clickable list of common verbs (with ENTER CYBERSPACE first on the list, because of course), and a title image and music throughout. I played via typing alone, but this one should be pretty accessible to those who prefer to click their way through or who are less familiar with parser-only games – and it all really reinforces the mood of the piece, placing you in the shoes of an enhanced operative who can quickly figure out everything that’s going on.
As mentioned, the setting and setup are classic cyberpunk – after a botched job, you’ve got hitmen after you, and while laying low you get sucked into doing one more job for an old friend. The emphasis is clearly on that one more job, though – the price on your head doesn’t really connect to what you’re doing after the first five minutes of the story (and is resolved rather summarily in the conclusion). This maybe reduces the drama somewhat, but does perhaps better fit the mood, which is more easygoing than the typical cyberpunk vibe – it definitely starts out all edgy, but pretty soon your badass operative has crashed into the back of a garbage truck, and it pretty much goes on from there. I don’t think there’s any way to die (though there is a way to make the game unwinnable: don’t drink your upgrade money!), and instead of a cold, geometric void, cyberspace is presented as rather cheerful medieval or feudal Japanese worlds with anthropomorphized programs. There are also rather a lot of jokes and in-jokes, which I thought mostly landed – I’m not sure the world needed another “the cake is a lie” gag, but I’m always down for an “I’m selling these fine leather jackets” callback.
The action is all about the central job, and it’s well put together and paced. There’s a bit of preliminary work to do to get ready for the heist, then the infiltration and cyberspace misadventure before having to make your escape. The puzzles are fairly simple but reasonable and satisfying to solve, with the trickiest ones coming in cyberspace. Again, this is presented in somewhat cartoony fashion – defeating the megacorp’s security primarily involves using musical instruments that I guess are really programs to overcome AI ICE that takes the shape of various guard-animals? – but it works well enough and doesn’t require the player to absorb a bunch of technobabble. There is one really good twist, which I mostly saw coming but still landed well.
It’s all solidly implemented, too (the only issue I found is that you can pick up the bamboo tree – bit of an oops but no big deal), and the interface removes any guess the verb issues. Overall Shadow Operative goes down smooth and easy, and provides a good argument for why this old genre has some life in it yet.