Admiration Point, by Rachel Helps
Welp, much like with No One Else is Doing This, I come to Admiration Point with some personal experience that makes this “anti-romance” about mutual attraction between married (not to each other, natch) co-workers especially resonant: my wife and I met at work, at a time when we were likewise both coupled up (but not to each other, natch). I can attest that makes for a situation rife with the potential for drama, submerged feelings, and angst, with a hundred different choices every day attempting to balance guilt, desire, innocence, and fulfillment, so it’s an appealing setup for a work of choice-based IF. Add to this an interesting, self-reflective future setting – the main characters all work at a digital museum and spend most of their time assessing and analyzing the online culture of the early 21st Century – and you’ve got some compelling ingredients. I didn’t find Admiration Point entirely successful, due to some significant elements feeling underdeveloped, but there’s a lot here to enjoy and think about, so I’m happy to have played it.
Good stuff first. Much of the game plays out at work, as Maria, the main character, responds to the demands of her work as a exhibition artist at the museum – this means she does things like create 3d avatars for her colleagues when they give talks in online VR, or mock up backdrops or interactive experiences to support exhibits – and decides exactly how far to lean in to her attraction to Sean, a somewhat-older curator. Some of the details of this work can feel a little silly – TikTok clips are ephemeral by their nature, so putting significant effort into preserving them has the air of the absurd – but there’s an impressive attention to the detail that this work would require, and various books and lectures eventually make the case for this study of digital culture.
Throughout, Maria has the opportunity to take on extra projects to get closer to Sean, providing for some engaging choices, and allowing the technological elements of the setting to create unexpected intimacy. At one point in my playthrough, she decided to make an avatar of Sean, building the model from reference photos:
His knuckles are unexpectedly knobbly, and he keeps his fingernails shorter than the default fingernail length. You adjust some of the knuckle wrinkles, the shade of the arm hair, and the opacity of the skin on the palms.
The relationship with Sean is nicely drawn throughout, in fact. He’s not completely idolized – while he’s smart, charming, and occasionally thoughtful, he can come off a bit smug and patronizing – which adds to the reality of the attraction, and Maria’s physical desire for him comes through in details like those above. In my playthrough I skated on the edge, never pushing for a declaration of love or doing anything that didn’t have plausible deniability, but not losing any opportunities to spend time together, either – so his feelings remained plausibly ambiguous. It’s clear that Maria is getting something positive out of their connection, and sees it as a reason to stretch herself artistically and intellectually, but it also clearly leads to her neglecting her family. There were more than a few moments, playing Admiration Point, when I felt a shudder of recognition at how well the game reminded me of how things were when my wife and I were just co-workers.
There’s one element of the relationship that felt less natural, though, which is the game-mechanical pieces. Once you reach a certain point in the story, a sidebar’s unlocked that shows little icons representing your feelings for Sean, his feelings for you, and his “alert” level. These aren’t explained – Sean’s indicators appear to be based on a weather metaphor, like cloudy to sunny, and since I played it cool his alert level stayed at a question mark. But I found the squiggly circle representing Maria’s feelings for him incomprehensible (though it belatedly occurs to me that might be the point), and the whole rigmarole seemed unnecessary given that the prose was already doing a perfectly adequate job conveying the situation.
Speaking of pieces that fell a bit flat for me, I didn’t find fin-de-21st-Century sci-fi world entirely believable – other than a U.S. that has fragmented into Infinite-Jest-style corporate-branded substates and some scaled-up VR technology that feels at most 15 or 20 years off, not 70, neither technology or culture seem to have moved on that much. That’d all be fair enough – this isn’t meant to be sociological speculative fiction by any means – except for the glaring fact that the game’s gender roles often struck me as a bit retrograde even by 2022 standards. It is established that nonbinary and genderqueer people do have significantly greater acceptance (a major plot point hinges on a study examining how folks from those communities created art in response to a second pandemic in the 2030s), but in terms of how the named cast interact, it feels more 1990s than 2090s. Sean’s instinct is to talk over Maria and treat her ideas dismissively, until he’s called on it; Maria and her husband have a sex life straight out of a period sitcom (he’s gotta have it, she’s mostly frigid); her attraction to Sean is based partially on wanting to take care of him, though “as a woman, [she] like[s] to support other women in positions of power in [her] workplaces” – in fact she often feels “powerless at work.”
Of course, it’s possible that the setting of the game – the Nevadan successor-state of MGM – is meant to be more culturally conservative than future society as a whole. This brushes against another somewhat-disappointing aspect of the game, which is the treatment of Mormonism. The blurb plays up the fact that Maria is Mormon, and so is Sean, as it turns out. But short of her noting the fact that they have a religion in common (without any substantive comment on what that means to her), a sequence where they bump into each other at an LDS event – which could have been equally well set at Shakespeare in the Park or a football game – and one moment where Maria has the option to pray for sleep, her faith and its role in her worldview felt underdeveloped to me. I never got a sense of whether she was a fervent believer, or whether this attraction to someone she wasn’t married to threatened her faith, or if Sean being Mormon as well made flirtation safer, or alternatively, less appealing because it becomes less transgressive. Perhaps the author was worried about making the player feeling proselytized-to – a good impulse! – but I think the game went too far in the other direction; Maria is a strongly-characterized protagonist so having this important part of her identity and experience of the world deemphasized feels like a missed opportunity.
The biggest area where underdevelopment undermines the game, however, is Maria’s home life, which gets maybe a fifth of the word count, and an even lower fraction of authorial attention, of her work. Her husband makes cardboard seem interesting – he never even gets a name over the course of this 90-minute game, and given all the focus on Maria’s job it’s noticeable that we don’t even find out what he does until an hour in (he’s an industrial production manager, god help him). She has a four-year-old who’s occasionally being annoying, occasionally being cute, but who doesn’t seem to take up nearly the space in her attention as most toddlers do in the minds of their parents. But there are very few sequences, or decisions, where these relationships are activated – there’s one point where you need to decide whether or not to stay home from work to take care of your sick child, but it’s primarily framed around Sean (selfishly wanting to go into work to be near him, or selflessly performing familial obligations).
Of course, this could well be an authorial choice, portraying the home as drab and stultifying in contrast to the excitement Maria experiences when she’s with Sean. But often the writing in these segments doesn’t feel like it’s portraying feelings of dullness and artificiality, and is just dull and artificial itself. Like, there’s an interesting subplot at the museum where Maria makes a 3d model of a mommy-blogger to go along with an exhibit of some of her writing; the excerpts are from right after the blogger gave birth, so Maria makes the model a realistic rendition of a post-partum body. This pisses off one of the blogger’s descendants, who wanted a more idealized portrayal. The work sequence is interesting and well done, and gains personal resonance because it’s revealed that Maria had a hard pregnancy with her first child, with a long recovery time, which is one reason she’s reticent to have any more kids even though her husband would like them.
When the incident with the relative comes up in conversation at home, here’s how the dialogue goes, after a prefatory “as you know” phrase establishes that the husband knows about Maria’s work on the exhibit and he asks whether she made the change the relative requested:
“I did not. Postpartum women often sequester themselves and we have few public examples of what their bodies actually look like. Women giving birth for the first time are surprised when they have a baby and can’t fit back into their old clothes after giving birth or sometimes, not ever. My art should depict what we want to exhibit as accurately as possible.”
“Hmm. That makes sense.”
This is not how people actually talk, much less people who are married to each other, much much less people who have feelings about what being pregnant, with the child of the person they’re talking to, did to their own body. It’s a significant missed opportunity, and it’s of a piece with the treatment of Maria’s family throughout, which winds up undercutting the dilemma at the heart of the game – instead of a dilemma hinging on Maria’s desire to be with Sean counterposed with guilt at hurting her very human, very specific husband and kid, her desire is only opposed by abstract considerations of fidelity. This makes the drama significantly less compelling – and, again drawing on personal experience here, it also makes it significantly less true to life.
In many respects these are minor critiques, I should say. Certainly if the good parts of Admiration Point were less good, I’d feel less disappointed by its weaker parts – I can’t help imagine what the game would be like if the quality of writing and characterization were more consistent, so I’ve done my typical thing of harping at length on the negatives in a piece I overall liked. So let me just say once again that there’s a lot to like here, and seeing that the author has written other works of IF – including some that appear to lean more heavily into Mormon themes – I’m definitely interested in checking those out.