The Archivist and the Revolution, by Autumn Chen
Autumn Chen has had the kind of year that makes one reevaluate one’s standards for productivity. Her impressively-detailed debut in the Comp, last year’s A Paradox Between Worlds, came tenth in a crowded field; New Year’s Eve, 2019, her Spring Thing entry, won nods for Best Writing and Best Characters (and unless I miss my guess, didn’t miss out on a Best In Show ribbon by very much); and just a month or two back, she worked with Emily Short to recover and reimplement Bee, one of Short’s “lost” games.
Coming now to the Archivist and the Revolution, I think it’s that last effort that’s most relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s quite a lot of continuity with the two previous games: we’ve got a ChoiceScript-aping game (actually implemented in Dendry this time) with a slightly overwhelming amount of well-written content; we’ve got a cast where just about everybody sympathetic is a (trans or cis) lesbian; we’ve got a plethora of endings. But the narrative structure is largely procedural with randomly-available and discrete storylet-like passages playing a significant role in what the player understands the plot to be, and the interface foregrounds a resource-management frame where narrative actions produce mechanical rewards that in turn feed into new narrative consequences – it’s all very reminiscent of late-period Short (has anyone done the definitive charting of the arc of her career? I mean the Emily Short who’s interested in procedural text and works for Failbetter).
Think I’m reaching? Check the name of the main character then get back to me.
This isn’t a critique, I should make clear – far from it! Chen’s take on this structure feels assured and very much her own, with a dystopic, genderpunk setting quite far from anything I’ve seen in Emily Short’s work, and her trademark emotional palette of anxious grays and exhausted blues, illuminated by the occasional miraculous, vital yellow, is very much in effect. The mood is sketched with an evocative, efficient opening:
The light outside the window was bright and artificial, emanating from a poor simulacrum of the sun hanging on the metal ceiling above. Rows of green and violet macroalgal trees emulated an ancient streetscape, the scene completed by the humans walking by. It was the equivalent of midday in the city without a sun.
(I’d forgotten that there’s literally no sun. Metaphors!)
In this downbeat arcology, the protagonist, Em, works as a freelance archivist, working to recover information have encoded in the genetic material of ambient bacteria – this world has suffered from cycle after cycle of horrific war and violence that appears to have destroyed most traditional forms of information storage, so previous generations of scientists have cannily developed this technique to leverage the hardiness of unicellular life and send messages-in-a-biological-bottle to a future age. That idea, on its own, would be beautiful – except that the shores were these bottles have fetched up are dark ones indeed. After the latest convulsion of violence, the city (and maybe the world as a whole?) has been taken over by a reactionary, oppressive party that brutally enforces traditional gender roles – they’ve recently put down an abortive uprising that Em, a trans woman, took some vague part in – and doesn’t seem able to provide even reasonably economically-productive residents with a decent social minimum.
What this means is that you’ve got rent to pay, and to earn money you need to use your skills to decrypt your pick of two or three of a randomly-selected set of snippets of genetic information, and then send the resulting information to the archive (you do this by clicking, there are no cryptography puzzles or anything). Sometimes the information is garbled or no longer meaningful; sometimes it contains important scientific information; sometimes it contains the personal musings of the recently-suppressed revolutionaries; and sometimes it hearkens back to the very dawn of history, and the events that put the city on track to become the hell that it is. And then you pay for food and hormone treatments, hope you’ve netted enough on the day to be on track to make rent, and do it again the next day, with a new set of randomly-selected snippets waiting on your work account.
The game isn’t limited to just this loop, though. You get opportunities to decompress or interact with others in between, or even instead of, shifts of decryption. Some of these are minor-key – like trawling the CityNet for news stories (Em, in a display of obvious self-hatred, always reads the comments), or tooling around in a samizdat MMO. Others, though, unfurl into major character arcs, largely centering on two of Em’s former partners – one who’s also trans, but “de-transitioned” to hide from the authorities, and the other who’s raising her and Em’s son – and just from those short descriptions you can tell there’s a lot to dig into. Oh, and there’s also a mutual aid society made up of folks who share her revolutionary past and want to recruit her.
If this sounds overstuffed, that’s because it’s overstuffed. It’s here that the more procedural, storylet-based design proves successful. There’s no way you could see a fraction of the content on offer in just one playthrough, and you’re somewhat at the mercy of the RNG because what snippets are presented to you will have a significant impact on how much you can guide the story. And while it’s clear that you can focus more on one partner or the other (or neither) depending on your choices – simple enough – there are also ongoing plot threads woven into the DNA decryption. Some of this is game-mechanical, since at the beginning you lack the technical skills necessary to analyze certain cryptographic algorithms, but you can pick up the needed techniques if you find certain snippets that provide a how-to guide. But it’s also narrative, too – there are prefixes to the snippets that I think mark each as belonging to a particular genre, from deep history to the suppressed diaries of revolutionaries to literally Wikipedia. You can lean more towards one set rather than another, but ultimately, you’ll have a very hard time exhausting even one while spinning all the other plates you’ve got to keep an eye on.
This could be a recipe for incoherence, but I found the engine was tuned to create a satisfying story regardless of what was surely the suboptimal course I charted. I began by largely ignoring my job to meet all the different characters I could, then realized I was going to be short on my bills and overcorrected into work mode, then stumbled across a sequence of snippets that put into question many of the things I’d assumed to be bedrock truths of the city, then went broke nonetheless. At the end, my version of Em achieved an unexpected sort of apotheosis, riding a series of twists I saw coming just before they hit, and leavening the grimness of the story in a way I didn’t think would be possible. It felt lovely and inevitable, but it was only one of nine endings! I doubt they’re all as satisfying, but even so, the way I was able to retroactively construct a clear, clean narrative arc out of so many randomly-generated pieces, quite sure that I missed more words than I saw, was little short of magical.
Do I have complaints? By now I feel like y’all know me, I always have complaints. First, for all that the setting is established as violently repressive, in the game itself didn’t feel much sense of immediate threat, even when choosing somewhat-risky options, and the very real threat posed by Em’s rising rent comes off impersonal and inevitable, rather than terrifying – hell, even the online trolls seem significantly less vicious than the kind you see in real life. Beyond that, there’s a closing revelation that doesn’t quite play fair with Em’s backstory. And in a world where my morning paper included Russian missiles raining on Ukrainian civilians, Los Angeles City Councilors taped being absurdly racist while dividing up the city’s districts, and Iranian geronto-theocrats murdering dozens of women and children to prop up their illegitimate regime, the idea that the world’s conflicts would reduce down to the single point of gender identity seems a bit hard to credit – I’m certainly not complaining about the game foregrounding what it’s about and reading the rhetoric of various contemporary right-wing ideologues you’d be forgiven for thinking transgender rights is the only contested ground in our society. But still, there might have been opportunities to explore some intersectionalities around race, since Em is depicted as Asian and I don’t think it’s implied that everybody else is, too (in fairness, some of these dynamics might be explored in DNA-storylets that I didn’t find).
Finally, I ran into some bugs. Several were found in the resource-management side of the game, though since, as I previously noted, that’s not where the action is they were fairly low-impact: A few times, I decoded DNA but failed to get a message the next day telling whether I’d classified it correctly and giving me my payment; on one occasion, I’d decoded and archived two sequences but only had one acknowledged, while the other time I’d similarly archived two but saw only blank lines when I clicked the link to check for messages the next day. And the finale sequence opened with a two-paragraph warning that I was behind on my rent and would be evicted if I went another week in arrears, followed immediately by another paragraph telling me actually I was being evicted now.
There were also what seemed like a few narrative glitches, in particular two sequences that seemed to assume information that I don’t think was established on-screen in my playthrough (Em references a leaflet leading her to the mutual aid society, but I never found such a thing, and in one scene where K- has a breakdown, as it’s wrapping up she glancingly mentions getting a new job, which Em rolls with without comment despite not having previously known that K- got fired). And I found one dialogue option in the first meeting with the mutual aid society misleading: one of them said something about how I probably wasn’t a government infiltrator, to which I responded “no”, thinking that would be interpreted as agreement – but the game took that to mean refusing their recruitment pitch.
None of these did much to dent my enjoyment of the game – I’m flagging them in the hope they can be ironed out for a post-Comp release, since The Archivist and the Revolution is richly deserving of a second visit after the present frenzy of games wraps up. I’m curious to see how the narrative engine holds up to repeat play, and what happens if I try to focus my energies on a single plot thread rather than playing the field as I did this time out. But even if you just go through the story once, this is a clear highlight of the Comp.