Cost of Living, by Dorian Passer
We’re getting close to the end of the Comp now (of the remaining five games, I’ve beta-tested four of them, and the remaining one has been pulled from the competition at least for now, though I may still write a review), and for me it’s closing at it began, with a game whose interface pushes the limits on what counts as a parser game – in Cost of Living, you type into MadLibs style boxes embedded in the dialogue of two characters discussing a short story from the Golden Age of sci-fi, with your input affecting some of the finer details of their conversation. In fact, the game was briefly disqualified from the competition before an appeal brought it back, and while as I’ve said I’m not especially fussed about policing genre boundaries, I can see why, since while the only interface element is typing text and seeing more text get spit out at you in response, it departs from some of the deep unwritten rules about how parser IF works, like the player’s typing corresponding to some actor taking some distinct and discrete in-world action.
One could argue about the epistemological status of the game all day, of course, but I had my fill of arid formalism back in law school so I return to the principle I outlined in my Kondiac review: if it’s in ParserComp, it gets a ParserComp review. So how does this work? On the whole, not great, in my view, though this isn’t so much down to the novel interface as specific thematic and narrative choices the author made in the flame story which conflict with the text being riffed on. It’s hard to explain why that is without going into some detail on the embedded short story, so fair warning for 70-year-old spoilers.
The story, also titled Cost of Living and apparently in the public domain so it’s fair game for reuses like this, is by Robert Sheckley and while it was published way back in 1952 it has some moments of spooky prescience in the way it depicts a far-future family living lives of convenience, swaddled in a home featuring numerous labor-saving appliances that spring to life with a single press of a button, and an omnipresent voice-activated assistant that’s not too far off of Alexa. It’s also modern in the way that it shows the corrosive impact of a rampant consumerism that’s displaced all other aspirations and values – the central conflict is about whether Carrin, the family patriarch, who’s more than maxed out his credit to buy all the gizmos and gadgets he barely uses, will effectively sell his son into debt peonage to finance yet more useless consumption that will keep him level with his neighbors.
This crass materialism and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status anxiety are juxtaposed against the hopes of the aforementioned son, who dreams of one day getting to be one of the few skilled laborers remaining in this static society – fixing the automatic machines rather than being effectively infantilized by them – or escaping it entirely by piloting a rocket ship to Mars and fulfilling a long-promised, but long-deferred, colonization effort.
In other words it isn’t saying anything you haven’t heard of, or thought of, before, as a person actively participating in the world circa 2022, but it is certainly relevant in a way a lot of 1950s sci-fi no longer really is, and while it’s written in functional prose that lacks much in the way of subtle emotional shading or nuanced dialogue, Sheckley’s a good enough writer to make it work for the ten pages or so it takes for the story to unspool.
(Parenthetically, I should say that the whole debt peonage angle doesn’t really make sense. The family is in hock for millions of dollars, with an annual salary of 30k, while the monopolistic company that makes all this expensive-to-produce junk pushes yet more stuff on them in order to heap up ever more implausible IOUs. This doesn’t make sense given how these kinds of debt arrangements work in real life, which is to drive down the cost of labor and put it under the thumb of the owners of capital – think of the sharecropping system – because it’s clear that the labor the father performs is completely useless, and it’s not so much the high cost of labor inputs that’s holding back the company’s profitability as it is their habit of giving loans to people already leveraged a hundred to one. There are hints in the story that this is more a matter of political economy, as the company has secured legislation that makes some purchases mandatory, so maybe the idea is that the corporation is trying to substitute itself for the state by effectively privatizing the generational public debt that governments carry to steward society – that would be interesting to dig into, but the story doesn’t really go there).
Again, all of that is completely non-interactive and just as Sheckley wrote it in the 50s. The part that’s interactive is a dialogue between two bodiless, backstory-less, quality-less characters (they have names, that’s it) who are discussing the events of the story. As they talk, one of them will say something like “Why is Carrin ____ about Miller?” (Miller being a neighbor of Carrin’s who committed suicide before the game opens) and you get to type something into the blank. Then the next bit of dialogue will incorporate and respond to what you typed in. As I said, it looks like MadLibs, and sometimes that seems to be exactly how it’s implemented, with your input mechanically parroted but not meaningfully impacting the course of the conversation. Other times the game does pull off the neat trick of seeming to understand what you wrote – I think at minimum, it’s got a word list or algorithm that allows it to know whether a word has positive connotations or negative ones, so the dialogue can proceed accordingly.
Here’s an example of it working well. I got a prompt asking me to characterize the son’s mood after he responded somewhat sullenly to Carrin’s overtures, and I wrote in “enthusiastic.” The game recognized this was an inappropriate response:
Harris: What made you think Billy was in a enthusiastic mood?
Vesper: I was just being sarcastic. It’s obvious Billy isn’t happy about something.
It’s a neat trick (even if now that I paste it in, I notice the game can’t figure out how to get a/an to work). However, the reason I was being kind of a jerk and pushing back here is that I’d first tried to type “disaffected”, which I thought was a good explanation for Billy’s mood, only to be told to check my spelling, and then hit the same rejection message after trying two or three more options. If this restricted approach was needed to keep the game on track, that would be one thing, but sometimes the decisions for what’s accepted and what isn’t seem bizarre. In that above-mentioned “Why is Carrin ____ about Miller?” I tried putting in “thinking”, only to be rebuffed and asked whether I meant “thinning” instead, which it was happy to accept when I dutifully typed it in. And due to the failure to characterize either of the conversationalists in any real way, it never felt like I was playing a particular role, or even that their disagreements had anything behind them other than airy abstraction, which further reduces the stakes and creates an aura of artificiality.
The bigger issue is that, perhaps in recognition of the fact that making this kind of natural-language input work well is really, really hard when engaging with ideas of any complexity, the author’s chosen to have the dialogue focus less on the ideas of the story but on having the Greek Chorus try to figure out the emotional states of the various characters. This is not very interesting because nothing here is at all mysterious; it’s a sci-fi story from the 50s written by a white dude, everybody’s motivations, desires, and feelings are pretty straightforward throughout. Having the peanut gallery constantly interrupting the story to say stuff like “Do you think Billy is ____?” also has the effect of flattening out what ambiguity there is, and making the story feel clumsier (it’s also strange that it’s not clear whether they think they’re responding to a piece of fiction – they don’t seem familiar with the story’s world, but they also appear invested in the characters’ emotional well-being and eventual fates in a way that felt deeply weird to me, a metafictional construct seemingly playing dumb).
As the story comes to a conclusion, the framing dialogue also goes off on a weird tangent – I don’t think I can coherently talk about this by blurry-texting spoilers, so fair warning the rest of this paragraph discusses the latter portions of the frame narration. Without any solid textual prompting, the two characters decide that part of why Carrin is upset is that a throwaway reference to life expectancy now being 150 years means that there are life-extending drugs available, but these are unpleasant to take and his son being indebted means that he, too, will need to take these unpleasant medications to live long enough to work off the increased debt. Again, there’s no basis for this turn towards the more overtly dystopic – it’s clear this remark is just Sheckley filling out his picture of a post-scarcity society, with no indication there are downsides to living longer – and it’s at odds with where the story ultimately goes, which is an ironic coda showing that the characters have become so stunted by their situation that when they imagine the great adventure of going to Mars, all they can picture is pushing a button. There’s no comparable final tag to the frame dialogue, or last moment of interactivity, so it feels like that whole thread just peters out.
There’s clearly innovative thinking that went into presenting this story in this way. And I definitely get the draw of trying to create an interactive Socratic dialogue that uses textual input without being limited to the medium-dry-goods model of traditional parser IF. I can even see that this approach has some potential advantages, since at least with a keyword-based system you don’t need to deal with the challenges of parsing grammar and can focus on understanding nouns, verbs, and adjectives that might not be bound by concrete physical objects, actions, or properties – which is still a hard enough nut to crack!
But I don’t think Cost of Living qua game is a good advertisement for the power of this model; while there are moments where the game does seem to respond in a nuanced way to the player’s input, even then it comes off as a parlor trick, not just due to the limitations of the current implementation but because there’s a fundamental disconnect between the engagement the interactive frame offers and the themes the static fiction is presenting. In the end, I’d have to say that I’d have probably enjoyed this story more if I’d just read it in a book, rather than playing through it like this. That’s a damning indictment, I recognize, but I repeat that it’s not because I think any departure from parser conventions is doomed to failure, or even that this particular departure is likewise preordained for perdition: it’s primarily that the cogs in the two pieces of the game just don’t mesh at the basic literary levels of theme, character, and tone. In theory these are fixable problems – though they’re also generally the hardest problems in any kind of writing – and at any rate there’s value, and honor, in a failed experiment. From some of the conversation on the game’s itch page, it’s clear the author is looking to refine their model, so I hope this critical review is useful for that, and I’ll be around to check out what they come up with next.