Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

PROSPER.0, by groggydog

(Much of the interest of this game comes from the way its mechanics are introduced, tweaked, and woven into the narrative; spoiler-blocking all of them would add too many redactions to this review, so I’m leaving them unmarked and will just caution that you might want to give the game a play-through before reading this review).

I’ve grown increasingly wary of “worldbuilding” as I age – in sci-fi, it often feels like techno-fetishism substituting for political analysis, and in fantasy it often feels like it’s just sanding the interesting bits off of history – but every once in a while, I nonetheless stumble across a sentence whose understated implications send my brain whirling off into speculation about what kind of society could create it. “There is unfortunately no room for art of any kind in the Database of Subsumed Cultures”, the introductory text to PROSPER.0 tells us; we don’t know how those cultures got subsumed, why your employer, CORPOTECH, is compiling such a database, and whether “there is no room” is a technical constraint or a value judgment.

Any set of answers you imagine to those questions makes this a dark setup: the nameless protagonist has to scour an intergalactic factbook in the wake of a computer error that’s corrupted some of the data, tasked with deleting the occasional eruption of poetry into the realm of pure statistics. If you’re inclined to rebel and say “I would prefer not to”, of course there’s a supervisor monitoring your terminal and ready to fire you if you step out of line; between the surveillance, the bland corporate-speak of your directives, and a UI that’s functional in both senses of the term, the task of evaluating information about species as exotic as the Drumnisllonans, “humanoid beings with shelled-octopus parasites for heads” and who live more than half a million years, becomes the purest bureaucratic tedium.

After a few go-rounds demonstrate the blithe disregard the system takes of permanently erasing these species’ contributions to the lyrical arts from the database, though, a mysterious interlocutor contacts the player’s terminal and opens up the possibility of resistance – and likewise opens up PROSPER.0’s central gameplay mechanic. You’re now able to “harvest” the words in the poems by clicking them as the database’s automated deletion routine runs, at which point you can use the rescued words to write something that will be preserved: either recapitulate the original, now-lost poem as best you can, or reconfigure the language to create something new (or anything in between).

The interface for all of this is generally well done. The writing UI, in particular, thoughtfully adds buttons for common punctuation and line breaks, which allows for finer control of meter and a more elegant visual presentation of your creations. The harvesting interface is a little messier, though – while there are some configuration options that allow you to tone down the difficulty, I found the default deletion speed was relatively fast, and attempting to click on particular words was very challenging on my trackpad. As a result I generally just clicked on from the beginning of each poem as quickly as I could, which sometimes felt awkward as my browser sometimes interpreted double-clicks as an attempt to highlight things, but did seem to maximize my crop of vocabulary.

The game doesn’t judge your creations – that would be quite the trick – but it does provide some prompts and context that I found made the mechanic more engaging than just fiddling with magnetic poetry. I generally found myself trying to capture the poems word for word, seeing my task as basically a historical one, but later in the game you face harsh limits on the number of words you can collect, or write, for a particular poem, which pushed me to take different approaches.

I haven’t talked much about the poems themselves yet. I liked them, but found them elusive, I think intentionally so given how they were produced (the author took public-domain poems and chain-translated them through several languages before coming back to English; they’re also stripped of much punctuation and any line breaks). This provides the player with enough of a blank slate to make alterations while preserving some of the imagery and force of the originals, but I found it also smeared out subtleties and made them sound oddly similar, which was at odds with the conceit that these were the products of distinct cultures. The game makes sure you get the facts about the species of each poem’s author, but these never felt all that connected to the texts. Like, can you tell this poem was written by an authoritarian tree?

In front of me now I see him rise… A face that has been snowing for seventy years With winter, where the kind blue eyes While hospital fires are lit: A little gray man who had a big heart, And great with learned knowledge of necessity; Heart, the harsh world has served its purpose, That never stopped bleeding.

Or that this metaphysical excerpt came from a notably materialist culture?

Some will accuse you of taking it away from them. Verses that may inspire them that day When the ears become blind, they become blind. The lightning left me and I was able to find it. There’s nothing to sing but kings. Helmets, knives, half-forgotten things Like your memories.

The game lampshades this, to its credit – in one late-game dialogue with your mysterious benefactor, it asks “Do you think that these poems, created by the races themselves, truly encapsulate the entirety of the spirit of their own people? We’re all simply doing our best to reflect back the most miniscule portion of existence in a way that rings true, aren’t we?” Which is entirely fair, and again seems to be giving the player permission to muck about, but does underplay the importance of culture in a game that otherwise makes quite a big deal of it.

The final set of challenges are in fact notably freeform: the user who’s been contacting you (it’s a rogue AI, because of course it is) tells you you’re part of its plan to bring down the evil corporation, and asks you if you want to join the plot. If so, the last “poem” is actually a bit of computer security code that you can delete and reconfigure into free verse. It’s an arresting idea – a digital equivalent of flowers growing in the ruin of a tank – but in practice I found it less engaging, because the words that make up the program are pretty dry. More resonant for me was the branch where you say no thank you to the revolution; in that case, you go on a tour through all the previous poems you’ve made, harvesting pieces from them in turn in order to create one culminating valedictory work.

I’ve been doing more describing of the game here than I usually do in my reviews; partially that’s because it uses a novel mechanic that’s worth explicating in detail, but partially it’s a sign that I have mixed feelings about its effectiveness. I found PROSPER.0 interesting and worthwhile, but ultimately I think it awkwardly straddles the line between story and toy (which the inclusion of a separate “arcade mode” allowing you to just mess around with the poetry without worrying about the plot perhaps acknowledges); the relationship between the poetry challenges and PROSPER.0’s rebellion isn’t sketched in enough to feel compelling, and the poems, and the picture we get of their authors, are too chilly for their loss to truly register as a tragedy. But if the game is slighter than it could be from an emotional point of view, it’s nonetheless of considerable intellectual interest and an impressive achievement in game-ifying poetry – in fact I’m eager to jump over to the thread where folks are posting their poems so I can share my own inventions – and I’d be excited to see this mechanic used in other games that take an earthier approach to things.