Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) by ruqiyah
Here’s a problem that many authors of interactive fiction have had to deal with: how do you keep a player engaged as you spin out a story that has already happened? One common solution is to rely on the player exploring the world, walking around and examining items. Another is to give the player character something to read, like books or journal pages. Neither feels particularly fresh, and neither gives us much of a sense of agency – although this may be mitigated by, for example, creating a stunning world or hiding the journal pages behind puzzles.
In general, I tend to think that the best way to solve this predicament is to not get into at all. Wouldn’t it be better to have the story happen right now rather than tell it in retrospect? This is my beef with games like Babel, that tell an elaborate story through diary fragments while the protagonist in the present is just walking around.
Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) takes these questions on in an interesting way. In this piece, we are given a clear if rather mundane task: work our way through four boxes of items, putting all our items somewhere in our new office – in the top drawer of the desk, maybe, or on the nail where we can hang a picture. Since there is not enough space, we’ll also have to throw some of the items away. While this starts as an exercise in being organised – surely a pen should be in the top drawer – it soon turns into an exploration of the character’s background and relationship with the Professor, as almost every new items adds something to our understanding. We are a vampire; and the professor is our nemesis-cum-lover, who has been trying to kill us for ages and who, given our mutual attraction, will probably never stop trying nor ever succeed. This is certainly pursuit in both the physical and romantic senses of the word.
One thing that the game does really well is recontextualising earlier text. Once we find out that the main character is a semi-vengeful vampire here to pursue her female nemesis, the mug that says “Bad Bitch Juice” becomes a lot funnier, and now we understand why the protagonist had to laugh about it. We understand why she was nervous about the very sharp pencil. Indeed, we even come to understand why the protagonist waits in the hall outside the room on the very first turn, and only enters when the assistant invites her in.
What’s more, the backstory that is slowly revealed adds a level of agency to the process of deciding which items to keep and which items to throw in the bin. Are we here to keep ourselves safe, or will we embrace risk? Are we interested in academic pursuits? And the game acknowledges this agency, frequently endorsing some reason to throw particular items away.
One final thing that works in the game’s favour is the fact that it is clearly set in media res, in the sense that there are both an implied past and an implied future. This means that the feeling of just uncovering a story after it has already been ended is mitigated.
Now it’s still possible to feel a little bit disappointed that we see only a small fragment of the story; that we don’t really know what’s going to happen; that we never get to meet the professor. But given that we would get only this glimpse, I would say that the game has been done about as well as it could have been. Easy to recommend.