2020 IGF nominees: topical games

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tagged: reviews, american election, eliza, forgotten, igf, adventures with anxiety

For your consideration: games that are engaged with the times. An arbitrary boundary, yes? Every narrative game is about something or it wouldn't have an audience.

These four games raise their social issues more explicitly. So I declare them a group. But, understand, the groups are somewhat arbitrary and I did a lot of juggling. Lionkiller and Divination almost wound up in this post -- they're certainly both political and politically aware. Go back and read about those games in the context of these four.

  • Eliza
  • Adventures With Anxiety!
  • Forgotten
  • American Election

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Eliza, which I bought earlier in the year.)


A visual novel about life in the tech industry. The gimmick is that you play the part of a therapy chatbot. You're not the AI; you're the human gig worker who comes in to read lines off the AI teleprompter, so that the clients get fake human interaction with their machine-generated therapy.

I don't think this terrible business plan is intended to be taken seriously. It's a way to riff on a whole pile of real-world tech-industry issues. Gig work, data privacy, AI tech hype, overfunded startup-bros, crunch time, agree-to-the-terms-of-service checkboxes, workplace sexual harassment, billionaire nerds whose utopian schemes reek of the SF novels they read when they were thirteen. Every one of these issues is worth a long public discussion. But I'm afraid the game doesn't manage to dig deeply into any of them. It's a pile of challenging questions and a "what do you think?"

Same goes for the characters. They're not badly written, but they're all static: "The One Who..." I think the only character arcs are the therapy clients, who each show up two or three times with their little situational progress reports. Unfortunately, the protagonist is no exception with her persistent anomie. Yes, she's coming out of a three-year bout of depression, but the point is that she doesn't seem to come out of it. Your game choices seem to always boil down to "sure" vs "eh, maybe, I guess" -- until the end, which throws you a high-stakes "What do you care about? What will you do with your life?" question in order to wrap everything up.

On the up side, it has good solitaire. (Zachtronics games always have solitaire.)

Eh. I'm coming down hard on this game, but that reflects its high ambitions. It's solidly written, solidly acted, and has a top-notch polished presentation. It wants to be socially relevant, and it is socially relevant. I'm just left cold by the way sets up its interactive rhetoric. It wants to be completely unbiased, leaving its stance entirely up to the player. But the result is that the text never takes any kind of stance itself, which leaves the protagonist unappealingly indecisive and vague.

A strong story-focused game that I suspect other people will like more than I did.

Adventures With Anxiety!

Short, smart choice-based cartoon about what it says on the carton. This falls squarely into the "personal but good for you" category, which is hard to get right. This one wavers just a little into the sunshiney-bullshit mode; but only a little. Most of it comes off as honest. It's not pretending to be autobiography, but the hurt is recognizably from the author's veins. So you can trust it, or at least I felt I could trust it.

The cartoon style and animation are impeccably hilarious, too.


A first-person vignette about dementia.

The tropes of disorientation are very familiar from games of psychological horror. The world changes behind your back; you blink and are somewhere else; conversations are discontinuous and nonsensical. To express the all-too-real experience of Alzheimer's in these tropes is an obvious idea in retrospect -- but I've never thought of it, even when considering other games on the subject. (See Zed, Will Not Let Me Go, etc.) An insightful design.

The game offers a position of calm acceptance. The grief and frustration and anger are implied, but you aren't forced to act through them. That's a design choice; there's room for more games on this subject. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile take in its simplicity.

American Election

Oof. Hard to play, as the content warnings correctly warn.

This is both very specific and a blank canvas, which is interesting. The story is about Donald Trump and the people around him. But Truman Glass is not Donald Trump. He's drawn from a palette of Trump, and the Trumps of people's imaginations. You (as the player) have some indirect influence, through your choices, on which Trumpian attributes and flaws he expresses. But Glass is never specifically Trump. For one thing, he's way more eloquent.

On the flip side, Abigail Thoreau is not the generic Trump supporter or Trump opponent. She is a person with a specific story: someone who became a Glass campaign manager despite many apparent conflicts of position. But, again flipping, she is not a person with a clear arc of viewpoint. You choose her reactions and her backstory, moment by moment through the game. But it's hard to create her as a consistent person. I could never shape a character whom I agreed with, or strongly sympathized with, for even as long as a full chapter. She's not paralyzed into a single flawed mold -- you have many choices -- but all your choices are bad. Or else you're whittled down to one choice, which is worse.

That's on purpose, I'm sure. The story is a stream of failures, inadequacies, wrenched assumptions. Nothing you do is going to work out well. So you're never going to express a whole and satisfying Abigail. I suppose that's the point; the game is life in America over the past five years (or going back twenty or more, if you like). A relentless series of blows.

It does this very well. Twists of phrase bite; mirrored images echo. It hurts. You could fairly call it melodramatic. But I guess political despair is like political satire: you can't actually exaggerate reality any more. The only lie American Election tells is to say you can't look away, can't hide in your pretending-to-be-normal life. (As we do for months at a time, to survive.) This game doesn't have those times.

So. More a scream than a story. The events don't hang together. There's probably a range of story possibilities I didn't see; maybe that makes a more coherent shape, I don't know. (I'm certainly not going back to replay it.) In some ways it reminds me of Eliza; a blizzard of issues and a "what do you think?" Except in this case, not having a good answer is the right answer.

If you can tolerate it, it's worth a run-through. The author can't be screaming into the void. We can't all be.