Friday, October 7, 2016

Fair (review)

"Fair" is a parser game written by Hanon Ondricek for the 2016 interactive fiction competition. I loved the following prose, which I read on my first or second move of the game. This excerpt sets up the backstory and helps to characterize the PC very early.

>x posterboard
Someone took a great deal of time and craft supplies to make a sign of glittery paste-on letters.  It reads Welcome to the 2016 Elementary Science Fair!  Clip art of heavenly bodies festoons the borders, held in place by the sheer gravitational force of a child's adhesive glue stick.
The bottom half of the sign reads "Guest Judge: Science Author A.B. Astherton!" next to the black and white picture of you from the book jacket blown up to an uncomfortably blurry scale.  You are resisting the urge to add the word fiction after the word science with your handy signature-signing sharpie.

"sheer gravitational force of a child's adhesive glue stick". There is something almost comically poetic about that choice of phrase.

This review will have a number of spoilers, so I'm jump breaking it.

Ondricek has a knack for wry humor and clever programming magic. Those skills were evident in last year's "Baker of Shireton" and even more so in "Fair". And yet I was initially worried that these two games would also have similar flaws. What is the objective of this game for me as a player? One of the joys of playing recent releases in IF is the excitement of "discovering" each new games objective from inside the game. But in the case of Shireton, I misjudged the purpose so thoroughly that I decided to write a second, completely different review after I'd read the walk through.

Starting out, I had a similar concern about "Fair". My character needs to sell some books (that's clear from the exposition). The mechanism for selling books is fun, at first, but later becomes rather tedious. Sort of like selling bread to the denizen's of Shireton.

Then again, perhaps purposes don't matter as much in this game. Shireton was essentially a one room game (until the midpoint when it wasn't) with a tightly constrained choice of actions.  "Fair" has an open map and relative few action constraints. One might engage with this as a completely free-choice role playing experience. I've seen one review which appears to describe it that way.

So what else is there besides book hustling? Several of the characters want you judge the fair. Some of them may even expect you to be a fair judge. (Fellow players, did you pick up on that meaning of the title?)

The problem is, there isn't enough time to do everything. There isn't even enough time to sell more than half your books before the school principal hauls you onto stage to rate science projects you may not have even seen. But that's in character also. The PC isn't here for the kids.

Book sales are speeded up if you lie to your customers about what they're buying. Small deceits at first, then bigger ones. I'm reminded of a Veggie Tales episode I saw recently which taught me that it's those little white lies that start to corrode your moral compass, that transform you into someone who is willing to do absolutely anything for a buck. Ain't that the truth.

Later in the game I found a gimmick to solve the time management problem. No longer restricted to choosing one path or the other, I could do everything: sell my books, visit the exhibits, pursue the other mysteries of the game. Mind you, by the time I got onto the exhibit floor, I had already demonstrated who I was as a PC (a huckster, willing to lie to sell books) and as a player (employing a magic cheat code to sell them all). There was no longer any question what my objective was: I was actively searching for someone to bribe me to fix the competition. When I found two willing partners in this endeavor, it was neither a shock to me nor a moral dilemna. I was delighted to find what I'd been looking for.

Even better, after talking to the girl I'd been paid to nominate, I felt some affection for her: She's smart, spunky, self-aware, duplicitous, willing to do what needs to be done to achieve her goals. She's a lot like the PC. I admire her at least as much as any of the other kids I've met at the competition. More, really.

So did I fix the competition? By the time I reached that branch-point in the game, there really seemed to be no other natural choice. Every other option seemed, well, wrong.

Back in college I remember a game we called "Would you ever..." There was a deck of cards with moral ambiguities written on them, and players explain how they would behave. To make it even zanyier, other players could vote on whether they thought the speaker was telling the truth. "Would you ever (sneak into a movie theater without paying)". "Would you ever (get stoned)". I played this with my square Christian friends...I think that's who the card deck was marketed for. We all knew what the "right" answers were supposed to be. But I was always a little skeptical of the activity. People can say the "right" answer, but who really knows what you would do when you were in the situation? I think humans are very poor at moral introspection. We are all experts at justification.

Interactive fiction has the potential to explore moral choices in a way that a college drinking game can not. But is this game ("Fair") really a free-choice role playing experience, as it was described earlier? I'm not so sure. I think it would be difficult to do anything BUT take the moral low road, while being true to the author's very purposeful characterization. I look forward to seeing other discussion of this game.

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