Introcomp 2014 – Going Down

Going Down, an inklewriter game by Hanon Ondricek, starts out mildly. Tim, a nondescript geek, is showing up to a New Year’s Eve date with fellow-geek Jen, who he has yet to meet in person. Jen doesn’t show up on time; Tim shuffles about the lobby, checks the time, sort of talks to an old woman, and eventually calls Jen. Jen says to come up. After a little logistical difficulty, and the revelation that he has a phobia about lifts, Tim is helped onto the lift by an as-yet-unnamed blonde woman. The intro concludes.

This is a very intro-ish intro, in that it feels as though it cuts off before it gets to the real premise of the story. Most of the intro is about being sort of uncomfortable and uncertain in a place where you’re not quite meant to be, and hesitating a lot before moving forwards. (THIS MAY BE A METAPHOR OF SOME KIND. Possibly a synecdoche.)

OK, huge tangent coming up about one aspect of the game. Here’s Tim talking about Jen:

Few girls you know have even heard of Frank Herbert, or would even have suggested to you that you check out Ursula LeGuin or that A Game of Thrones was based on anything before the cable series.

So there are two parts about this.

One is that the ‘oh gosh, geek girls are so rare’ thing feels weird to me. Partly, I suppose, this is because these days I live in a geek mecca and mostly socialise in geek-related contexts, so a high proportion of the women I know in person are not just geeks but geek professionals. Partly it’s because, ever since I was really part of a geek community, they’ve been communities with women in key positions of influence, even if they haven’t been in the majority. And partly it’s because at those parts of my life where I was a hopelessly single geek, the problem was never anything to do with a local shortage of attractive, intelligent women interested in intellectual or geeky stuff. I do not pretend to be typical here, so this may be unfair, but I always find myself giving serious side-eye to ‘I just don’t know any geek women!’ claims.

The other thing is… there’s a typical approach taken by TV or movies when they address geek subjects. They start out with something that already has very broad recognition, create a cartoonish generic version of it, and describe it only in terms of widely-recognisable surface elements. There’s no attempt to get at an insider view, to take the thing on its own terms, to reveal and explore what makes the thing compelling for its enthusiasts. This isn’t necessarily an insider/outsider problem: insider works like The Guild can suffer from it as badly as more outsidery things like Chuck. Often it’s because explorations of geeky subject-matter just don’t fit easily into highly constrained narratives like movies or TV episodes. (My prejudice is that text can and should do better.)

So when a story namechecks a number of very well-known geek topics without going into any further detail, I kind of flinch. I want geek stories that involve the topics of geek enthusiasm, not stories where they’re just arbitrary banners that go along with a basic template of social awkwardness and mildly stigmatised niche interests. We already have a kajillion stories about being socially awkward and having mildly stigmatised niche interests; that’s just not super-interesting to me, for all that it’s my own experience.

And here, the WoW-like thing is only important in terms of its social function: a common interest that draws Jen and Tim together while alienating Tim from other people. That makes them both seem more generic and less interesting. In a game where romance is a core element, that’s a problem.

Do I want to continue playing this? This is on the line; I’d keep playing if I was already playing, but I wouldn’t be highly motivated to seek out an updated version. On a less-fair, external-to-the-work note, I have the general impression of Ondricek as an author who does things which, if not always being precisely my cup of tea, are generally ambitious and unusual enough to be worth keeping an eye on.

Great Evil: Low to none; this is generally less of a concern in simple choice-based games, where there’s a lot less to break.

Little Evil: Moderate. The interaction thus far suggests that this is mostly going to be a game about constraint rather than agency, but it feels as though an important disjunction is coming up. We are probably going to get to know the blonde a good deal better. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the overall shape of the thing; there’s not an obvious arc at work here. My assumption is that the lift gets stuck and Tim gets to know the blonde better, one way or another; but it could be a number of other things. (Life-flashes-before-eyes as the elevator plummets? Magical-portal fantasy with different weird things on different floors? Magical-realism apartment-complex-of-the-weird? We have some intimations that this is a wacky old building, but they don’t feel strong enough to constitute a theme yet. I’m holding out hope for Floor 3: Bears.)

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