IF Comp 2014: Unform

unformUnform (Elize Morgan) is a surreal Kafkaesque dystopian-prison piece, a choice-based work in Twine.

Welcome Prisoner. The voice booms across the empty room.

You try and get your bearings, you think back to how you found yourself here anfind nothing but blankness. Thoughts smash toward you, confusing and abstract, theflit away before you can fully connect.

That second paragraph encapsulates a Very Bad Way to open a game: detail-free amnesia. To be fair, it’s the second paragraph. You are given some context. You know you’re a prisoner. In the surreal sequences that follow, you’re always aware that you’re dealing with a simulated reality, designed for rehabilitation, in a penal institution.

You pass through a series of arbitrary-seeming dream-trials, conscious all the while that they’re arbitrary but that you will, nonetheless, be judged upon them. Eventually you are rescued from the dream-prison, it transpires that you were its original architect, and… you escape with your rescuers.

The game opens in a central area, from which you select from four dream-sequences. (There is some obvious ancestry from howling dogs here; you might characterise the whole thing as an attempt to do howling dogs with a fully-developed frame-story.) Each dream-sequence kind of feels as though it’s a riddle or a puzzle, but they resist interpretation; all of them can be quickly completed without really understanding very much. There is a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; a sequence in which you are pursued across a desert by monsters; a room-escape-like sequence with a number-riddle; and a thing with knights and castles. Throughout all of them it’s reiterated that this is all a fantasy, a nanite-constructed illusion – which I was unable to read as anything other than ‘this part doesn’t matter; feel free to forget it.’

The hallucinations have some unifying themes: they’re generally to do with submitting to a higher authority, and most of them involve conflict and violence (or rejecting it) as attitudes towards society. You are almost invariably found wanting. (See also how The Walking Dead aims to make you feel as though every choice you make is the wrong one, regardless of what you choose.) In general there’s a distinct lack of understanding of what the meaning or purpose of any of it is, and presumably this is meant to be the idea: you get worn out by the arbitrary demands of the game, and eventually agree to go along with the moral signalling. (This is generally how real-world brainwashing works.) I felt as though Unform had things that it wanted to say about justice, rehabilitation and punishment, but it doesn’t manage to successfully condense them into a strong image or clear articulation – at least, not beyond ‘oppressive dystopia is oppressive.’

The important thing to recognise about dreams is that they are, by default, shitty stories. Their causality doesn’t make coherent sense, and the intensity of their emotional significance does not correspond well to their actual content, and those are the precise things that make stories work. On top of this, dream sequences in fiction are frequently used for purposes best-summarised as ‘utter bullshit.’ My Themes, Let Me Show You Them. Intentionally Obscure Foreshadowing. Stalling For Time. A rogues’ gallery of fake-outs. When you do a dream-sequence, you have to overcome a legacy of arrant crap. Your words and images have to be so amazing that none of the above matters.

Short version: few literary feats impress me as much as a successfully-executed, compelling, worthwhile dream sequence. This game does not contain any. It’s a high bar to clear, so no shame in that – but, at the same time, it stakes everything on the dreams working.

In the section following the four dreams, you are rescued from the virtual-reality world by agents of the Resistance. This section has considerably less choice – it’s pretty much a linear sequence up to the ending – and contains most of the game’s actual information. The delivery could definitely use some work: it’s presented as a sequence of textdumps, memories interspersed with action and expostulation, and it all comes out as kind of a hurried jumble.

This is also the case with the character development. The protagonist, we are to understand, designed (or was a central part of designing) REPRISE as a rehabilitation facility for criminals, terrorists and other social undesirables; became disturbed as the program was expanded to include mildly-subversive innocents; and began to operate a kind of Underground Railroad, rescuing unreformed prisoners (‘unforms’) and ultimately forcing the shuttering of the program (but becoming its final victim). But this all happened in backstory; it’s recapped, not relived.

This is not necessarily a problem: Uncover A Hidden Past is such a ubiquitous game method that it’s hardly even a trope. But a long-acknowledged truth of this method is that you don’t deliver the backstory all at once: if it’s going to be retained and feel important, you need to parcel it out. The ‘torn-up diary pages hidden around entire game area’ trope is silly, true, but it continues to exist despite its silliness because it’s so damn useful. Break your story down into parts. Reveal a little at a time. Give the player something to do in between, so that they have time to process it and become curious about the gaps.

This delivery makes the worldbuilding feel less credible, too. Because it’s squashed into the climactic escape ending, there’s not much room for more than generalities. We don’t have time for any telling details, any personal stories outside a general summary of the protagonist’s. The whole thing feels too neat – ‘you were one of the bad guys, but you changed your mind and now you’re a hero, yay.’ This is a story that would be worth telling – of complicity and misguided idealism, of the struggle to reclaim some integrity, of how to subvert a system from within – but we don’t get to go through it. The story picks up long after the thorny parts have been resolved.

The tone is conversational, given a little too much to editorial aside. Sometimes this works quite well, sometimes it’s unnecessary padding, at other points it verges on Teenage Anarchist Graffiti On Bathroom Wall: too catchphrasey, too close to sneering, not doing enough to justify its talking-points. “A fine time for history, if you liked colonialism.” It doesn’t quite convince as the voice of a former institutional who came to radicalism late, or as the voice of someone who is (at least in part) responsible for creating their own prison. And while a lot of the point of the story seems to be about how The Prison State Is Bad, we see most of it from a distance; it loses most of its bite, and we’re left with things like this:

It was shocking how little the Republic liked democracy for a government based on it.

Ultimately, this feels like a game that contains a lot of ideas but doesn’t have enough structure or discipline to give them impact. There are parts that feel shoehorned in at the last minute – who is this Liara person and why is she introduced in the final moments of the game?

Score: 4

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One Response to IF Comp 2014: Unform

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Unform (S. Elize Morgan) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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