Simon Christiansen is an ideas kind of author – his games frequently rotate around a single striking game-mechanic concept. That idea doesn’t always click for me, but I can always expect that he’ll be trying something new.
Here, the deal is that you’re an entry-level employee at AlethiCorp, and all interaction is through the corporate website and intranet. (AlethiCorp has ‘corp’ in the title and a logo composed of a big eye, just so that there’s no question whether they’re creepy and evil.) Your job is some version of Being Edward Snowden: you pore over nefariously retrieved data (email, phone conversations, surveillance reports), flag the suspicious ones, and (this doesn’t seem right) delete the superfluous. For sanity reasons, the selection available is already quite filtered. (The surveillance reports are evidently gathered by comically inept trenchcoat-and-fedora spies. This is more Brazil than 1984.)
Early on, you’re contacted by a subversive, Omega, who effectively demands that you sacrifice yourself by refusing to flag any data and delete all of it. If you ignore this, you’re contacted by a more forgiving operative, Alpha, who encourages you to just do as much as possible. Eventually you have to make recommendations for who gets arrested.
Alongside this there’s a layer of dealing with aggressively cheerful corporate culture: obligatory social events, inspiring emails, insipid values statements, constantly shifting management (for synergy) and a meetings system that’s a pastiche on Scrum. This is more than a separate joke. The Dilbert/Office Space brand of comedy depicts the corporate work environment as being defined by a very particular style of depravity, a cynical and mutually reinforcing web of insincerity, incompetence and defensive buck-passing that makes it impossible for anyone to take pride in their work or treat their fellow human beings well.
The security state’s answer to who watches the watchmen comes down, ultimately, to: look, we’re the good guys, we’ve got a set of internal standards, you trust the President, right? That passes the red face test, at least, when you’re talking about civil servants, where we’d like to think that at least part of what gets them up in the morning is a sense of altruism, however misplaced – civic duty, patriotism, whatever. Here, though, that’s shown in the context of an institutional culture that makes altruism an act of difficult, self-endangering rebellion. The goodness of good cops isn’t relevant if they’re managed a la Dilbert.
I played through twice, both times with the same result. I had a sense that underlying the game was a sort of social-capital system: that credibility gained from going to after-work socials and taking courses in Haka might be parlayed into greater latitude to tamper with the outcomes. But evidently I didn’t figure out enough ways to do this, or didn’t sell enough people down the river, or maybe it was that I never figured out the manual-URL-entry tricks that the endgame hints at. At any rate, I felt highly resistant to the idea of selling out the obviously-harmless characters, so on at least one level that’s a success.
But on a lot of levels I felt that this missed opportunities, or didn’t have the capacity, to get at things that are truly and specifically creepy about the modern surveillance state. It’s always been the case that if the cops think you’re suspicious they can assign a guy to secretly follow you; that’s perfectly OK, frankly. What’s worrying is when they have the resources to effectively have everyone followed all the time, which you can’t really do if you’re relying on dudes in trenchcoats with false noses. A lot of these issues are issues of scale, which is hard to portray in the format chosen here.
One of the interface things it does is textbox-with-drop-down-suggestions – which, like Caroline, is a typed interface that is really a disguise for a choice-based one, but here the choices are a) multitudinous and b) often completely aesthetic. A good deal of the nicer humour in the game lives here, just because silly lists are the finest thing. Really, I think a lot of the problem with the game is that I’m tempted to treat it more seriously than it needs to be, because the comedy doesn’t always hit home as surely as this. (The trains are also good.)
The advantage of modern epistolary fiction is that few people write long, well-worded letters any more, so you only need to be able to write as well as an internal corporate email. Again, your colleagues are treated as an eccentric bunch. The dialogue transcripts are less… yeah, hold up a minute.
One of the suspicious individuals is an author, and there’s a thread about criticism. The AlethiCorp in-house critic, Andrea Schueler, writes contemptuous hit-pieces designed to show off her knowledge; the relative-of-the-author critic, John Compass, is sharp but constructive. (Full disclosure: I have, in the past, offered criticism of Christiansen’s work not entirely unlike specific advice that Compass offers Brightfield).
Regardless. This is a story which introduces a great many characters – enough that I felt unsure about who was who until a second playthrough. And – hm. Quite possibly the story works perfectly well if you never really get a sense of the people you’re spying on or working with as fully rounded characters – this is not a narrative about being close to people. The central purpose may even be served by confusing who’s who – if someone gets arrested because you couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between two different characters, that’s about perfect.
My principal experience of AlethiCorp was a frustration at understanding the system well enough to do the obvious thing, but not well enough to manipulate it to get any desired results. That’s about the right pitch for the story it aims to tell. But – ah, no UNDO, which is a hard thing to put up with in a story without much variability.
So this falls into the category of ‘successful at a lot of its goals, but those goals appear to be constructed around avoiding a whole bunch of things that I care about in narrative.’ It deserves a spot on the post-comp replay list, though, for sure.