I have been greatly looking forwards to Aaron Reed’s Hollywood Visionary, in which you play the founder of an ambitious new Hollywood studio in the 1950s, trying to make your first independent movie.
Visionary is a long way from the kind of bold innovation that I generally associate with Aaron Reed; it closely follows the Choice of Games house style (character-creation, multiple easily-wooed romance options, branch-and-bottleneck structure, a plot that follows a high-flying career, a relatively large granularity of action, capably unobtrusive prose). But within that range it does some atypical and cool stuff; it’s definitely among my favourite Choicescript works to date.
In the opening scene, you pitch your beloved movie idea to the head of an established studio, who always shoots it down: this is a small but effective negative-agency moment, a play on the CoG expectation of, basically, declaring what you want and being given it. Visionary is centrally about the artistic process, and what you’re willing to give up for your art; your political ideals, your creative control, friends, lovers or family, the favour or respect of your co-workers, solvency, health and peace of mind? The difficulty level, the need to compromise something, is pitched somewhat higher than is usual for CoG; the first couple of times I played, stress sent my character to the hospital.
It has, in toto, somewhat broader options in the sexuality / gender department than I’ve seen in a Choicescript game before – there is the possibility of a polyamorous ending, distinctions between various layers of gender expression, and you’re given the explicit choice to determine the gender and name of your love interests. Taken individually, none of this is massively audacious – they’re all next steps on an obvious trajectory, and other games have done similar things before – but taken together, and in the context of the 1950s, it’s non-trivial. While it doesn’t confront you directly with the worst of it, the game makes it quite clear that certain kinds of presentation, identity, relationship are hazardous in this era, and place an extra strain on an already-straining situation.
The really striking thing about Visionary is that its major subplot is about McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, and that it draws strong parallels between the McCarthyite witch-hunt and certain contemporary reactionary movements in videogames. It doesn’t insist on the parallel in all its details; these are two separate things. But it does present the question: what does one do, as an artist, when you find yourself at risk of being targeted by unscrupulous radical conservatives, who might identify you as an enemy based on the most arbitrary and ridiculous of grounds, and who are eager to destroy anyone who doesn’t toe the line? How much of a stand are you willing to take for your art, or your politics, or on behalf of friends and colleagues who get it worse than you? If you’re going to take a stand, where should you make it? And how much damage is done directly, and how much by nervous moderates who don’t want to take a risk on controversial artists? The advantage of the Choicescript approach here is that this question gets presented not as a single cheesy dilemma, but a whole organic series of them, situated in a broader context of other needs. And it retains a much tighter, more personal focus than, say, the broad-survey approach of Choice of Robots.
Visionary is not very good at depicting the actual movie you’re making, which is not surprising. This is a thing that most stories about artists struggle with, and it’s massively compounded by the player’s broad ability to choose between artists, genres and styles. It’s possible, I think, to make this work as a field for the player to fill in with their imagination; I fondly remember playing Sim Cinema Deluxe, which honestly offers considerably less information about each film you make than Hollywood Visionary does, and forming vague but fond imaginings of the movies. But Visionary‘s focus is so weighted towards things other than content that this never really figured for me. Similarly, the pace, scope and player-defined characters of CoG’s house style have always made strong characters difficult: some efforts have been made here to give the major romance options an existence beyond their roles as satellites of the PC. In an earlier post I talked a little about how Visionary‘s NPC-renaming attempts to pick out individual tokens of a character (I didn’t mention that the ‘pick a random name’ option didn’t seem to work properly, producing the same name for a given character every time). These are sensible steps to take, but they don’t overcome the basic difficulty.
There’s one sequence, round about the middle of the piece, which is obviously a homage to slapstick comedy of a certain era, although my knowledge isn’t good enough to identify its exact provenance: you’re at a party, a lapdog has stolen something irreplaceable, and capers ensue as you try to get it back. This stands out because, for a substantial period, the scale and pace of the action breaks from the big-jumps-between-major-decisions Choicescripty default and zooms in to lavish attention on a continuous train of action; it’s totally a set-piece, playing out much the same regardless of your choices up to that point. There’s a good deal more going on in this scene than comedy – it establishes Fish as your reliable ally, moves along an important subplot, it makes a point about being at Cool Parties with Famous People – but mostly this feels made out of a love for the form. A good deal of my initial interest in the game has to be ascribed to the sense that Aaron was having a great deal of fun making it.