IF Comp 2015: Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

arcaneinternArcane Intern (Unpaid) (Astrid Dalmady) does pretty much what the title implies. Trying to break into publishing, you stumble into a hidden society of magic-users. It’s still a crappy unpaid job, but with more magic sigils and dragon baristas.

Games that mildly snark about the tedium and alienation of generic office work are one of the long-standing bugbears of interactive fiction – not quite as common as My Shitty Apartment, but equally boring. (Dilbert is bad enough, but having to inhabit a world constructed out of Dilbert gags is excruciating.) So I had some trepidation about Intern; most of it turned out to be unwarranted. Intern has tightly-delivered prose and a snappy sequence of action; many of its observations feel observant rather than rote, and it’s not very interested in simulating awkward tedium.

It’s a pretty well-explored criticism of wainscot society fiction is that it’s inherently in conflict with values of democracy and egalitarianism: its secrets represent an exclusionary old boys’ network, a classist conspiracy. Wizard School makes token gestures at meritocracy while largely ensuring the hegemony of an established class. Monster Police spy and kill without accountability. Fairyland is parasitic.

As a version about internships, Arcane Intern follows an obvious arc: its magical wainscot society is a highly competitive industry (publishing) and the issue is the exploitation of entry-level labour. (There’s a definite whiff of Max Gladstone about the setup.) The protagonist is working for the promise of access to future employment and the relevant skills to compete for it; but in fact, finding that job is more about personal connections than ability, and the internship isn’t really designed for learning.

Or that’s the idea. In fact, Arcane Intern’s plot is quite compressed, so in fact it does feel as though the protagonist is learning an awful lot in a very short time. The retrieve-things-from-the-magical-basement mission might look like ‘I’m being set up for failure by being given tasks above my pay grade that I’m not equipped for’, but you can succeed at it, and learn by doing so. So in retrospect it was more a matter of: here’s a task that’s outside your comfort zone, but which you can grow to succeed at; we’ll give you the space to do that.

There’s also a bit of a conflict with two conflicting objectives – validating the protagonist as competent, and showing them as isolated, undervalued and disliked by their superiors. It mostly errs on the side of the former; the employees are a bit distant and weird, but they still make encouraging noises. (I think it’s honestly pretty difficult for games to portray the PC as competent without making it seem as though everybody in the world thinks so too.) Only one of them felt outright hostile, and even he wouldn’t really cut it in any exchange of Awful Boss Stories. The brief narrative arc doesn’t give you a lot of time to start feeling isolated.

So the perspective here, it feels like, is that the problem is not the pipeline, or even the workplace culture: the problem is that there’s nobody at the end of it who’s willing to give you a job.

This is a short-story-length piece without extensive worldbuilding, so it’s difficult to interpret how closely to draw parallels. Real-life publishing is one of those aspirational, low-margins industries where people work hard for crap pay because of the cultural cachet. But in this world, publishing is where you get magic from; it’s the producer, conveyor and gatekeeper of power. It doesn’t make much sense for it to be a shoestring aspiration-fueled enterprise. So why is there a single, lonely intern slot? Why isn’t this place swarming with entitled young hotshots?

For that matter, the ending where you smuggle out magical power and then disseminate it across the world feels too easy – if all it takes to undercut the system is one discontent, modestly-competent intern, how did this immense concealment ever make it this far?

I felt as though Intern‘s shortcomings were mostly about not having enough space to generate investment. Learning that I was going to be turfed out in favour of a nepotistic hire didn’t hit as hard as it could have, because I hadn’t really had time to connect with the protagonist or the world they were trying to break into. I didn’t feel confident about the worldbuilding, because we don’t remain in the world long enough to get a sense of how it works. As it stands, it feels like a parable that has started to pupate into a fully-developed story, but hasn’t quite got all the way there yet. There are lots of little bits of good detail which I’d like to see built on – characters like Taylor and Ms. Tran, the protagonist’s relationship with Rebecca Butler, the subterranean weirdness of the Otherworld.

Score: 6

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