IF Comp ’16: Fair.

fairFair (Hanon Ondricek, Inform) is a parser piece in which A.B. Astherton, a self-published science-fiction author, has been asked to judge an elementary-school science fair. A single playthrough is pretty short, but it really needs to be played through a few times to get it right.

If there’s a consistent feature of Hanon’s varied work, it’s that it tends to be less than immediately obvious what its deal is: it generally takes some digging to get to grips with their core experience, which often works to their disadvantage in the context of the comp. In the past, I’ve sometimes completely missed most of the game, or not really grokked the narrative approach. All this means that Ondricek games are pretty high on my list of Games I Should Not Take At First Impression. I usually get one or two games completely wrong in any given Comp year, and if you were taking bets, you could do a lot worse than sticking a few bob on Fair.

(Disclaimer: I am in the credits for this for ‘general Inform assistance’, which is very nice of Hanon given that I completely can’t remember what I did. I was not a tester and had not seen the game prior to the comp.)

(Other disclaimer: did I mention I was going to be doing Heavy Spoilers in these reviews? Probably not. It’s going to be Heavy Spoilers here, for sure.)

To some extent this put me in mind of Everybody Loves a Parade; it’s got the same kind of Low Stakes in Little America vibe. But this version of Little America is a lot more uncomfortable.

This appears, at first glance, to be a world of mediocrity, incompetence and petty corruption, in which you feel pretty alone (if the jacket bio is to be credited, AB lives alone with four cats) and aware of your own mediocrity. You’ve been given a job that you’re not really qualified for, true, but you also don’t feel all that qualified or accomplished at the thing you actually do. The science projects are all pretty bad. The principal inspires little confidence.  Events are paced to make you feel rushed: it’s unlikely that you’ll have checked out all of the projects before you’re called to judge them, and you certainly don’t have time to consider them all in detail.

Rating the competition is not your only goal. AB has been allowed a stand, and is trying to sell enough books to make rent. This is a basically frustrating exercise: the marketplace is skewed against creators by big retailers like the Amazon-surrogate Bookburn.com. Readers either know your work and thus already own it, or don’t know it and want dangerously broad assurances that it’s exactly what they want. The potential book-buyers appear to be randomly generated, which adds another level of alienation to the process, a sense that they’re not real people so much as little input-output boxes to be marketed to. There are a lot of cues that AB’s work, which appears to be gender-focused social SF in a vaguely Le Guin / Greg Egan vein, might be several shades too progressive for a lot of people in this  Midwestern town. (Not all of them; you already have some established readers. I got the impression that this was intended to be a politically middle-of-the-road community by American standards. That’s still conservative enough to make AB feel pretty out-of-place. But they’re putting on a musical version of The Handmaid’s Tale, which wouldn’t exactly fly in full-on conservative America.)

At one point in the game, you’re offered a bribe to let a climate-change-denial project win. In fact, you’re offered two bribes from different people lobbying for the same kid, and the maximum score rather suggests that you can double-dip on this if you get the timing right. Your score, and the end-of-game messages, don’t reflect your principles or your impact on the kids; it just talks about whether you made rent.

Making money takes time away from science-project judging; this is a very opportunity-cost kind of game. To hammer this home, UNDO is disabled. There are lots of small things happening around you which you don’t get context for until you’ve replayed a bunch of times. There are a number of loose ends I haven’t figured out: what are the two little girls with the scissors up to, anyway? The kids themselves are generally deeper, bigger people than their projects immediately suggest; the competition means fairly different things to them, with some being much more invested than others.

Given the title, this is not exactly complex interpretation: this is a story about unfairness, about situations constructed such that fairness isn’t really possible. You’re judging a contest that doesn’t really allow you time to cover all the entries, that you’re not particularly qualified for, without any way of knowing the effects on the people whose work you’re judging. (I’d say that this might be intended as a satire on the Comp itself, although if so it’s dragging Comp authors as hard as Comp judges. If I were really overreading, I’d try to read each science-fair kid as a Type of Comp Entrant; tag yourselves, I guess.)

In favour of reading it as at least partly allegorical: in places it’s closer to Simpsons satire than to realism. (It’s not all that plausible, for instance, that a senator would attempt a bribe this overt in a way that could so easily blow up in his face; for that matter, it’s unlikely that the kid of a wealthy oil-lobby senator would be attending public school in the first place.)

Ah, but then there’s The Trick. The experiments you’re judging are not everything that was submitted; you’re just judging the final round, and everything else went in the trash, in a room which otherwise seems pointless. And buried among the discarded items there’s a bona fide time machine, which rewinds you to somewhere very near the game’s start time. Aha, so now we’re in Groundhog Day, learning to love this initially-unprepossessing town and also love ourselves and probably Andie MacDowell. Although, aha, when you rewind you keep your inventory. I kind of ran out of time to figure out what was up with the scissor sisters, or to find the lousy last point, or what the purpose of the little epilogue-y bit at the end was. So the time machine actually didn’t really let me find anything that I couldn’t have previously; it just let me find it all in one session. But I did brute-force selling all my books with the power of lies, and I remembered everyone’s name at the ceremony, and got a pile of filthy rightist bribe money, so… yay? The world is no fairer; AB just has a better way to cheat than everyone else. (And I’m still not confident that there isn’t some second-order trick, using the time machine to pull of something that’d be completely impossible without it.)

(Also on the cartoony front, or at least the magical-realism one: the protagonist doesn’t ever really register the strangeness, or the life-transforming power, of the time machine. If I had a machine which let me hop back in time at will, keeping what I was carrying… well, regardless of what you used it for, it’d be a Big Deal. And being an SF author makes you more or less a professional at dreaming up applications for time machines.)

The actual prose of the thing is often pretty parser-plain; it gets more lively and engaging when dialogue is going on, but it tends to drag when it comes to descriptions.

The vast gymnasium is designed to serve as both a sports arena and a school auditorium. Several sections of open folding bleachers provide seating against the north and south walls. Only the north bleachers are currently occupied by crowds of students and parents and teachers in anticipation of the big awards ceremony at the end of the hour. The south wall is covered with a burgundy velvet curtain which you assume conceals the stage opening and more flattened bleachers on the sides.

To the south is a stage right vestibule with emergency exit doors and steps leading up to the stage. To the west are the science fair displays over which you can see some red balloons numbered 25, 22, 48, 31, and 16 hovering.

This is not a game with a heavy focus on distinctive physical setting or gorgeous descriptive prose. Given that, this is quite a lot of verbiage for a pretty generic location. I caught myself skimming room descriptions pretty heavily – which in a couple of cases caused me to miss exits. If you’re not going to make room descriptions interesting, at least make ’em compact.

Execution-wise, it’s a bit rough around the edges. On my first play, the game froze completely when I went onstage. (I was running it in Filfre for some reason, and didn’t encounter any problems after switching to Glulxe, but… odd, all the same.) There are some pretty odd disambiguation questions: on a few occasions I’d do things like >X MOM and find myself being asked whether I meant the parent or the child. There are lots of little touches that suggest that care and attention has been invested in the game (the way that the principal’s speech gets condensed as you repeat through it over and over again with the time machine; the volume of NPC fidgets). There are lots of little things which aren’t broken or wrong, exactly, but add up to a feeling of a game that’s less smooth-playing than it could be.

The conversation system is pretty aggressive: you switch into multiple-choice if you do pretty much anything to something that affords choices, so (for instance) if you examine someone you end up talking to them. This is an interesting approach – potentially forcing people into conversations which they weren’t entirely planning on, which messes with the disinvolved observation standard to parser IF – but in places it felt as though it needed a little fine-tuning. In particular, starting a conversation and being offered multiple-choice options takes a turn before you even make choices, which is a little rough in a timer-heavy game; and it also means that you can be presented with a set of choices and then immediately have them interrupted by a second set of choices as a timed event triggers. Even if interruption is the intended effect, it’d be less confusing if the interruption cut in before the first, unavailable set of choices, and prevented them from being offered.

I think this is a 7. No lower than that, certainly.

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5 Responses to IF Comp ’16: Fair.

  1. Steph C says:

    Oh wow, I never found the time machine. Neat!

    Which project did you pick for the winner? I picked the cheerleader because at least she had a real experiment with a hypothesis and data, even if the results didn’t really demonstrate anything beyond that she was popular. (Actually, the first time I picked her without having seen the project, because all the others were so terrible.)

    • I picked a bunch of different people; I think all of them, except possibly Prayer Plant Kid. My first time I had pretty much the same experience as you, though; I didn’t get all the way down the line, everyone else was Really Bad, and she was the only one I hadn’t looked at, so I went with the cheerleader.

      I think that a lot of what the game wants you to attend to, though, is that none of these projects are all that good or important as Science, and that the meaning of the thing to the kids may be more significant than being fair in a situation which doesn’t really allow for fairness. The science fair is clearly a very secondary issue for Amber, for instance; for Stephanie it’s part of a plan to escape the life her overbearing parents have planned for her.

  2. Doug Egan says:

    I finished playing this yesterday and posted my own review. I missed the last lousy point also, and went back this morning to see if I could solve any of the remaining mysteries. I discovered I could sign the senator’s check, but I couldn’t give it away (which might have provided some interesting alternative endings). I never found the $20 that were taken from Jorden’s mom. I retrieved a large number of stolen items from the twin sisters, but couldn’t manage to put them back where they belonged. So there are still some lingering mysteries for me. The game has strong characterization within a cartoonish atmosphere. That combination usually does well in the competition.

  3. Pingback: The Interactive Fiction Competition 2016 | Would You Like to Change the Difficulty Setting?

  4. I can reproduce consistently the bug in Filfre when entering the Stage location (qhevat gur Frangbe’f ivfvg orgjrra fvk-guvegl naq fvk-sbegl jura gur uryvpbcgre vf ivfvoyr bhgfvqr.) Since this only occurs in one interpreter which the creator is no longer supporting, I’m not sure if I can correct this. I have added a note not to use Filfre and will document this in the game materials going forward.

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