IF Comp 2019: Black Sheep

Black Sheep (Nic Barkdull and Matt Borgard, Twine) is a cyberpunk mystery. Your father – head of a Singularity-focused corporation with a cult following – has died, and your sister has been kidnapped. The protagonist, Irene, is (despite a fake-out opening) not a PI, but is obliged to act like one.

Structurally, it’s a mystery plot on a timer: you can travel between different areas, but doing so advances your limited time, so the puzzle is not just about uncovering the clues, but doing so efficiently. In theory this is a nice compromise between making time pressure part of the plot and allowing the player time to explore – Heaven’s Vault does something similar – but it’s still set up to be challenging.

My overall impression is that this is taking on a lot of somewhat tricky design questions all at once, and doesn’t quite nail any of them. Mystery-plot mechanics that allow the player to put the pieces of information together are a long-standing white whale in IF; doing puzzles is never easy and doing puzzles that work in a choice-based format is a little trickier; cyberpunk noir is a hard genre to get right, near-future SF worldbuilding is invariably contentious, and so on. So a lot of what I’m going to say below will be negative, but this was an awful lot to tackle for (what I presume are) first-time IF authors.

There’s an unusual combination here: a completely unstyled white-blue-black Twine presentation, but augmented with some moderately complex mechanics to allow for more adventure-gamey elements like ‘use inventory item on thing’ or ‘combine two clues to get a new clue.’ The result is a little bit unintuitive, UI-wise – you have to click through several screens to perform an action as simple as USE X ON Y, and some of those screens look very similar to the default room-description screen, so it’s easy to misunderstand where you are.

Combine-two-pieces-of-information mechanics are usually terrible: figuring out which bits of information are relevant together is almost always a read-author’s-mind exercise, with equally plausible connections getting rejected. This is no different. It is a bad mechanic which is not redeemed here. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be a central part of the narrative – but all of my interactions with it were a bad time.

A lot of the puzzles – at least from the perspective of playing the walkthrough! – feel like non-sequiturs. You go to a bar; in a darkened corner you find an old quarter, a rarity in this electronic age; you put it in an old jukebox that everyone thought was defunct, and the coin-return spits out a token which you can use to gain access to employee areas of the Sinister Corporation. This is the sort of thing which is sensical in retrospect – you know your father went there, he could have put the token in the slot trying to get it to work – but doing it is a moment of sort of Lynchian surreality. You don’t know why the character would do this, and nor (perhaps) do they, but it is nonetheless a thing they do and inexorably draws them forward in the plot. I don’t really think this is an intended effect – it feels like the result of struggling to unite puzzle, narration and theme.

The writing is interested in interesting things: it aims to observe, it’s concerned with character, the history of relationships, social issues. It doesn’t always get there but it’s pointed in the right direction.

The narrative voice, though, tends towards blandness. It’s a specific kind of blandness – one that’s familiar from paperback mystery and romance, where a lot of the point of the delivery is about establishing the protagonist as a broadly-relatable, very normal person. But it’s an odd fit for cyberpunk, which is a genre that’s all about the imagined vernacular, about misfits and brokenness and the whirlpools at culture’s tidal margins. Cyberpunk has typically been a genre heavily concerned with style, with the aesthetics of dystopia and of resistance, with how group identity, individual expression and errant strangeness survive a homogenising world; with the charisma of technology as much as its function, with the fae glamour of futurism and its terrible cost. Black Sheep is obviously interested in this kind of theme – or else, y’know, why that title? – but it’s so very un-cyberpunkish in style that it was kind of jarring, honestly, when I ran into a bartender with a robot arm. I had been reading it in the same tone as Human Errors – cyberpunk that has lost its glamour because it’s too close to reality.

Another issue:

“This bar does seem to have a possible connection to the case, since you found that matchbook in your father’s room. However, it’s unclear what might be of use to us here. I suggest you keep your eyes open for unexpected leads,” Steve said.

“Okay, Steve.”

The robots are meant to speak in a blank, formal voice – a very familiar approach – but because the prose is already blandly-voiced, this doesn’t form much of a contrast. Instead, it contributes an overall impression of a depersonalised world. Most of the people Irene talks to are robots or functionaries, and this makes Irene feel blank, too. The two characters she cares about – her father and sister – are dead or missing. Irene is a malcontent who fled her family, but she didn’t flee to anything she cares about.

Cyberpunk is about near-future anxiety, about the opposite of apocalypse, and the story has that kind of concern: the role of robots in replacing and devaluing human labour; corporate power; the life-extension dreams of the super-rich. How Black Sheep handles this is a mixed bag; at times it says things that are unsurprising because everyone’s already been saying them for a while, and at times it comes across as naive:

“Well, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You see, there are very specific laws in place that prevent me from accusing, even indirectly, a human being of any crime.”

“Then what use are you?” I said. “My sister’s missing, we need to call the cops!”

“I am the cops.” Steve shook his head slightly, realizing how dramatic he sounded. “That is, I am a resource officer employed by the sector’s sheriff’s department for exactly these sorts of cases.

One of the major themes of this piece is that robot labour has mostly replaced human employment, and this extends to the police.

“My apologies, Madam, but they just won’t come. There are far too few human police these days to rush out for anything short of a proven crime.”

So, here’s the thing: we’re not talking about just anyone, here. We’re talking about the daughter of the CEO of a major corporate empire. If the cops come out for anyone, they’re coming out for this – and if this is a world where police functions are atrophied to the point where that doesn’t happen, then this guy definitely has private security that’d be equipped to handle precisely this situation. “What would society look like if the role of government-funded cops was dramatically reduced?” is a big question that a lot of social SF has tried to explore, with wildly differing answers – but here it feels like a plot convenience, a way of justifying the protagonist’s investigation.

Similarly, it’s mentioned that pregnancy is no longer a common thing, so much so that seeing a pregnant woman is shocking. This is a theme at least as old as Brave New World, and one which has been explored in depth by other authors. But it’s introduced abruptly, as a puzzle solution that – again – makes no sense except in retrospect. My general sense about the worldbuilding is that it’s trying to do too much – that it’s throwing in lots of SF elements without really having space to work through their implications, and that this leaves it a bit unsatisfying as social SF. But it’s also not slick enough to work as tropey cyberpunk pulp.

I didn’t get to the end – the walkthrough isn’t comprehensive and I think I misstepped somewhere – but the ending is very heavily foreshadowed, and I didn’t find myself eager to get there. It’s late in the comp, man. I’m tired.

I think that this wasn’t far off from being a good time. Stronger writing could have redeemed the weird puzzles; more focused, thought-through worldbuilding could easily have redeemed the writing; smoother design could have shown the world off better. A little bit of improvement across the board could have made it sing. As is: 5.

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