IF Comp 2021: Goat Game

Goat Game is a tightly-crafted piece about complicity and corporate careers, the difficulty of effecting change, and how this intersects with how you relate to people.

The characters are all anthropomorphic goats. There isn’t really any reason for or against this: none of the characters have very goat-like personalities, either in terms of resemblance to actual goats or to popular-culture ideas of goats. Usually when you have anthro animals there’s some kind of correspondence – but here everyone’s just very mundane people, and you get the general impression that the author just likes drawing goats and had a story to tell and was like ‘why not goats.’

(It’s just odd! It’s titled Goat Game! I am extremely fond of goats, but I like them because, like cats, they’re egocentric jerks who respect neither man nor god and will cause the absolute worst trouble with a bland indifference to the concept of guilt. This is clearly not what goats mean here, but I can’t really tell what they do mean here, other than ‘I just think they’re neat.’)

The illustrations are very nice! They’re sweet and cosy, warmly-lit with grainy soft lines, and have a sort of lo-fi nostalgia vibe going for them; not Ghibli, precisely, but that kind of children’s-book-illustration warmth. And this is actually a bit of a contrast, in useful balance, with the writing, which tends towards tones of of grey, anhedonic anxiety, modernist alienation, mild subdued desperation. The prose is clear, efficiently descriptive, does the job, to the point of veering into being a little stiff; I think the art’s really necessary to impart some colour.

Emphasis on mild, here; this is more of an ambivalent world than a relentlessly bleak one. The protagonist works at a tech company and seems to be in a junior-ish but not insecure job; money isn’t really a major anxiety for them in most paths, they don’t fit in perfectly with the work culture and their work might not be deeply fulfilling, but they’re also not personally dealing with anything deeply toxic, and their angst is mostly described in fairly low-affect terms. The company’s problems affect a different set of workers; they’re serious but they’re not your problem unless you make it your problem. Your ability to affect change appears very slight; it has more consequences for who your friends are and where your career goes, and even those can feel like fairly low-impact choices; you can shift which characters you’re more likely to confide in, not so much which characters are likely to like or trust you.

It’s a bit like – you know how there are some visual novels where the intro is just an incredibly prolonged sequence of the protagonist emphasizing how boring and nondescript and nothing-special they are, and how they’re vaguely angsty in a non-specific manner? The idea here is to make ’em an everyman who works as an audience-insert character, I think, but to me it just makes them feel dull. That’s not precisely what’s going on here – it’s snappier, for one thing. But it’s also – hmm. The protagonist gets an clearly-defined visual identity in the illustrations: lanky, glasses, blonde. The text doesn’t give them a name. The illustrations give them a skirt and high boots, so I assumed woman or femme-presenting, but nothing in the text really supports this. If Totally Ambiguous Protagonist was the goal it’d have been straightforward to just avoid drawing them, but instead we get a nice recognizable character design.

A lot of this is about the presentation of choices, I think. A lot of the choices are, if not precisely reflective choice, a matter of how do you feel about this; sometimes that kind of choice can feel like an opportunity to assert something strongly about the player-character, and sometimes it feels as though the protagonist could take or leave any of these options. Here’s an example:

“Well, how are you feeling about the lab these days? Do you like Aegis-Liora better now that you’ve had some time to settle in?” she asks.

> I like working here (advance to next page)

> I like living here (advance to next page)

> I don’t like it here (advance to next page)

A choice like that doesn’t automatically feel like I’m choosing different realities for the protagonist; because it’s framed as a dialogue choice, it feels as though I’m choosing how frank the protagonist is being about the same situation: lie, diplomatic evasion, truth. With characterisation the signal of possibility-space is often more important than the actual choice. (Choosing Paragon or Renegade doesn’t customise an individual Shepard so much as it asserts that Shepard is always a character capable of, and pulled between, those approaches.)

There is a lot of low-key polish in the general presentation, too: this feels really solid in ‘UX should feel invisible’ way. Lots of little customised touches that don’t intrude but feel really solid. The little progress tracker at the bottom right. The way the images scroll, the way menu options expand into secondary choices. The lowkey three-frame animations which bring a little extra life into the images without making them distracting. Those illustrations are used consistently – it’s really common for hobbyist IF to front-load all its art and run out later, which feels really janky, but that isn’t going on here. Choices are labelled meticulously. There are fifteen endings, and I know I’ve found five of them because it keeps track. A ton of effort has gone into making this thing feel accessible and smooth. (The one thing which is a little awkward are the pages where you have to make a choice in every one of several fields before you can advance to the next page, and often that means that you have to scroll back up to find the option you didn’t pick, but this isn’t a big issue, and I feel like often in a Twine piece you need a tiny bit of UI friction to hold the player’s attention.)

Quibbles. This is a pretty compactly-designed work, and I think that for the length and compactness it has it perhaps has a bit too much worldbuilding, done too much in the wiggly-river-and-jaggedy-mountains mode. There’s clearly been work put into capital-W Worldbuilding, to the extent that I suspect the author is pretty attached to this setting and plans to use it for other things, but it’s focused more on encyclopedic information than on creating a sense of place. There’s a map of the city, and a few bits where characters discuss the recent history of the city, its relation to other cities, that kind of thing – and it still feels a bit generic. (The art is exclusively interior shots.)

It’s a game of subtle nudges, not big dramatic decisions, and this can make it a bit tricky to gauge what effects you’re having. I think that’s probably part of the point – you are not Prince Hamlet, nor are meant to be. This is a game that rhetorically focuses you on choice – fifteen endings, that status tracker at the bottom – but also kind of feels designed to make your individual choices end up feeling less consequential than they initially appear. Most obviously, there’s a Big Commitment early on where you sign, or don’t sign, an internal petition about a major safety issue, and then the next day there’s a major explosion and your caution’s a bit moot. I found five endings but this took quite a bit more than five playthroughs.

One of those endings made me a little – huh. There’s an ending where the protagonist leaves the company and is struggling for opportunities a bit and, without player input, makes a seat-of-the-pants decision to kind of exploit her disabled niece for marketing purposes. I suspect some players would hate this because it’s an Unethical Act that the player is forced into; that doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that it’s kind of unprecedented, character-wise, and therefore feels like it should be a character turning point rather than an epilogue. The main story isn’t really about the character being consciously desperate for work, or being willing to manipulate people – and earlier in the story their niece is one of the few things they clearly assert caring about. So it just feels like an oddly weighty character pivot for an epilogue, regardless of how I’ve behaved earlier in the story.

Except – hm. While writing this review I found a sixth ending, which wasn’t hugely notable except that a sequence after that suggests that there’s content unlocked by getting more endings, so most likely there’s a True Ending deal that you can only get if you find all the other endings, which, very VN right there. So even though most of the outcomes are about how it’s exhausting and well-nigh-impossible to change corporate culture from inside, but leaving just screws you, it’s possible that there’s an ending. I’m definitely not gonna find it within the confines of comp season, and probably not after; I don’t really enjoy exhaustive play for its own sake, and there’s not enough variation between plays, or enough satisfaction in the individual endings, to make heavy repeat play rewarding.

While this is a really respectable piece, and there’s a lot to like about it, I don’t really love it. And I think that’s probably more about its priorities than its execution; I’d prefer a much more strongly-characterized protagonist, for example, but I think that this would likely go against its design goals, and it feels as though this is a piece that pretty firmly knows what it’s going for.

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