Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: atrocity, abuse, childhood, feminism, fictionalised, gender, politics, persuasive games, developing world
The Forgotten Girls is about child sex slavery in the developing world. This is difficult material, and the author seems to be a novice at both writing and IF design. You play a child prostitute who attempts to rescue another and escape slavery.
Narratives about atrocity have a particularly strong relationship to authenticity. First-hand accounts by victims or witnesses are highly potent, even if the narrator is unskilled; second-hand accounts, by people who have spoken with actual witnesses, still have the impact of immediacy, but require somewhat more technical skill. Third-hand accounts, fictionalised, seriously reduce the impact, and a great deal of skill is required to impart the appropriate feeling to the audience. And interactive narratives are generally harder to get right. So I can't really blame the author for too much, here, other than underestimating the difficulty of the task.
Verisimilitude is the biggest weakness of The Forgotten Girls. It's set in a specific culture (India, with Hindu and Sikh surnames) with which the author does not seem to be particularly familiar. That said, the NPCs are not convincing as humans of any culture; their dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and they're conspicuously pawns of a puzzle structure. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as monstrous abusers. While the intention here seems good -- showing abuse victims working actively to empower themselves, rather than passively awaiting rescue -- the effect kind of diminishes the seriousness of the issue. If you can easily manipulate your abusers with adventure-game tricks, the power dynamic is all wrong. (I'm reminded, again, of the slapstick ghetto scene in The Great Dictator, in which Jews outwit beer-gutted, oafish Nazi police with skillets and flower-pots.) Depicting abused women as active agents in their own rescue has its virtues, but depicting victims as more resourceful than abusers makes the entire scenario nonsensical.
The problem's compounded because this world-illogic-for-the-sake-of-puzzles isn't just about NPC behaviour; the physical world works like this as well. A wooden cupboard can be set alight with matches. An ordinary car can smash through a brick wall from a dead start. A girl is able to walk (let alone flee) immediately after a vicious and prolonged beating with an iron rod. This could have been glossed over if the characters were less mechanical, and fixing it wouldn't compensate for the mechanical characters; but it does make the problem worse. Along similar lines, room descriptions are often laid out as ungainly inventory listings, and synonyms and close-but-wrong attempts are rarely implemented; you're never allowed to forget the artifice of your environment. (And from a gameplay perspective, read-author's-mind is a huge problem. There is, at least, a pretty good hints menu.)
It's worth comparing this to another game about real-world atrocity, Gigantomania. While suffering from similar problems (counternarrative gameplay elements; a general feeling of sophomore inauthenticity), Gigantomania made a creditable attempt to represent life under Stalin through modes of interaction, to explain experience through doing, to bring home a point by exploring how a system works. The Forgotten Girls doesn't really do anything like this; it's really just the statement "sex slavery in the developing world exists." That's not a pointless statement, for all that it makes for a less interesting work. But I think there's little point in fictionalising that statement if the fiction has less force than the bare facts.
Related reviews: ethics, feminism, theatre, CYOA, if comp 2010, persuasive games, institutions, NPCs
One of the better CYOAs to be released in an IF context, this deals with territory that's unusual for IF but standard for theatre: a small group of characters who don't like each other very much but are stuck with one another. There has been a fair amount of discussion in IF circles about the PC as director, steering other characters rather than driving the action directly, but The Play is the first game I've seen in the IF sphere that really does this.
The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.
It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.
The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.
Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.
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