This is a philosophical short story about free will and AI, told through a poker game. Despite the short length of one playthrough, this game is surprisingly deep, with a lot of paths through the story and some replayability.
You play as a robot casino worker who has also been employed as a sex worker. The game takes place entirely within one round of poker, with a few flashbacks and optional digressions. There are at least 8 possible outcomes of game.
The cards that are dealt can differ between playthroughs, and this affects the outcome of the story. At first I thought it was random, but it actually depends on your first three choices in a pseudorandom manner, as described in the spoilers below. It feels like a commentary on free will and the nature of "randomness".
(Spoiler - click to show)
- recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 8 of clubs -> get drink for sunglasses man -> 10 of clubs -> girl with hood wins
- recognize, answer yes, don’t deal the turn: Jack of hearts -> Ace of hearts -> man in sunglasses wins
- recognize, answer no, deal the turn: 2 of hearts -> husband asks for water -> 2 of clubs -> husband wins
- recognize, answer no, don’t deal the turn: 7 of hearts -> 2 of hearts -> wife wins
- don’t recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 3 of hearts -> kiss the singer -> 7 of hearts -> older woman wins
- don’t recognize, answer yes, don’t deal the turn: 5 of spades -> 4 of spades -> newcomer wins
- don’t recognize, answer no, deal the turn: Queen of spades -> wife discovered cheating -> 8 of diamonds -> singer wins
- don’t recognize, answer no, don’t deal the turn: 7 of diamonds -> man cursing -> Jack of diamonds -> slot player wins
I like how the choices (or lack of thereof) interfaces with the themes of the story. This game makes a great use of the forced choice technique: you can choose to not deal a card, but you’ll always be compelled to deal eventually. Your programming as an AI leaves you no choice but to fulfill the directives that your employer imposed upon you. There’s also a lot of talk of binaries. Humans always think in binaries. You as an AI are programmed to work in binaries. And there’s always at most two choices, until the very end.
Also I liked the writing style. The diction seems “robotic” and unemotional on the surface, but there’s always the sense of deep internal turmoil. The robot’s programming controls her internal thoughts/analyses as well as actions, but the writing creates a sense that there’s something going on inside her mind that was unanticipated by the programmers.
If there’s any criticism I have for this game, it’s that the game is much too short, and re-playing feels repetitive. With only one playthrough, it’s easy to miss a lot of interesting content. And the open ending, while it makes sense from a thematic point of view, is unsatisfying if one is more interested in the character or story.
There’s some uncomfortable content here. The robot protagonist is often the victim of violence, especially sexual violence (there are also references to domestic violence not involving robots). Robots in this world have become receptacles for the worst of humanity. As often happens with can-robots-be-human stories, there are parallels with working class experiences, especially in the women-dominated service industry.
I think this was one of the more underrated games in its IFComp batch. The game is crawling with bugs, and contains some rather bizarre design choices, but I still enjoyed the game for what it was.
"A Final Grind" belongs to a similar genre as games like The Forgotten Tavern from its year, and The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton and Tavern Crawler from 2020. It contains dungeon-crawling RPG mechanics built in twine, and its story is a parody of typical RPG tropes.
I was surprised at how compelling I found it to be. Part of me wants to say that this game is the inverse of Undertale, but that would be only correct insofar that every game is the inverse of Undertale. It’s hard for me to describe what makes this interesting; perhaps all the grinding got me addicted. The quality of the writing was good throughout, especially given that this was gameplay-heavy.
The game has a sparse aesthetic, and takes place in a standard Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy setting. The protagonist is an adventurer trapped in a mine, the last survivor of their party after a cave-in killed the rest. He is a death seeker for unspecified reasons, who wants to go down in a blaze of glory saving other people. The mine is the domain of monsters; they’re just living there peacefully, and you humans had the gall to invade their space, and when they attack in self-defense, you massacre them. Even more so, humans constantly “dehumanize” the monsters and treat them as an unintelligent, uncultured, indistinguishable mass, regardless of their reality. Eventually you have to kill their king. As you approach the king, the monsters are terrified of you and run away. I've never played the "genocide" route in Undertale, but it's familiar from what I've heard.
Much of the game involves mechanical combat, where you can choose to use attack, parry, or magic. Using the ‘parry’ action involves solving math problems randomly selected from a pre-written bank, from “5 + 5” to derivatives. The game says don’t use a calculator, but most of the problems were solvable in my head. Does using pencil and paper count as cheating? The only confusing part was that it required decimals instead of fractions. So I just used parry every time, so I never took any damage or exhaustion. Given how many random combat encounters there were, it got tiresome, but I memorized the answers.
Problem: I ran into a bug fairly early on. After visiting the foreman’s room and trying to break the safe, I was unable to continue - there was a “Continue” link, but it wasn’t clickable. After restarting, I worked around this by just skipping this room, and continuing onwards. Going back to that room after I got the key worked. There are also a bunch of other bugs in this game, mostly syntax errors with incomplete passages. Also literally the last line of the game is “Double-click this passage to edit it.” which is... surprisingly apt given the path leading up to it.
Like with a lot of Twine RPGs I’ve seen in IFComp, this game is not really “balanced” in any way. My level got ridiculously high, but it didn’t really mean anything. I never knew what exhaustion does because I only ever used parrying.
Translations of the goblin text:
(Spoiler - click to show)
MONSTERS HAVE BEEN DRIVEN FROM EVERY LAND
BUT GHIDORAH UNITED US INTO ONE TRIBE
WE PRAISE HIM, LORD OF THREE FIRES
MASTER OF THE WORLD BENEATH EARTH
MAY HIS REIGN BRING PEACE TO THE WORLD OF MONSTERS
AND IN HIM MAY WE FIND A HOME IN WHICH TO THRIVE
WHO IS GHIDORAH, KING OF MONSTERS?
I WISH IT COULD BE DIFFERENT, HUMAN