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19th Place - 18th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2012)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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This is a game that is centrally about trolley-cases: ethical scenarios with binary options, designed to get at the heart of a problem of ethics. Rather than circling around a single issue, it aims to give a survey of an entire landscape; as philosophy IF goes, this is an approach closer to The Chinese Room than De Baron. The difference is that where The Chinese Room presents its material as a goofy wonderland, The Test makes some effort to present each scenario with a degree of serious realism. I've written elsewhere about Test's shortcomings as a philosophical piece, so I won't harp any further on that subject.
As a work of participatory narrative, however, it's also a bit disappointing. The premise makes it very clear that every scene will boil down to a single binary choice; as in CYOA, this can easily lead to disengagement from the rest of the material, particularly when the material is intellectually or emotionally challenging (which trolley-cases damn well should be). The fact that the scenes are obviously unrelated one-off scenarios also makes engagement more difficult: it's easier to take a decision seriously when you expect to have to live with the consequences for a while. The game aims to create realist, flesh-and-blood characters, thus lending more weight to its scenarios; but it's hard to develop a sense of attachment to a character when you're aware that they exist for a single purpose and will be discarded once that purpose is complete.
Finally, the ending, in which it transpires that (Spoiler - click to show)the protagonist is an artificial intelligence being evaluated for ethical attitudes, is too brief to be satisfying, and feels like a cheap narrative justification for a hodge-podge structure. To be really interesting, it'd have to explore things considerably further - what sort of world has a need for robots with a varied range of ethics? what sorts of things would result from following the ethical compass you've defined? how do these values conflict or cohere?
Given its design premises, Test is competently executed; but those premises make it prohibitively difficult to accomplish its goals.
This game has a fairly simple concept. You're placed into a sequence of distinct dilemmas where you have to choose between, for instance, killing one person or many people.
It's all pretty heavy handed, and has typos and some issues with implementation. But it's interesting to play, if for no other reason than that it's unusual.
(I originally published this review on 11 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 15th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Based on its opening scene, I thought The Test is Now READY was going to be a zombie game, but this scene turned out to be on its own. Test drops you into a series of unconnected but difficult situations. Your choice of action in each scenario will inevitably have extreme (usually fatal) consequences for one or more of the parties involved, including yourself. Quick to play and undeniably galvanising, this game is well suited to the context of this competition, but not all of its scenarios are equally strong, varying in logical sturdiness, plausibility and implementation. They are all equally easy to spoil, however, and player freshness is important for the premise, hence the remainder of my review is solid spoiler:
(Spoiler - click to show)The torture-a-suspect-to-save-millions scenario is very discomfort-making, and probably the strongest in terms of goading agonised thinking. The grisly prose in this section is vivid, the important actions all implemented. When I compare the quality of this scenario to the one in which your son's foot is trapped in the train tracks as a train approaches, the latter's problem is that it is not vividly portrayed, nor are the responses to obvious actions convincing. I didn't have a sense of how far away the train really was at different times, or of the physical arrangement of the space or of the positions of the important players in relation to each other. This probably compounded my annoyance at too basic responses like, "You can't help your son," when I tried to free him. But what I did particularly like about this scenario were its epilogues, which quickly summarise how the mother's life goes as a consequence of the actions she takes by the train tracks. They demonstrate that some situations really are impossible to negotiate successfully.
The hysterical quality of some of the scenarios is justified in retrospect by the fact that they have been designed to deliberately test the ability of an artificial intelligence (which is us) to make difficult decisions. I still didn't feel this made the blood donor scenario more credible, though. There's something about waking in hospital and being told in one fell swoop that you have the only blood in the world that can save this woman, and that that's why there's a tube coming out of you and going into her. That's why this was the easiest scenario for me. I ripped the tube out of my arm immediately and walked out.
The trouble with the you-can-choose-to-be-high-forever scenario is that unlike with the others, I did not find the nature of the choice to be clear. I didn't press the drug-releasing button once and think, "Oh okay, my choice is between getting high or being responsible." I was just trying to understand what kind of situation I was even in. Once I knew that the button delivered drugs, I walked out of the room.
The assessment of player personality and disposition at the end of the game is kind of fun, even if I suspect there will be a camp of players who won't like the AI revelation. Not all of the scenarios needed to be as painful as the torture one, obviously, but more of them could have benefited from a greater sense of immediate urgency of situation, achieved through more focused writing and implementation.