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Ambitious but unfocused, January 11, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
This ChoiceScript game about a fictional online fandom is a lot. Before you start, there are two full pages of stats, eight or nine pages with background on the online personalities as well as in-universe info on the Nebulaverse, the tropey YA series the fandom focuses on, and a character-generation process for your blogger-avatar that comes complete with two “what Hogwarts House are you?”-style quizzes – and then gameplay itself involves going through five or six “rounds” of play, each of which has you first reading half a dozen different Tumblr-ish blogs and deciding whether to like or reblog (or possibly reply to) each of their 5-10 posts, then making choices about how to write your own fanfic set in the Nebulaverse, plus some optional additional engagement with other bloggers.
There’s a lot to be said for creating a detailed and consistent world, but there’s also a need to present the player with a compelling hook to bring them into said world – a resonant goal, some emotionally-engaging conflict, an interesting puzzle or strategic challenge, or even just a clever take on a familiar milieu – and here’s where I found APBW fell down. Notionally, you’re meant to be optimizing your follower count by reblogging good content and writing resonant fanfic, but this is presented in a pretty bloodless fashion and is clearly more a pretext than a motivating force for engagement. The breadth of the game also means there’s less time to go deep and make any particular character or mechanic stand out, plus the incredible tropiness of the Nebulaverse, while clearly intentional to help it resonate with more real-world fandoms, made it really hard for me to care about shipping the blank-slate chosen one, the genius love-interest, the blue-blood frenemy, the white-bread sidekick, or… the other one who I don’t remember that clearly two days on from playing.
Eventually the game reveals that it is about something specific, and I found it got a lot more engaging (Spoiler - click to show)(it ultimately hinges on a pretty much note-for-note riff on the Harry Potter fandom’s reactions to J.K. Rowling’s increasing transphobia). But it took too long to get there for my tastes, and didn’t integrate the fanfic stuff with this main thread tightly enough for me to stay invested. Works of IF are almost always in real need of a good editor, because all pieces of writing are in need of a good editor (the beta testing process isn’t a substitute, in my experience) and I think APBW suffers that lack – it puts in so much effort to create a plausible world, and has something to say, but needs some nips and tucks to better help the player find what's engaging.
Highlight: Despite the game making clear that I was making incredibly suboptimal choices in terms of follower count, it was perfectly happy to let me express myself as a normcore loser – I took a gleeful joy in choosing the most boring hero as my favorite one, eschewing shipping to focus on the setting’s lore in my blog posts, and even quitting writing the fanfic super early because of (Spoiler - click to show)the transphobia incident.
Lowlight: As I alluded to above, I found the blogging sections offered way too much granularity of interaction – so the game’s bow to realism by having characters re-post stuff you’ve already seen on the pages of other bloggers made for extra drudgery.
How I have failed the author: Due to a general lack of brain-bandwidth, I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to read the multiple pages of background info on the Nebulaverse, which probably reduced my engagement with those sections – and that in turn meant I was eager to stop writing the fanfic so I could skip those bits and get to the end faster, missing out on most of the thematic resonance that I’m sure exists between the different strands of the story.