You are SpamZapper 3.1

by Leon Arnott


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I admit, I preferred the shallower parts. Which weren't really shallow., December 10, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

There's a study showing that judges give harsher sentences when they're hungry. Or that's the claim. Causality hasn't been established, and I was interested to read alternate perspectives that poked holes in the "hungry judge" theory. But I remember the punchline and recalled it here on playing SZ31 late at night. It took a very cool premise and wavered at the end. That felt like my own mental fatigue, and then on replay, I wound up focusing on how I felt instead of looking through things again. Perhaps it tried to reach for a message that wasn't there. But either way, it still Had Quality Moments.

The title, if not the play time, suggests that you'll just be zapping spams until you mess up, and then everyone has a good laugh about how futile it all is and then goes home. That would be more than adequate for a decent IFComp entry, but there's a bit more. You do, in fact, play a spam-zapper plugin who ("that" is the inappropriate pronoun, I think, for reasons you'll see shortly) detects spam emails incoming to the account of your owner, Spoony. You get to choose a real name, but that's their email address and what they use on forums.

The tasks start out trivial. They may leave you nostalgic for some Greatest Hits of spam you've received. They did for me. Back in 2000, we had all long since gotten sick of feeling clever we could delete spam immediately, and when my webmail got a spam filter installed, I remember peeking inside just to say, hey, wow, it works, and there were relatively few false positives. It was interesting to see how spam filters got subverted by professional-looking messages, and if I was feeling dumb, being able to finger a particularly bad spam email that snuck through made me feel a bit smarter, as long as they weren't dumped on me. This brought back a lot of that, but there's also a ubiquitous needy loner or two who needs confirmation. Someone forgets their password. Someone at Spoony's workplace sends a mistaken reply-all, followed by reply-alls that are, well, mistaken in their own way. You, as the spam-zapper, have comments on that. You've seen it before. But you also get intents of spam and non-spam emails wrong. Artificial intelligence, amirite?

And that's where the actual story kicks in. One of Spoony's correspondents, Laurie Boggins, has a very, very restrictive father. Not only that, but she seems to have struck up a legitimate friendship with her Wizard email plugin. As her computer is confiscated, she sends one last email to Spoony saying, keep Wizard alive! And that's when the spam zapper "meets" other plugins. They try to band together and rescue this friend. In fact, they create their own virus to track down information. They understand morals in the small picture but maybe not the big one. Helping their owners is all that matters.

So they discuss what it means to exist, and this is where I slacked a bit. One thing about my slacking, though. If you've ever watched Amadeus, you may remember that one scene where the Emperor yawned during The Marriage of Figaro. If I yawn, and think of it? Well, whatever I am paying attention to is not Figaro, but I know it's probably part me. Perhaps I was disappointed the helper apps didn't just stay in their place and entertain me. I mean, it's probably more in-character for them to discuss concepts like nous or whatever that might make people say "get back to the jokes, already." It's tough for AI to make jokes. But it's earnest and does go on a bit, and while I enjoy a good "what and why are we, and what are we doing here?" I felt a small bait-and-switch.

Still, the spam dumping does go on a bit. By the time you've finished deleting the reply-alls, a QuickBasic worm pops up. Then one of Spoony's friends begins composing spam-looking emails that you, SpamZapper, consider to be mind-control spam. Yes, you're wrong, but it's internally plausible. Then you have to search through forty or so emails to find information to the odd plan you've hatched with Wizard and the New Mail Chimes to get Laurie's computer back, to "save" her. They don't seem to understand humans can survive without computers, and yet, at the same time, they're technically–Laurie's father taking her computer away is most unjust. While some emails could obviously be rejected, I just got dragged down by the tedium and took a break and then came back to a few more "search Spoony's emails" puzzles. It was tiring, but I can't see any other way to do it.

My tired mind did find the whole plot a bit too farcical, and all the talk of nous seemed a bit mystical to me, and I zoned out, but I was still able to appreciate the loneliness of Spoony's friends and what sort of person Spoony must be. Still, I can't help but feel I mostly enjoyed the low-hanging fruit. The switch between the general narrative and the mailbox work well, as does the glimpse into a post-apocalyptic (well, climate change) future. It's hard not to be amused at SpamZapper forcing decisions or having something it HAS to say about Spoony's dad's email. You'll know which one. And the time-distortion where you're not sure how much time was between emails, but it helps remind you the spam zapper can't understand certain emotional concepts natural to humans. Yet it tries. And I felt, as I was playing, I was missing something, but I hope I was trying.

So my advice is to be awake for this game. You'll need the energy, but I guarantee it will pay you back, even if you drift a bit. There are lots of funny examples of how AI gets things wrong, and I think this was the strongest part, where you can see clearly that the well-meaning plugins are about to release something potentially catastrophic. It's quite a good laugh and very touching, but looking at the work again, my eyes glossed over the philosophical discussion. Still, once you solve the game, there's an amusing way to unlock design discussions for each character, and I appreciated them very much. Though I needed a break after all that philosophizing. It's tough. I've written games where I wanted to be smart, and smart people told me "keep it simple, stupid," but really, I thought the parts they disliked were the best part. SZ31 turns the table on me, as I found I wanted to give it the same advice. So I feel like a bit of a hypocrite, but given a choice between the funny story plus philosophizing and nothing at all, give me the first.