The Problems Compound

by Andrew Schultz profile


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Parable of Social Manipulation and Liberation, December 6, 2015
by strivenword (Utica, New York)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2015, blog rerun

Surreal landscapes and dream-like sequences are well established motifs in IF. Whether serious or comedic or horrific, whether sequences within larger contexts or the complete settings of entire adventures, these abstract dreamscapes convey wonder magnified by the interactivity while also teasing a sense of greater meaning. The abstract world of The Problems Compound carries on much of the imagery from its author's previous games Shuffling Around and A Roiling Original (though it's not a sequel), taking a more serious spin on many of the same themes in a puzzle-oriented but accessible adventure.

Despite the abstractions and the use of common high school experiences, the game is less an avatar of universal experiences than one fictional teenager's manifesto. Although the narrative voice of player character Alec Smart is not heavily stylized, we have a strong sense of who Alec is because the whole game is his own abstraction of his world. Part revenge-of-the-nerds story, The Problems Compound narrates Alec's victory over the artificial boxes in which selfish and shallow people have tried to confine him. However, the game is not content merely to show the ascendance of the nerd hero to social superiority, but artfully critiques its own themes in a powerful demonstration of empathy.

Wordplay is central to the narrative style and the general theme, but there is no central mechanic built around wordplay as in the author's Threediopolis. The wordplay generally consists of a simple inversion of two words, where the inverted phrase is the actual object in the fantasy environment and the proper order is either a realistic counterpart or a humorous pun. Despite the simplicity of this scheme, it is used with clever flair to advance the game's larger themes. For instance, an inanimate chair is labeled “PERSON CHAIR,” joking subtly about how lifeless the procedures and bureaucracies that normal well-adjusted people take so seriously really are – the chairperson might as well be the chair itself.

Despite the thematic similarities to Shuffling Around and A Roiling Original, gameplay in The Problems Compound involves mainly traditional adventure game mechanics. This makes for a greater disconnect between theme and gameplay than in some of Schultz's other games, but it also makes for a more accessible experience. At least one and possibly two logic-wordplay puzzles remain, but most of the puzzles involve finding objects to give to NPCs in order to get things from them. The game is typical “new school” puzzle-oriented parser IF, preserving a puzzle-based map design while slightly toning down the complexity of the parser and of the mechanics for the sake of player convenience.

Critiquing The Problems Compound as a game makes far more sense than critiquing it as a story, but its narrative is far from insignificant. Its plot would be far too simple for a prose narrative, but the dreamscape feels like the kind of world where the protagonist's fantastic encounters could be woven together to tell prose stories in the genre of The Phantom Tollbooth, a book referenced by the game's opening text.

Ultimately, The Problems Compound is a second-order allegory mediated by Alec Smart. The identity of the player character is the element that prevents a straight-up allegory from being a possible interpretation. Alec's journey through his fantastic vision has no correspondence with any specific ideology or with anything from our world; the elements of the story are only stand-ins for their counterparts in Alec's life. However, in one sense The Problems Compound comes close to being a pure and direct allegory, because the characters and locations in the story's world are explicitly named for their counterparts, hidden behind wordplay with some concessions to context.

Once inside the fantasy, Alec immediately meets the archetype of the self-appointed big brother friend who thinks the troubled introvert just needs to speak up or cheer up in order to be normal. Guy Sweet's patronizing insistence that he understands Alec's social discontent is proven by his dismissive belittling of Alec's meticulously logical yet unconventional way of understanding.

This interaction sequence is paced effectively by giving the player something to do while drawing out the NPC's comments. Conversation is handled through menus triggered by the TALK TO command. Most of the implemented conversations are less successful than the initial one with Guy Sweet, because the conversation topics are quickly exhausted by rotely going through all the quips. There is no incentive or narrative acknowledgment for sticking to a more realistic interaction by refraining from jumping from one topic to another until all quips are used up.

Guy Sweet is only the first of a cast of vibrant NPCs, each setting the tone for their corresponding part of the map and making the landscape feel intensely personal. Here is the authentically inauthentic Word Weasel, a pedantic mirror to Alec's own tendency to overthink. Here are the sister cultists Faith and Grace Goode, who claim not to be very charismatic and who just want to like their cult films unironically – possibly the only other characters in the game who aren't deceived by the megalomaniac boss villain, the Baiter Master. Here are the Baiter Master's three tragic body guards – Brother Big, Brother Blood, and Brother Soul – each of them missing something they need to be free from exploitation. These NPCs exude character and charm, animated as vividly as childhood cartoons by the narrative and the dialog.

Far from being simplistically nice, this sense of animated charm broaches potentially uncomfortable territory by the way that other misfits are portrayed. The followers of the Baiter Master can be grouped into two categories – those who are intelligent and are trying to climb the social ladder, and those who are less intelligent and who are being taken advantage off. The game's greatest nuance – and its greatest potential to fail – is in its portrayal of the disadvantaged. The text does mock them; or at any rate, it doesn't always make an immediate point about how they're deceived. It's not always clear where the boundary lies between the shallow status-seekers whom Alec disrespects and the marginalized misfits whom he should theoretically empathize with. The most problematic part of the game is a place called “Idiot Village” where one NPC whom the player needs to interact with is depicted as a monkey, as if being an idiot reduces someone's humanity. Granted, the inhumanity could have been intended as a snarky wordplay jab at the ethical shallowness of that NPC's job, which would integrate with the general anti-bureaucracy theme.

The road to Idiot Village is blocked by a cop named Officer Petty and an “intuition counter.” The instant dislike that Officer Petty takes for Alec portrays a very believable archetype of the deep insecurities that practical, community-building people seem to feel when confronted with highly intuitive people who can't conform. Officer Petty's reluctance to let Alec bother the idiots under his guard seems both realistic and entirely understandable. The scene where Alec bribes off Officer Petty reveals a sharp gap between two very different people who are repressed by the same root problems. Perhaps some sadness over the fact that these two fellow sufferers can't stop being opponents is revealed in Officer Petty's weary manner as well as Alec's vague cynicism.

Fortunately, the game explicitly tackles these problems. Despite being introverted and misunderstood, Alec Smart's inner world is fundamentally social, giving the impression that his supposed social incompetence is a misnomer applied ignorantly or deliberately by people who think they're better than him. A brilliant and deeply implemented red herring shows that Alec has the wits to dominate all the arguments and to oust the Baiter Master by taking up the condescending, sensationalist fakeness that he so disrespects. However, Alec's true victory has him standing up not only for the rights of the oppressed, but also for their unique ways of being clever.

Through its animated playfulness, The Problems Compound shows how serious the high school experience is. The social difficulties of one misunderstood teenager are symptomatic of the same universal power dynamics that leave some people grasping after empty promises and others out of the loop entirely. The world needs the insightful nerds to resist settling for mere smart-alec cynicism in order to save others from the oppression of deliberate artificiality wielded by those who would seize social power.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.
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