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Take, November 19, 2016
Take is a difficult game to discuss. It attacks the very concept of writing impressions/reviews/any-personal-reactions-whatsoever, and therefore demands a more considered response from anyone who dares to have a response. It’s a challenge. It defies you to “take” it. If you don’t, then you’re a coward turning a blind eye to institutionalized abuse. If you do, then you’re a barbarian participating in that abuse. The only way to touch the material is by walking the same razor’s edge that the game itself walks.
Essentially you are a journalist plugged into the current mass-media machine, right now, today. This is conveyed by an allegory about gladiatorial combat in a dystopian society, but what you’re actually doing is writing “hot takes” for a soulless editor who wants you to flay open your personal life and put it on public display. Your value as a writer depends on how many “hits” you can generate/withstand, but this value carries over to your value as a person, because it determines whether you can make enough to continue supporting yourself. Nobody cares about you as a person, however. Not even your supposed fans. You’re simply cutting yourself open so that they can consume your “content” as they would consume “content” from anyone else willing to undergo similar exposure. The content in your “content” doesn’t matter, as long as it's intimate. It just has to be salacious enough to slip down the throat easily. And if it doesn’t slip down the right way, they’ll still pick you apart, and you’ll see every petty and mean-spirited criticism on Twitter. In short, you cannot win, and indeed the game ends when you’re “taken” yourself, not by yourself, but by an unfeeling audience who finally make you their own and discard you for good in the same moment.
As I said, this is all presented via allegory. Your mental reactions to the gladiator fight are translated into “takes” that feed into a monitor built into your chest, and this monitor also alerts you to all the incoming negative tweets that people write in response. Escape is impossible. Society has welded this contraption into your body. The gameplay itself plays a role in the setup, where examining and taking things are the only actions that you are even equipped to do. Nothing else matters because the game says nothing else matters because it’s making a comment about our current culture where nothing else matters.
As a game, this is extremely effective. You couldn’t ask for mechanics to be built into a story more.
As an allegory, like last year’s In The Friend Zone, it chains itself in a major way to popular slang that will sooner than later fade out, but under the slang are issues that will persist, most probably, as long as humankind survives.
There’s also a gendered aspect to the narrative. You aren’t simply a journalist; you are a female journalist, and the game is as much about society’s attitude toward women as it is about society’s obsession with consuming endless “content.” These hot takes that you’re writing are a journalistic form that has grown and mutated from the literary memoir, which is a genre historically fostered by women. Now it has been repurposed to make them victims for even attempting honest self-reflection. By sharing their viewpoints, they are simply making it easier for the leering audience to gawk at them, and the monitor being inset into your exposed chest, which your scanty armor doesn’t cover, isn’t a trivial design element. Great attention is paid to how prettily disfigured you can become during the battle, and to how actual disfigurement, real wounds, must be camouflaged to look aesthetically pleasing; the audience doesn’t want to confront legitimate suffering because that would spoil their entertainment. A few lines seem to echo passages from howling dogs, where the bone-footed empress must practice her death pose to ensure its elegance, but whereas howling dogs offered relief, even if that meant plunging deeper into a delusion or a dream, there’s no relief anywhere here.
The protagonist’s experience is contrasted by an epilogue that unlocks after the main game is finished, where you play as her opponent and see how the combat unfolded from his perspective. He is radically, grotesquely, stereotypically a “he,” and the game’s own hottest take arrives via this epilogue, which is titled Use and limits its verbset to that command. Whereas the characters, actions, and environments were described with penetrating detail during Take, in Use everything is reduced to brainless mush. “Pretty sweet battlefield.” That’s as deep as the commentary’s going to get. There are no more levels, there is no more thought, and everything exists, of course, to be “used,” including “the girl they sent.” Moreover, “using” anything will produce an automatic one-move victory. This epilogue is where its venom climactically overtops the game’s cup and absolutely everything on the table becomes infected.
There’s no solution offered here, and these characters aren’t people. They are monstrous parodies pitted against each other in a death battle they’ve both created: an eternal victim and an eternal persecutor. Nothing will ever change. It will only evolve, as the “hits” in the game’s dystopia did from virtual to physical, to become more complicated and more hideous. Subtleties don’t tease out meaning. They provide more openings for attack. We may sympathize more with the victim but our sympathy is as worthless as the takes that she’s writing because it will have no influence on anything. We might try to say, “I understand,” but she’s still going out onto the arena floor to suffer.
I don’t think that art needs to offer solutions. Sometimes pointing a finger at a problem is already hard enough. I certainly won’t propose to offer a solution in this review to the problems the game is highlighting, but what I can do is give my own opinion about a few issues, and the foremost thing that I want to say is that sharing your opinion is not “giving a hot take.” Writing an essay is not “writing a thinkpiece.” Playing a game, reading a book, watching a movie — these activities are not reducible to “consuming content.” And yet people do reduce them, every day. They reduce them by how they approach subjects, how they use words to frame discussions. When communication is drowning in #ironic #hashtags #about #hottakes, that begins to color how people actually interpret reality. When people self-consciously discuss their #brands, they are heating the fire for their own branding irons. Even the last two sentences that I wrote are contributing to this problem.
I’ve seen other authors, during perfectly innocent conversations, refer to themselves as content-creators, and to their games as content. The thing about content is that it matters less than the receptacle it’s filling. Even in the niche interactive fiction world, people have adopted this terminology and its accompanying mindset from the mass-media treadmill that’s responsible for crushing people as Take’s protagonist is crushed. It won’t stop crushing anyone until people stop turning it. Stop slathering everything in corrosive irony. Stop swallowing authors whole and then banging the table to demand more. If you turn life into a blood-drunk meme, “one joke until expiration,” then that’s what it will become.
I don’t agree with everything this game depicts, and I wonder how effective it will be at getting players to think about certain topics, but it’s certainly straining to do as much as it possibly can with the tools and the room that it has. It’s impeccably written and designed. Even newcomers to parser should be able to play it. Recommended, but beware the spikes.