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About the Story
A strange, new thought system has been spreading like wildfire through schools and institutions - it has even taken over the university that you go to. What could this all mean? Perhaps we'll discover the answer as we partake in Dr. Paul Bother's (mandatory) crash course on Smart Theory.
63rd place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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Smart Theory is a great title, from my view. I guessed what the game was about, and I was right. It's very slippery. You see, if you're an advocate of Smart Theory, you get to show how smart you are, but you don't actually have to put it into practice. And if you're wrong, well, it's a theory and You Can Evolve. Of course, the antagonist in this game, Paul Bother, who invented Smart Theory, doesn't state things so directly. He strongly invites you to his lecture on Smart Theory, and you have no way to wiggle out (smart of him to know all the angles, eh?) You find Smart Theory is simple and accessible and has also changed people's lives. Everything about it works, and if it doesn't work for you, well, you don't understand it well enough.
This seems very much like a cult but also of times people just needed to hear themselves talk and I was a convenient alibi. I wanted to tell them they were full of nonsense but just couldn't. Sometimes they rattled on for a half-hour, which was longer than I spent with Smart Theory, both when I tried to reject Paul Bother's "philosophy" completely and accept it.
Now this isn't the first game to railroad you and try to do so amusingly, but I think it's quite effective, and I'm glad it's only 15 minutes, because too much would be too heavy for me. The author probably knew this, too. Paul Bother, to me, is every sort of person who informs you how lucky you are they are sharing their opinion at, I mean with, you. When he gets up there to make that lecture, he gives you a lot of things to think about but, of course, no time to. It's impossible to leave. And of course you get the inevitable "How was it?" question at the end. There are no right answers. Fortunately, unlike Paul Bother, the game (via Paul) exhorts you to think about what he said, and then it actually leaves you to think about what he said.
ST certainly pulls the usual psychological tricks to keep someone roped into a conversation. It pulls a lot of psychological tricks on the protagonist that can hurt in real life. You have the sense no matter what you do, Paul Bother will show you why you just weren't being very smart. Around Paul, you need to kiss up, but you also need to expect to be ignored. More advanced Smart Theorists will understand. At some points the game lampshades Paul's "rules for thee but not for me" approach. He is more advanced than you, you see, and his secrets are worth $10000 because, well, they just are. Paul's a philanthropist with stuff everyone should know, but only the people willing to make a commitment deserve to know the good stuff. He knows how to shift from soft repression to hard repression of actual ideas. And sadly, learning these tricks from someone like Paul would, indeed, be worth $10000 or more to some people.
All these thoughts are serious, but ST never got too serious. I see a lot of self-important humbugs from my past in Paul. Some had good concrete information and some didn't. But in either case, their personalities overshadowed any good advice. All needed to be looked up to, or fawned on in different ways, but nothing too obvious. They gave me a sort of ceiling I felt I couldn't break through, and if I wasn't able to overwhelm them with praise, I did look back feeling guilty I didn't praise them enough.
So I was quite happy to see this sort of polemicism dealt with. It didn't need anything deep. I've long had an axe to grind with "if you believe it, you can achieve it" motivational speakers (note: there's a place for developing your intuition and faith, but it's not with the Paul Bothers of the world). And people who need to tell you how smart they are (or common-sensical, because all YOUR book knowledge, well,i it's not practical.) It certainly brought back memories of very awful conversations with very overbearing and self-assured people, both smarter than me or not. Ones where no matter how much I contributed, I was sure I was doing it wrong, even if someone said "chime in if you want to."
So I think Smart Theory captures the basics of Internet arguing and grandstanding quite well. I know I spent years wondering why I didn't fully agree with people who I should agree with. This seems teleological, but over the years, I've realized there are attention-grabbing tricks and methods, or even just flat out assuming people would rather hear you than listen to your own thoughts. Confidence and taking constant steps towards your goals ... works. We need to develop that, despite our fears. And we need to trap ourselves into taking action, too. We need people to push us with Morton's-Fork style arguments. But doing it the wrong way can make you into a Paul Bother type. Some people actually want that. And, of course, bad people can use all these skills to seem like they have something to offer.
So I'm glad I was exposed to Smart Theory in a context that showed it was nonsense. Perhaps sometimes it's occasionally too on-the-nose, that's okay. What was on the nose for me was probably an insight for others, and vice versa.
And yet in a way, maybe ST fooled me. I suppose it told me what I already knew, and I agreed with it, and I was intrigued to learn more. Or I saw what I wanted to, for better or for worse. Which left me worried how weighty the game actually was. But one thing's for sure: I enjoyed seeing Paul Button flipping from "just listen" to "you said you'd give me a chance but you didn't REALLY" all too quickly.
Other people saw something different. Perhaps we all see what we want, or what we expect, in ST's generalities. After further reflection, I'm inclined to believe it was meant to be ambiguous. And I think clearly it's not the sort of thing you say "ALL THE FEELS" or "SO MUCH YES" to. But if you're in the right mood, it will help you deal positively with the next person who "just wants a bit of your time" about "something you need to know." Maybe it will pinpoint something from your past to bury. For a fifteen-minute investment, that's worth it.
(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)
Smart Theory is part of a sub-genre of games that, by my lights, has yet to produce a single successful entry: the much-dreaded polemic about current events. Donít get me wrong, I like politics in my stories, but using narrative to convince, rather than to explore, sets authors up for failure, and often the temptation is to use thin plots and thinner characters to prop up an ideological point, rather than using beliefs to enrich people and stories that are compelling in their own right.
Smart Theory does not break this streak or beat the already dismal batting average of the sub-genre. I suppose itís possible I think that because Iím on the opposite side of the particular culture-war fight apparently being picked Ė the game appears to be an attempt to take down Critical Race Theory, and inasmuch as I work for a civil rights organization and took a class in law school from one of the founders of CRT, Iím on team wrongthink as far as itís concerned Ė but at the same time, Stand Up / Stay Silent from last yearís Comp was basically Defund the Police: The Game and I thought that one profoundly didnít work too. No, the problem isnít that Smart Theory is trying to gore my oxen: itís that itís rather a bore about it.
(After the initial version of this review was posted, the author responded and related that Smart Theory isn't directly meant to be about CRT. That's fair enough, but perhaps this points out another problem with satirical exaggeration in this subgenre...)
Things start to go wrong from the very premise. Where other polemical games dress up their ideological agendas in at least some narrative fancy-dress, here the story is tacked-on as can be: youíre a student who attends a college lecture by a proponent of the new ďSmart TheoryĒ craze, which again is a very thinly-veiled CRT stand-in (like, a book called ďDumb FragilityĒ gets name-checked). Thereís barely any plot to be had other than talking-heads yelling at each other, and the lecturer doesnít get any characterization beyond ďover the top charlatan.Ē So things that stories are traditionally good at are off the table, and the game lives and dies by the quality of its arguments.
Reader, these are not good, on either side of the debate! The lecturerís explication of the theory is glib and parodic, which I guess makes the polemic go down easy but thereís not much here that a CRT proponent would recognize, as Smart Theory seems way more focused on French structuralism and postmodernism than on the actual stuff CRT deals with. On the flip side, partially due to the nature of the choice format, where you canít easily have the playerís choices go on for paragraphs, the counterarguments the player character raises are also so superficial and unconvincing that a tiny part of me wonders whether the game is sort of double-agent, secretly parodying the anti-CRT position.
This ainít changing anyoneís mind Ė itís comforting pabulum for those who already agree that CRT is poisoning our children, trivially dismissible by those who donít, and Iíd wager completely incomprehensible to those who donít already have their minds made up. Maybe someday someone will write the game that changes peoplesí politics by main force, rather than by grounding their ideas in compelling characters, rich settings, and satisfying plots, but today is not that day.
Highlight: Again, these barbs are largely mis-aimed (protip: critical theory and critical legal studies are not the same thing!), but there are some good jokes about postmodernism Ė the best being a mid-lecture celebratory announcement that ďour crack team of social scientists has successfully added one more [post] prefixĒ to the modernism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, etc. that Smart Theory is based on.
Lowlight: I think Iíve said enough on this score.
How I failed the author: er, fairly comprehensively, I should think. I really liked the authorís Ascension of Limbs from last year, for what itís worth!
This is a fairly abstract Ink game (and one that I helped beta test).
In it, you play as a college student roped into a demonstration about Smart Theory. The speaker goes off for quite a while about smart theory, and you can choose between making snarky comments, playing along or being passive.
The Smart Theory is a parody of political theories. As presented, it could apply to both American political parties. Some digs seem aimed at one specific side (for instance, the huckster is selling a book called Dumb Fragility, which from the in-game explanation seems like a riff on liberals talking about white fragility), but it could apply to just about any political theory.
Overall, it has several humorous moments and works smoothly. However, I thought the random nonsense words didnt' work as well (like Bathcunk) and would have preferred more chances to act.
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