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Superficial polemic, November 22, 2021
(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!