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About the Story
Zoe and her brother Joe grew up close. Too close, according to their parents.
Their parents would go far to protect society. Too far, according to their children.
"Out of Scope" is about which forms of love and violence our society condones, and which it condemns. It follows the downfall of the Carnation family, and your effort to put it into perspective.
Content warning: Violence
61st Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
Winner, Outstanding Unity Game of 2023 - The 2023 IFDB Awards
Number of Reviews: 4
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Out of Scope tells a story of twin siblings brought into deadly conflict. Reared by a prominent military family, their parents try to push them apart for fear of an obsessive love between them that might border on the romantic; the son is trained to be a soldier, despite his disinclination to violence, while the far-more-vicious daughter is shunted into peaceable work. Their domestic psychodrama is soon caught up in great-power politicking, in a world that may differ from ours in the details – all of the country names are imagined – but is otherwise quite similar – there’s colonialism, a military propaganda machine, and Shakespeare has somehow persisted – and the story is all too likely to end in tragedy.
The only literary precedent this mélange brings to mind is Ada, or Ardor, with its too-close sibling bond, aristocratic milieu, and alternate-history setting of Anti-Terra, and if you are aping Nabokov, you are flying close to the sun. It’s a high-wire act, in other words, but sadly, one that I don’t think succeeds, as the ambition of the premise is let down by a terrible UI, inconsistent writing, weak pacing, and at least one game-stopping bug. For a game that set its sights lower, maybe none of these issues would be fatal, but given that the themes Out of Scope puts on the table are extraordinarily freighted – again, the player is asked to invest in a quasi-incestuous relationship between young twins – these are deadly flaws.
(As a point of disclosure, I should probably acknowledge that since I’m a twin – or rather, was a twin, since my sister passed away a few years ago – the whole twincest angle would at best be facing a steep uphill climb with me. For all that, I did like Ada, or Ardor, but I’m struggling to think of a second story about sibling incest that doesn’t want to make me throw up. Still, I think the problems I experienced with Out of Scope aren’t purely down to personal idiosyncrasy).
I’ll start with the UI, because it’s impossible to ignore. Out of Scope is a Unity game (available in downloadable form as well as a browser option), and it offers a bespoke text-based interface; in each sequence, you’ll see a gray background onto which are scattered several small text boxes. Those with gray outlines just provide a bit of flavor text; those with black borders can be clicked on, which will often lead to further text, or possibly a yes-or-no choice that pops up as a thought balloon below the window. Choosing no might then lead to a different question popping up, allowing you to cycle through different options, though it’s never clear how many you might have, and in some cases considering all of your choices means you forfeit the chance to do anything at all. Oh, and these different boxes are often not visible from the start, requiring you to repeatedly drag around to search them out – sometimes moving to a new scene will lead you to an entirely blank screen, in fact, with the actual interactive bits of the passage scattered to the four winds. At least there are arrows that occasionally show up at the edges of the screen to point you towards boxes you can’t currently see, though I found they sometimes didn’t work. Plus the various buttons aren’t especially responsive, at least on my track pad, requiring double-clicking that sometimes speeds through text before you’re ready.
Oh oh oh, and it’s all animated so there are delays before text loads and the option-bubbles pop up.
Let me be very clear: playing this game was torture. Maybe it’s more manageable on a mouse, but the interface still adds a huge amount of friction to every interaction. In a tight, linear game where this was thematically appropriate, perhaps that would be forgivable, but Out of Scope goes for at least two hours, has long stretches where it wants you to explore a large map, and doesn’t try to create any resonance between the extra-diegetic abuse inflicted by the UI and the diegetic events of the game. There are moments when it is aesthetically pleasing, like a dinner party where each guest’s bit of dialogue shows up on overlapping text boxes that denote their places at the table – but even then, there would have been a million other ways to get a similar effect without inflicting such needless annoyance.
Contrarily, the writing does provide some high points, but doesn’t manage to sustain them throughout the wide-ranging plot. Some of the interactions between the twins have a sort of poetry to them:
"When two people are silent together, it’s like a song."
(This reminds me of one more interface complaint – highlighting text isn’t allowed, so I had to manually copy down any passage I wanted to quote).
The house that forms the main backdrop for the game is also often evocatively drawn, alternately imposing and pathetic depending on where you are in the timeline (the game’s chronology jumps around a fair bit). Here’s a bit noting an aftereffect of the fire that ruined the estate:
"The fire was intense here, warping and twisting metal cans of fruit and soup into little bombs."
On the other hand, there’s stuff like this:
"A south-easterly tor watches and chills and wets you from its prominence, irrespective of yours."
Huh? There are lots of head-scratchers like this, like saying of some fallen leaves “crisp winds divide them. Crisp thoughts too.” The game is full of malapropisms, from a moon likened to a “scrambled egg, white-yolked and runny in the pan” (….have you cooked an egg?) to a reference to “the twisted logic of a rubber sock.” And there are frequent dangling participles, confused pronouns, and verb-noun agreement issues. I feel like a bit of a jerk harping on this stuff, but again, Out of Scope is attempting some seriously challenging things – the stakes are very high for many of its set pieces, especially the highly-charged encounters between the twins, and when the prose gets weak or unclear, everything lurches towards comedy.
As to that relationship, though, the game’s structure does it no favors. The whole logic of the plot depends on there being a preternatural connection between the two siblings, but the game starts with a flash-forward where they’re already trying to kill each other – though the drama of this setup is blunted by requiring the player to explore a large area mostly devoid of points of interest before they can interact – and then flashes back to a sequence where they only have one short interaction before they get separated. By the time the game lets them meet again, as late teenagers, a lot of time has passed both in the plot and for the player – there’s an extended military-training sequence for the brother, then an even longer one where the sister wanders around the house before the aforementioned party – and by that point things are already weird and strained between them. It’s just not enough to establish the bond in any resonant way, all the more so because what the author is trying to set up isn’t just ordinary love between siblings, but something weirder and more intense that might not be incest but isn’t exactly not incest.
Then there’s the bug I mentioned. After I finished chapter 7 (of 10), I had to step away from my computer for an hour or so. When I came back to the game, the text boxes had all vanished and I was facing a blank yellow screen; scrolling around, or restarting the game and resuming my save, did nothing. I was about at the two hour mark, and the prospect of braving the interface to redo everything I’d done defeated me. Fortunately, the author provides a walkthrough that includes a basic plot summary, so I was able to learn how the game ends. Unfortunately, here’s where I learned that there was a whole additional layer of political intrigue that had been completely lost on me. Admittedly, some of this is stuff that appears to only come into play in the final few chapters, but the political maneuvering that I’d seen felt to me like it was meant to provide a backdrop for the family drama, rather than being robust enough to support major chunks of the narrative on its own. But there’s apparently a major twist that makes the twins’ relationship decidedly secondary to a wide-ranging espionage plot aimed at reconfiguring domestic politics in the family’s home country, which are only lightly sketched in the portions I saw; I suspect this swerve would be pretty unsatisfying to those who experience it. Also, this plot point hinges on understanding that this family, where the patriarch is part of a naval dynasty and keeps trophies of a country he helped conquer in his study and the mother runs a propaganda outlet selling a Thatcherite brew of social conservatism and militarism, are moderates, which is uh not how I experienced them.
Again, I can’t fault Out of Scope’s lofty goals – despite my hesitance about some of its themes, I really wanted it to succeed. But in every way, its reach exceeds its grasp. Reading the plot summary and thematic discussion contained in the walkthrough file, I can see how the game is meant to work in the author’s eyes, but it’s not there yet. With that said, God knows I’d be excited to see more smart, political IF that deals with complex sibling relationships, so I’m really hoping for a robustly-improved post-Comp release for this one.
I think the best descriptors for this game might be ‘incestbait’ and '‘unusual UI’.
Let’s talk about UI first. The idea is that you are ‘aiming’ at the screen, with a literal scope in the title page and elsewhere just dragging your aim around. While moving around the page you find text you can click on. So it’s choice based, but with work to discover the choices.
The controls are opposite from what I expected. It all clicked when I realized that instead of panning around the page I was moving the camera.
This is a very long game, and took me longer than 2 hours to complete. Parts of it were difficult; a couple of times I could have sworn the text needed to progress just wasn’t there, so I exited out completely and ‘Resume’ and it worked. But looking back, I likely just had trouble finding the right link. I got very stuck at one point looking for my father, due to the many places possible to look.
The story is one of was and love. You play as two siblings who have had a love/hate/LOVE relationship their whole life. While there is no history of romantic intimacy between you two, everything in the game drips with its possibility, so much that the entire theme of the game seems to be ‘what if two siblings were almost-lovers and sublimated that tension into hate’.
The backdrop is like a modern Gone With the Wind or War and Peace, where a violent war is raging and you are part of a privileged family, the children of an admiral. The countries involved seem to be fictional, but evoke modern tropes: an aggressor country feeding misinformation to others to justify invading a smaller country; corruption at the highest levels, etc.
The game opens with a violent conflict between the two protagonists, and I never really understood the justification for that. Even seeing the messages that spurred the conflict, I don’t understand why the fight happened.
In any case, this really does have the overall feel of the grand war novels I mentioned before, with similar musings on changes in life. The UI was an interesting concept but by the end it started to wear thin. It may be because I was using a trackpad and playing on desktop; I had to click and drag a lot.
There definitely is strong craftmanship in evidence; this is the kind of game where I personally didn’t love it but I’d definitely hire the creator for game work if I ran a studio. So the pros of this game are mostly in the areas of the author’s skill, and the cons are mostly in my personal taste.
By the time an old servant slash formerly the imperial admiral patriarch’s mistress slash secret agent from some fractious Balkan manipulates an empire and its dissident into a war that culminates in a sniper duel between supersoldier aristocrat siblings who are potentially lovers in their crumbling mansion over a feud that consists as much of domestic relations as it does international relations, not much lies out of scope. At its core, Out of Scope wants to tell a suffocating story about how two siblings are torn apart by the different social expectations of gender, but in its attempt to amp the tension to world historical importance, it loses its message somewhere in its reams of political exposition.
With its guns blazing stagesetter, Out of Scope charges no holds barred to flourish a first impression with moody grandeur prose, where the “ceiling rises precipitously, all the way to the soffit of the second floor, letting in a huge amount of light and spiders” to narrow corridors haunted by “Statues. Family members, genuine and appropriated. All stained by a slightly ironic shade of soot.” The rich imagery glimmers in stained glass moonlight to echo through the space a moody nocturne, elegantly composing into phantasmagorical allure with its sudden piu forte into violence: “Bubbles in the glass pane swim before the scene … Seaweed rustles on the hillside and froth floats in the sky. / A gleam of treasure winks at you from a shipwreck … Her eyes are on you … You feel the collision in your memories, then in the constriction of your heart, then going through your side as the window shatters against you and you plunge down against its thick, gouging shards.” Although sometimes the opulence inelegances into the gaudiness of trying too hard, like when “You approach, unsteadily on the igneous plane”, the writing still crackles when the moody veneer is asserted selfsufficient.
But then the story balloons expository, bloating to explain who the Colibrians are and what treaties they’ve made and not upheld, thus this sharpness disappears into somewhat wooden banter, with aristocrats hmmph hmming how you might think they would, with soldiers more concerned with who hazes who than whether the war engulfs them, with your various relations being bores. To accompany this broadening, the cast of characters also widens, most of whom are hastily sketched in with broad strokes: “Uncle Graham, or Great Ham, as you call him, is inevitably at the long dining table, his mouth ingesting from a plate and his ears from the inexhaustible anecdote of Lavinia … Grandfather is accepting tribute from a fug of officers, while Aunt Marion, or Marry On, as you call her, is pointedly ignoring it all”. This flatness saps your investment in any of their subsequent shenanigans, and although there are attempts to provide twists, Aunt Marion is revealed as a skilled sculptor of previous lovers, none of these twists really broaden their remit beyond the eyeroll by which they are initially invoked.
Rather than complexifying the family dynamics through a wider canvas, the intermixing of the political with the personal proves artificial, rendering the latter vague through the interventions of the former. Take this dry bit of banter after Zoe’s mother, the editor of a national newspaper, approves of Zoe’s boyfriend: “”You’re the kingmaker,” you say, citing her nickname in this morning’s edition of Clarion Call, ostensibly in reference to your father’s conquests.” Turbulent emotions between family members loses intimate intensity when printed in the morning paper. Similarly, the supersoldier intrigue between the siblings simply dilutes their conflicted immediacy, as when a heated emotional exchange causes Zoe to remember her “psyops training” before responding. Naturlich, any successful family gathering requires a certain amount of psyops. Most frustratingly, the critical brother sister bond at the heart of Out of Scope zooms out too abstract as its spy thriller inclinations take over, leaving us with salacious descriptions of soldiery rather than their initial impactful solidarity. In the few breaths the story spares for the pair unimpacted by national security, we get more telling than showing, gesturing airily at letters rather than the roiling writings within, which is a shame, because perhaps some of its strongest sparkles exist in their tempestuous multifacets: “Remorse and the thrill of your own power electrifies you, and then together you burst into tears.” There’s a section in the sprawling labyrinths of the unfinished The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil where Ulrich and his sister Agathe dialogue into a heady and equally unsettling intimacy, and some echo of that would I think massively improve the reader’s engagement in the central themes of this work.
When it adheres to its fastest flowing currents, Out of Scope compels, especially with its excellently imperial diffidence to the moral difficulty of much of its subject matter, which allows its complications space to breathe. Indeed, there is a strong attention to preserving point of view, like a great line that translates its scenic lyricisms into a child’s voice with “fireflies playing freeze tag”. But the clean shot this style could take through the story blurs, and we get waylaid by brambling bumbles that add no hues to the bloom. Even the story’s presentation, a spatially exacting Prezi, overthinks the premise, adding little beyond Twine beyond dizzying clicksickness. The author displays much promise, but in this iteration, alas, the wayward breezes stray us from the target.
Trailblazer Award of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for a game of 2023 that you saw as a trailblazer. Voting is open to all IFDB...
Outstanding Underappreciated Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the most underappreciated game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members....
Outstanding Unity Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best Unity game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible games...