Out of Scope

by Drew Castalia

Political romance

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Snipe hunting, December 4, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

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.

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