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Unbalanced, December 7, 2020
I think many of us have had the experience of being on one side or another in a conversation where someone’s trying to communicate an experience that was incredibly profound and meaningful to them, but can’t articulate it in a way that really lands. It’s a frustrating experience – more so for the teller than the listener, I think – because even while it’s clear there’s something important on the table, the palpable lack of understanding becomes alienating. That’s very much how I felt about Equal-librium, a game desperate to share something life-changing, but which at best is only able to talk around the space where that something should go.
It’s hard to go into what I mean without spoiling the whole game – it’s very short, and there’s really only one central dilemma. So I’m going to assume you’ve finished it in the paragraphs that follow.
Right, to sum up the story as I understand it: you play the CEO of an investment bank that seems to primarily deal with the resource-extraction industry. You’ve just cut a deal with a nonprofit to exploit some land they had obtained for conservation purposes, and as part of the negotiations you’d demanded (and received) a bribe. However, a hacker has accessed your email and found out about this, and is blackmailing you. Depending on whether you’ve managed to reconnect with an old friend from college when he accidentally spilled coffee on you earlier in the day, you either are able to identify the culprit, or have a last smoke and kill yourself.
This story doesn’t really make much sense – most notably, shouldn’t the bank be bribing the conservation nonprofit, and not the other way around? But stuff like that is relatively easy to ignore if the character work is up to snuff. Sadly, where Equal-librium really goes astray is in its depiction of the relationship with the old college friend. Shu/Will seems nice enough, and it’s clear there was some important connection between the two almost twenty years ago. But the game talks around that connection – it has something to do with the main character helping Shu quit smoking? – but it feels like there must have been something more important, and more reciprocal, going on.
The thematics of the ending also don’t feel like they quite click. In the “bad” ending, the CEO, facing the ruin of his reputation and bereft of human connection, decides to end it all. You then get some moralizing final text talking about the importance of balance: “Every system, whether the economy or the ecosystem, has an equilibrium. When we keep extracting the resources, exploiting human moral bottom-lines, consuming carelessly, and ignoring small but essential part of the system chain, the system sends a feedback loop to break in most unexpected ways… Perhaps you need to restart the system to really experience how good it is to be in Equal-librium.” But in the “good” ending, the main character is just able to strike back at their rival, and does reconnect with their friend, but doesn’t seem to change their ways at all, making the ultimate meaning very unclear.
The technical implementation is fine – the color and font choices are attractive, and there’s an undo button always available, so it’s simple to explore the different possibilities, which is good because I think the game only works if you can see the different paths. I did encounter an odd error having to do with a non-existent macro, but it didn’t seem to affect progress. I did find the prose a bit of a stumbling block; there aren’t many out-and-out typos or grammatical errors, but there are a lot of awkward phrasings and run-together clauses that made the writing a bit unclear at times. That’s Equal-librium in a nutshell, I think – there’s intentionality and heart to it, but in its current form, it’s not quite able to bring the player fully in to the experience it’s working to evoke.