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A dubiously-ethical ESP marketing simulator, December 5, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Would it be elitist to confess that I can’t say for sure whether I’ve ever eaten at an Applebee’s? I’ve mostly lived in fairly big cities, and even when I travel for work, because I don’t drive I never wind up at the sorts of suburban strip-malls that tend to host the chain restaurant. For purposes of this review, though, I’m trying to conjure up some associations – I’ve got a sense of the look and overall vibes from Friday Night Lights, since one of the characters was a waitress there for a couple of seasons, and for the actual food I’m imagining Chili’s and subtracting the (admittedly already rather slight) southwestern angle (Chili’s is also a strip-mall kind of place, I think, but there was one sort of accessible when I was in high school so at least I’ve been there a couple times).
Anyway based on that almost-completely-groundless supposition, what I’m coming up with is a restaurant that isn’t any better than it ought to be, but isn’t much worse, either – like, a mediocre place that earns its meh rating not through consistent middle-of-the-road performance, but by frustrating whatever expectations you bring to it: if you think it’s going to be awful, you might be surprised that one or two of the things you get are relatively solid, but if you go in expecting to be wowed, you’re likely in for disappointment.
If that’s right, the restaurant has something in common with the characters of Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, a short optimization game in Ink that tasks you – an employee of the Schtupmeister brewery, purveyors of a syrupy ale that sounds simply revolting – with reading the minds of four patrons of a franchise somewhere in Middle America and giving them a mental nudge, when the moment’s right, suggesting they try one of your patron’s products using your psychic powers (you can only make one such suggestion per person, due to incredibly-fuzzily-invoked legal issues). In practice, what this means is that you eavesdrop on each, listening to the thoughts of the waitress, the already-in-his-cups older man, the crypto bro, the snot-nosed tween (yes, you can get a 12-year-old hooked on Schtupmeister. Apparently Applebee’s isn’t big on carding?), learning a little about their hopes, dreams, and fears, waiting for a moment when they’re happily distracted enough for your brain mojo to give them a little push.
What you find out, listening in, is that they’re all a little scuzzy – but not too scuzzy. The older guy is celebrating a not-especially-savory escapade that’s left him flush with cash, but he didn’t do anything so awful, and hey, he kinda needed a win. The kid’s consumed with figuring out which of two characters would win in a fight, but he’s also contemplating a crime of his own. The waitress isn’t above a spot of pickpocketing, but adheres to a consistent set of carnie values. The crypto bro – well, he’s a crypto bro, but at least he has a sick mom. And as for you, well, read the previous paragraph about what your job is again.
A game where you only get four opportunities to act could get a little stale, but the author’s done a good job of fitting the design to the constraint. For one thing, it’s short – each playthrough takes maybe five minutes or so, meaning there’s not a lot of downtime where you’re just waiting to click next even if you’ve already taken all your shots. Second, time marches ahead regardless of who you’re listening to – so if you flit from person to person, you could well miss out on a key opportunity, or key information, from someone else. So it works like an optimization game, as you’ll probably do a series of playthroughs focusing on one or maybe two characters each until you have a sense of what their deal is, and when they might be vulnerable. And then there are also a few moments when you’ve got the opportunity to do something other than push a crappy beer on vulnerable people, before reaching the denouement which gives you a last chance to interact with each of the characters and then offers a quickie job evaluation from your boss.
It’s a solid structure that supports four or five playthroughs to get the outcome that feels right to you –one canny thing about the setup is that since complete success means getting a large number of people potentially hooked on a terrible product, the compulsion to play past the point of enjoyment to wring out a “best ending” is largely absent. And honestly, I wanted to put in those replays to see all the jokes I’d missed. I’d characterize Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s more as amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but it had me smiling a bunch all the same. Like, here’s what happens if you try to strike up a conversation with the drunk guy by pretending you know him from somewhere:
”Excuse me, sir,” you stop to ask the customer. “Sorry to bug you, but this is driving me crazy. Did we go to magician school together?”
”No, I never went to magician school… but it’s not the first time someone’s … asked me that. There must be an up-and-coming… magician who looks just like me,” the customer replies, drunk and befuddled.
Sometimes the author is reaching a little too hard to find humor – there’s a Clubhouse joke that feels instantly dated – but there are way more hits than misses here, and it’s nice that the laughs don’t come too much at the expense of the sad-sacks stuck in a chain restaurant on what feels like it must be a Tuesday night. Between the good writing, clever design, and faintly-detectable humanist vibe, after all maybe this one’s more Cheesecake Factory than Applebee’s.