One Final Pitbull Song (at the End of the World)

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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
A satiric phantasmagoria held back by slack pacing and flabby prose, December 21, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Aww, man. I went into this one expecting to like it: the mixtape blurb and eye-catching title mark it out as something special, and the disorienting science-fantasy opening is boldly ridiculous, laying out a post-post-apocalyptic society thatís reconstituted itself in near-total apery of our time based on the fortuitous discovery of a pop-culture-crammed hard-drive heavily featuring Ė of course Ė the songs of Pitbull, who winds up having a religion built around him. The game has an endearing ensemble cast, and while the interactivity isnít especially engaging, thatís an intentional decision in service to what itís trying to say about agency in relationships (I also get the sense itís in dialogue with some of the seminal texts in the Twine canon), and if its go-anywhere do-anything gonzo spirit leads to some memorably disgusting scenes, well, theyíre certainly memorable.

But itís let down by one enormous flaw I just couldnít get past: a flabby, long-winded writing style that drains the prose of its urgency and makes the game feel far too long for its plot Ė in fact, there are three distinct branches, I think all of comparable length, that make up the gameís overall story, but I was ready to be done with it by two-thirds of the way into the single branch I played (which took me about the requisite two hours). This is really frustrating because there are definite strengths here, but theyíre sapped of their effectiveness by the enervating slog that the late game becomes.

Let me start with the good stuff, though. As mentioned, the world-building is completely deranged without being an anything-goes gonzo type of setting. The fact that everythingís been blown up and then rebuilt along familiar-ish lines means that the authorís got a free hand to lean into the ridiculous, without needing to invent entirely new institutions and mores for the new society. And some of the gags here are really out there, like the idea that thereís a wave of oppression based on the new religion centering on Pitbull, with an ominous jail described thusly:

"Itís where they put everyone guilty of ďPitbull CrimesĒ ó any crime related to the concept or work of Pitbull. The list is expansive and slightly vague: Unauthorized Selling of Pitbull-related Contraband, Plagiarism of Pit, excessive party fouls in Miami, all the way to the extreme category of Pitbull-motivated Homicides."

While this is an entertaining concept, Iím not sure it fully worked for me, though. Iím not sure I can explain why, but some of the jokes and setting elements felt too specific and took me out of the world Ė like, the Pitbull stuff is part of the premise, but when there are gags about how homophobic Papa John is, and references to Twitter, which I guess has been rebuilt, I felt like the game was having trouble keeping track of its own premise. Similarly, in my playthrough the Pitbull stuff dropped out almost completely by about halfway through, replaced by a lot of sci-fi-horror-action-comedy business (though this does lead to a joke, near the end of the game, where thereís suddenly an out-of-context Pitbull reference and the narrator admits ďOh right. I forgot about that part of the world.Ē)

So yeah, itís not all fun and games Ė the protagonist is a trans woman going through a rough patch in her relationship with her partner, a trans man, and while their society as a whole seems a bit more accepting of trans folks than ours is, theyíre fairly marginalized folks eking out a living through crime, which leads to them getting locked up in the aforementioned Pitbull-prison (at least in two out of the three branches Ė not sure about the last), and forced into a desperate fight for survival while making new friends and working through their relationship issues.

(I feel compelled to note that the identity of the protagonist is a bit more complicated than I made it out in the above paragraph Ė actually thereís also a different character, also trans but from just a few years in our future, whoís now dead but shares brain engrams with the main protagonist, or something, so sheís able to perceive and comment on whatís going on. Itís a little confusing but in practice just means that thereís an additional, somewhat fourth-wall-breaking narrative voice in the mix, which given everything else going on doesnít register all that strongly).

These are a potentially-compelling set of conflicts, but itís at the prison that the momentum really starts to sag. While the protagonist remains appealingly chipper throughout her travails, the narrative here introduces a half-dozen major supporting characters, plays some flashbacks to establish her relationship, and teases an upcoming event that will subject the prisoners to even more danger. Itís a lot to juggle Ė and in fact too much to juggle for the author. Forward progress feels like it slows to a crawl, even as each of those elements feel underbaked, because the prose throughout is overly plodding and verbose, dulling the notionally-exciting ideas and action on display to a shapeless mess. Exacerbating the flabbiness, dialogue is written screenplay style, and most scenes have the protagonist accompanied by a significant portion of the supporting cast, meaning thereís often a lot of filler conversation just there to remind the player that a character is part of the action.

To give an extended example, hereís what should be a thrilling action sequence Ė the prisoners are being thrown into a giant pit (somehow thereís a cave network under the Florida Keys, which seems worthy of comment from a geological point of view though the game doesnít provide one), and after a struggle with one of the guards, a prisoner and the guard wind up dangling over the edge, so the prisonerís friends Ė including the protagonist, TeeJay Ė attempt a rescue:

Val pauses before making her next move. She stares at the Enforcer, then reaches into her pocket and pulls out something shiny.

Val: Take the clip!

The Enforcer grabs it from Valís hands and attaches it to their harness. They look back up at her.

Shattered Visor Enforcer: I canít hook myself down here, somethingís wrong!

Val turns around on Graceís back and disembarks. Both girls dangle on their own, but close to each other.

Val: Thatís 'cause you just have the rope, idiot! You need to climb up and use this one after I unclip Grace!

Shattered Visor Enforcer: But thatíll take so long!

Val: Think about that next time that you attack someone on the edge of a hole!

The Enforcer fidgets on the rope, trying to steady themselves. Val is above them, grabbing ahold of Grace. She sneaks a look down at the Enforcer.

Val: God, youíre patheticÖ

She looks up at us.

Val: Someone up there grab ahold of our ropes!

Frankie snaps into action, grabbing Graceís rope first. I grab onto Valís, and yell down to her.

TeeJay: Weíve got you!

Val: Okay, when I clip Grace to me ó youíre going to give us a little more slack in the ropes! More than one person should be holding onto my rope, since Iíll be carrying her!

The other members of Cabin Seven file in around me and grab ahold of the rope. A few of the other prisoners help as well.

Frankie: Youíre good!

Val: Iím going to attach Grace to me now!

Shattered Visor Enforcer: What about me?

Val: Can you climb any further?

This is full of fine-grained logistics and dialogue that doesnít say much, dreadfully stretching out whatís tended as a taut bit of business. Thereís also not much of an authorial voice to make the process of reading all these words engaging Ė again, itís screenplay style, so everything other than the charactersí lines often feels excessively bottom-lined. And as for the dialogue, the characters often donít feel especially differentiated in how they speak: while specific personality traits do come through, everyone comes off like an extremely-online twentysomething joking their way through what are often quite horrifying situations.

Thereís a lot more that could be said about One Last Pitbull Song. Itís clearly intending to problematize the concept of agency in choice-based IF, for one thing. Thereís a major bifurcation of the plot based on what choice of side-dish you make in the cafeteria, which determines whether the protagonist gets through into an Aliens pastiche or a dance-off, and is clearly sending up the often-arbitrary nature of the much-hyped decision points in other games. And the protagonist reflects that she feels like she defaults to passivity and struggles to articulate and act on her desires, which is at the root of many of her relationship issues Ė from the epilogue that youíre meant to read after you complete all the branches (and that I, er, read out of order to see what itís like), this appears to be positioned as the central conflict whose resolution terminates the game.

I canít say this is the most engaging deconstruction of the tropes of choice-based interaction Iíve seen Ė itís fine so far as it goes, but the presentation is fairly shallow Ė but itís potentially interesting, and without having seen the remaining 60% of the game I canít really assess whether itís ultimately successful. Similarly, some apparently-parodic elements in the survival-horror branch that I wound up struck me as intentionally ridiculous and deconstructionist, in a way that undercut my engagement but which might add up to something compelling if I had the whole picture. So even some of the things I experienced as weaknesses, itís possible, could turn out to work well. But checking the size of the gameís Twine file, getting the full experience looks like it requires reading about 100,000 words Ė twice the length of the Great Gatsby! Ė and unfortunately thatís far more of this lifeless prose than Iím able to commit to. One Last Pitbull Song feels very much like a work that thumbs its nose at the very concept of an editor Ė to its credit, it boasts a wild mťlange of genres, tones, and plot points that would leave the blue-pencil brigade gobsmacked, but also demonstrates the risks of thumbing oneís nose at concision.

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shunasassi, December 21, 2022 - Reply
someone isnít in the intended audience
Mike Russo, December 22, 2022 - Reply
Possibly! Contextually it sure seems like the intended audience was the IF Comp one, since beyond the mere fact of its entry there, it slots neatly into what's become a pretty popular IF Comp subgenre (trans woman navigates a perilous and allegorical dystopia), and the game doesn't come with any prefatory material indicating the author was directing it to a particular slice of that audience.

I saw you've written a review where you say it's probably not for a cis audience, but it's hard for me to believe the strong form of the claim (like, that that audience as a whole would be unlikely to get anything out of the game by virtue of their identity). The largely-cis IF Comp audience has been very positive on many stories like this one -- myself included, if you click through the links in the previous paragraph -- and as I noted in another comment, the best-articulated case for the game I've seen was made by a cis man with a background very similar to mine.

I do think that different players will have different experiences of the game -- I mean, it won the Golden Banana! -- but my guess is that'll have more to do with things like how much they prioritize gonzo inventiveness against finely-tooled prose. So I hope my review is at least a little helpful for readers to figure out whether it'd be worthwhile for them to engage with a game that, it must be admitted, does demand a fair bit of its players.
Heli N., December 21, 2022 - Reply
I was thinking of giving it a try but it doesn't seem to be the right fit for my taste.
Mike Russo, December 22, 2022 - Reply
If you're curious about it, you might be interested in reading a more positive take on the game -- Victor Gijsbers wrote a detailed review highlighting why he thought the satiric elements were successful, and arguing that what I found to be weak prose was important to the artistic effect: (click the little arrow to expand)
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