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Too heavy-handed with its theme, March 1, 2019
In Shackles of Control, a short, choice-based game, you find yourself in a hallway of your high school. However, nobody is there, and so you have to figure out what happened to them and what is going on.
Given the game's title, it's perhaps not surprising that the whole thing turns out to be a metaphor for letting go of the strictures placed on you (your memories, say, or others' expectations).
To achieve this, you must (Spoiler - click to show)find the secret passage in the teachers’ lounge, discover the machine that holds everyone’s memories, and turn it off so that you can, as the best ending text says, find
"a place where you would never be corrupted by others, a place where you could make your own unique memories, a place where you could find out who you really were.
A place where you could be genuinely you."
My thoughts on this theme: (Spoiler - click to show)I do think we need to get away by ourselves from time to time, for self-reflection and self-understanding. And I do think that others’ expectations on us can feel like “shackles of control.” It is important to find out who we are.
But I disagree that becoming genuinely you requires shrugging off the influence of everyone around you. A large part of who we are as individual humans exists in terms of our relationships with others. Identities we have like “father,” “wife,” “brother,” “grandmother,” “daughter,” “boyfriend,” “student,” “employee,” “boss,” etc., all exist only in relation to other people.
I suppose that, to many people - and particularly teenagers like the protagonist of Shackles of Control - these relationships can often feel oppressive. People just have so many expectations, and they can feel like shackles. But part of growing up is figuring out how to hold fast to (or perhaps create) your own identity - your own sense of who you are - while still embracing those relationships that help make us human. It’s often not an easy thing to do, and it may take years, but it is part of growing up.
There are some unfortunate spelling mistakes. I’m thinking of “alegebra” and “econimics” on the first page, but there are others, including two that give somewhat humorous unintended meanings to their phrases: "last year’s plaque of radioactive raccoons" and "your character arch was supposed to end on a high note."
A few technical comments: Mainly, I think the game pushes the player too much to achieve a particular ending. I played through multiple times, and many of your choices end up routing you in a certain direction, sometimes with odd narrative explanations as to why. I’m thinking in particular of the game telling you that (Spoiler - click to show)"You could have not known that that innocent coffee marker [sic] is hiding a terrible truth that none of the faculty wanted to be revealed," followed by explicit instructions to turn it (for no reason that's foreshadowed earlier in the game) 17 degrees to the left.
Shackles of Control also kind of mocks you if you don’t finish the game with a specific ending (or, possibly, one of a few specific endings). I think the game would be stronger if it explored the consequences of players choosing poorly (in terms of the game’s theme) by laying out a natural set of outcomes of those choices rather than the text just telling you that those are bad choices.
So, ironically, I think that the way Shackles of Control pushes the player to achieve a particular ending kind of serves as its own form of “shackles of control.”
Exploring the theme of how others' expectations can feel like a prison could make for an interesting and thought-provoking game, but I don't think this one succeeds at that.