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About the Story
A one or two reader experience, A Chinese Room is one story in two. A story of power, control, inhumanity, and love.
Content warning: Content warning in game.
11th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 1
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The author of this game entered the first two-player IFComp game a year ago (The Last Night of Alexisgrad) which inspired at least one other multiplayer IF game (Ma Tiger's Terrible Trip) by another author.
Those games featured a few pages or so of text interspersed by choices which were then communicated to the 'other player' via passing of codes (in the first game) or a server (in the second game mentioned).
This game is different in several ways. In the first place, it is a substantial chunk of text. Each of the two stories takes well over an hour to read through. There are only a few choices to make that get transmitted; the bulk are not.
I'll spoiler much of the rest of the discussion below to various levels of detail. Before that, I'd say that this game has a lot of disturbing content of various sorts: (Spoiler - click to show)occasional extreme profanity, slurs spoken by people presented as villains, torture, execution, and affairs. Overall, it had a gritty/depressing vibe to me.
I'm putting the story descriptions in spoilers, even though they're mostly spoiler-free, because knowledge of one story can be seen as a major spoiler for the other. Reading just one should be fine, with Caroline's suggested as first story.
Short description of Caroline's story:
(Spoiler - click to show)This is a well-written story of a woman balanced between duty and excitement. A young housewife of an arrogant politician is offered a job showing around a handsome and exciting foreign diplomat. Said diplomat has an entourage that keeps him safe and occasionally asks Caroline to carry out an essentially pointless task that seems to be about agency.
Short description of Leon's story:
(Spoiler - click to show)Leon is a military soldier specializing in interrogation. His job is to interrogate suspected war criminals and sentence them to death, torture, release, or return to their cell. However, he can only provide suggestions, which are then sent out to an ordinary civilian who then decides whether to follow the suggestions or not, allowing some plausible deniability.
Bigger spoilers for overall combination:
(Spoiler - click to show)Playing Leon's game was very surreal, at the beginning, as he was none of the characters in the first story and he seemed so disconnected. I was shocked to find that the mechanism of communication between them wasn't the words or choices of the first story but simply the trivial color choices (this would have been more apparent had I played multiplayer first).
It seems clear then that this is the connection to the philosophical experiment in the title of the game, 'The Chinese Room'. In this thought experiment, a person is placed in a room and receives instructions with no understanding of what they are, processes them according to prescribed rules, and then outputs another message which they don't understand. Theoretically, with sophisticated enough rules, the output could seem truly intelligent, the work of a genius (such as chess moves or even conversation), but the person running the room actually has no clue what is going on.
So in this game, you make many many choices that are deeply meaningful and clearly informed by knowledge, but your communication between players is limited to laughably ineffectual systems. An especially amusing/sad point is when the Leon player, after having innocents murdered or hardened criminals released by the opposing player, can send feedback on their performance; however, this feedback only shows up as the color of a handkerchief in a pocket in an incidental sentence I hadn't even noticed in single player mode.
Overall, the two stories together are much stronger than either individually. In a very specific way, this game is a comment on multiplayer systems and communication itself, and is an interesting experiment.
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