A Chinese Room

by Milo van Mesdag


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A darkly compelling tour de force, January 10, 2023
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).

There have been a lot of war novels written, and most of them communicate the same simple message: war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force no matter how just one’s cause may or may not be (you’d think this message is in fact so simple that after people had written two or three books like this, there wouldn’t be a need for any more, but [gestures impotently] look around). Catch-22, though, stands out on the list – in large part because it’s funny, but also because it asserts the eternal war-novel truism in the context of a “good” war (WWII), and applies the critique beyond combat, to the mere experience of being in the military (again, even a “good” one, like the American army). The novel has several leitmotifs, but I’d say the most critical is “every victim is a culprit”; it’s a motto that seems, and is, harsh, but it I think accurately conveys how everyone who’s broken down by a brutal, absurd system and goes along with it reinforces the system, and makes it harder for anyone else to resist. Because Heller is an optimist, and primarily writing about characters who live in a democracy, however flawed, the novel’s ending still offers the hope of transcendence, of leaping straight out of the totalitarian negative-sum game and winning individual, and maybe even eventually societal, freedom.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Russian war novels that end like that.

A Chinese Room is a hard beast to sum up. The temptation is to start with the gameplay, since that’s probably what’s most distinctive about it. An asymmetric two-handed multiplayer game, it’s designed so that two people pass keywords back and forth maybe half a dozen times over the course of the two or so hour playtime, which encode the decisions each one is making. It’s an elaboration of the system the author used in last Comp’s Last Night of Alexisgrad, though it’s more smoothly implemented here – the passwords are just words, rather than random-seeming gobbledygook, and it’s better-paced for asynchronous play, since there are fewer keyword-exchange points with longer chunks of gameplay in between. Even though I was afraid it’d be difficult to play this one as intended since I’ve got a teething one-year-old holding my game-playing schedule hostage, I was still able to get through it without much difficulty over the course of a day or so (shoutout to @aschultz for being my partner).

With that said, the game can be played single-player too. And to assess whether I think that’d work just as well as playing it as intended, I need to delve into the plot – or at least the half of the plot that I experienced, since the two players guide entirely different protagonists in entirely different circumstances who don’t, I believe, ever directly encounter one another, and I think this ignorance of what exactly is going on in the other player’s story is an important part of the game.
As a result, discussing the narrative even in very broad strokes could constitute a significant spoiler to half of potential players – and actually, I find I want to talk about it in considerably more detail than that. So I’m going to spoiler-block the rest of this review. For those leaving us here, I’ll just say that A Chinese Room is a very grown-up, very intense work that’s sufficiently strong that I’m not overly bothered that the last ten percent kind of falls apart. Definitely read the content warnings first, but if you think you can handle it, it’s very much worth a play.

(Spoiler - click to show)So, the plot(s). Each player picks a protagonist – a woman named Caroline or a man named Leon, with the content warnings flagging that Leon’s story is more descriptive about the game’s shared, dark themes. I opted for Caroline, though after finishing my multiplayer play-through I dipped into the single-player version of Leon’s story to confirm that I understood the basic setup. It rapidly becomes clear that, despite the Western names, the story’s set in a slightly-alternate version of Russia that’s successfully achieved its war aims in Ukraine and is now demobilizing and toggling back to “peace” in order to escape sanctions (in fairness, since this long game must have been started at least several months ago, when Ukraine’s current battlefield successes would have seemed unlikely, it’s unclear how intentional the alternate-reality angle). We’ll get back to Leon later, but Caroline is a civilian on the home front. Indeed, her life at first appears little touched by the war: her husband is an “opposition” politician (he has a government contact who tells him exactly what level of dissent is allowed), her children are students, and she herself is a housewife with a brain and an economics degree but no socially-permitted way of using either.

The inciting incident is deceptively low-key. Her husband’s fixer asks her to serve as a guide for a visiting functionary – a mid-level IMF bureaucrat named Matteo – and show him around. So you do, with a bunch of choices for whether you want to take him to e.g. a European-style restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall local joint for lunch, which reveals different aspects of your society to him, and by extension, the player. In the early stages, things seem corrupt – the opening scene sees Caroline figuring out how to bribe her husband out of a speeding ticket – and ramshackle:

"Now you’re here, the Office of Regional Development looming over you, bright concrete all in sharp lines and steeples, like an uninspired Lego Notre Dame all in white. No choice but to push the doors open, the inside clean and orderly but less impressive than the facade would have implied."

But nothing’s too bad – indeed, while your life isn’t pleasant it’s still fundamentally livable and has its joys as well as its pains. And indeed, this assignment, strange as its genesis seems, is one of those high points for Caroline; again, you can decide how to approach him, but he’s an interested and sympathetic figure who’s curious about your take on everything you see, and his own thoughts without being a stereotypical economist-guy. Depending on how you play your cards, this can lead into a bit of a flirtation, and even possibly an affair, but the player is very much in the driver’s seat.

But – of course there’s a but – as you play the game, you start to get the sneaking suspicion that none of this matters very much, because for all the different options about how to manage your relationship with Matteo, the password you send to the other player doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any of that. Instead, as one portion of your duties, each day you’re ordered into a room where there’s a machine with a blinking colored light, a chart relating different colors to numbers, and a keypad for entering in the number. When you reach one of these sequences, the game pauses while you wait for your partner to send you a color; then you pick a number and send that along in return.

This is clearly ominous as hell, and you have the opportunity to push for answers – but none were easily forthcoming at least in my playthrough, and besides, it was clear that Caroline had a lot to lose from asking too many questions. Those fears also animated a tense late-game sequence, where a family lunch is interrupted by an anti-war protest that your son drifts to – by this point it’s clear that the war was illegitimate and involved atrocities, but it’s also clear that this is not a regime that tolerates dissent. You can choose to let him stand with the demonstrators, or try to pull him away (me? I thought of my son, and dragged the kid out). But again, none of these decisions get fed into the other half of the story.

This is all very effective, I found. The game elegantly gets you to go along with totalitarianism, convincingly demonstrating the consequences of resistance and the unlikelihood that it would even accomplish anything, since you’re just a humble housewife and who cares what you do? The sequences with the machine add an undercurrent of dread, while the pleasant time you spend with Matteo gives you something to focus on besides how fearful and incomplete everyone around you has become. It’s well-written, too; there’s a lot of dialogue here, and a lot of detail-work around how international institutions like the IMF functions – while I’m not an expert on that sort of thing, I do have a law degree and read a lot of policy papers, and almost everything rang true to me. And the game can wax lyrical sometimes too; here’s a description of taking a train to the capital:

"You sit in darkness for a time then you cross a border and the sky begins to brighten again. Then suddenly all sky is gone, all distance dissolved into a blur of buildings; an endless salute of identical concrete dwellings. The lit windows and the lives upon countless lives being lived out on the other side of them merge into straight lines of light."

It’s a little dehumanizing, but not too aggressively so. And in fact while the portrayal of Russian political society is appropriately dark, there are positive aspects of the culture too – Caroline derives meaning from her Orthodox faith and her love of cooking, and the regular people she and Matteo meet are mostly… well, regular people, with some assholes but many nice folks too (I think the deliberate use of Western names, the very sparing use of details that could feel exotic to the presumed Anglophone audience, are in service of making Caroline’s experiences feel less alien, so it’s easier to sympathize with her and find her society natural). It all feels very plausible, and while it’s clearly an unpleasant life compared to what a Western audience is used to, it seems to work well enough for Caroline – or at least, it’s clear that if you have her step too far out of line, it could suddenly start working much, much less well for her and her family.

It lures you in, in other words; the game pushes your buttons sometimes, but it opens up opportunities too. You’re a victim, you’re a culprit.

Then the shoe drops, and the game starts to lose its footing. I won’t spoil the ways Caroline’s story can end in terms of where she and her family (and Matteo) can wind up, since there appears to be a range of options and anyway these details are less important to the point the game is making, but I will spoil what the deal is with the room with the lights and the numbers – so don’t deblur the next paragraph if you want to experience the revelation for yourself.

What’s going on is that the powers that be have developed a new machine for committing war crimes in a way that displaces responsibility for atrocities. As best I can piece together, over in occupied Ukraine – in Leon’s share of the plot, I believe – there are a group of Russian soldiers and officers who decide, in a purely theoretical way, what should be done with POWs and civilian prisoners who have resisted the invaders in particular ways. These theoretical recommendations are fed into a secure room via a color-coding system, presumably indicating different kinds of tortures. Someone in that secure room then selects a number based on the color they’re seeing, which instructs a machine back in the prison camp to maim and/or murder the prisoners whose crimes align with whatever scenario the soldiers were “theoretically” discussing. Caroline, of course, was one such patsy, and when she unknowingly keyed in a 5 because she saw a light flashing red, she, I’m guessing, was telling the machine to kill innocents.

(This, at last, is the Chinese Room of the title – it refers to a philosophical thought experiment denying the “Strong AI” hypothesis that you could make a computer with the same kind of mind a human has. The idea is that you could train a person to respond to a certain set of inputs with a corresponding set of outputs, without actually understanding what they were doing, even though outside observers would impute conscious intentionally to the observed cycle of action and response).

As a metaphor, sure, this works – Caroline’s a cog in a totalitarian machine, unwittingly but also kinda wittingly participating in a sick society’s crimes. But as a diegetic element of the story, I had a hard time swallowing it. Why would the regime construct this complex mechanism? In the real world, Russia isn’t exactly fussed about covering up the crimes against humanity it’s been committing, and the alternate version in the game doesn’t seem significantly more squeamish; in neither case is it clear how consequences would be enforced. And while there’s a way in which this game casuistically could allow the regime to formally displace liability from respected military officers to disfavored civilians, it’s hard to imagine any Western governments taking this sophistry seriously. Perhaps intuiting the weakness of the arguments here, the game presents them skeletally, in broken excerpts overheard while Caroline is distracted or in distress – it almost holds together as it’s being presented, but it breaks apart as soon as you start thinking about it.

The thing is, the whole device rigmarole isn’t thematically necessary. Even without the metaphor, the game had managed to establish the awful dynamics of life in a totalitarian society! If anything, I found this sci-fi MacGuffin confused things, muddying up responsibility and making it easy to point the finger at the cartoon villains who’d constructed these torture devices instead of reflecting on the choices I’d made to have Caroline protect herself and her family at the expense of what we both knew was right.

It is necessary for the two-player mechanic to work, though – there needs to be some gameplay connection between the two strands of the story in order to make it a multiplayer game, and not simply a single-player story you play through in two halves. It’s true that knowing there was another player making decisions out there stoked my paranoia about what was going on, and decisions in the room with the device do have an uncanny Milgram-Experiment vibe that might not work as well without knowing someone else was going to be doing something based on what I sent them. So this isn’t a case where it’s easy to see how the game would work if you excised the piece that I don’t think works as well – still, I can’t help but wonder whether the game evolved past its initial conception, and perhaps could have benefitted from a more radical late-in-the-day rethinking.

As I said way (way, way) back at the beginning of this review, though, I still found A Chinese Room very compelling – I tore through it, nervous and engaged the whole time – and it left me with a good amount to think about even without playing the Leon portion of the story, which I’m sure has even more queasy scenes of moral compromise (I’m not tempted to check it out, I have to confess; while I’m sure it’s well done, I don’t get on with depictions of torture). Even without its technical elements, the game’s a highlight of the Comp, taking on real issues in a grounded, sophisticated way and leaving the player without easy answers – besides, yes, that war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force and totalitarian regimes make it even worse.

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