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About the Story
As a top-secret agent Enhanced with cutting-edge neural implants, your job is to do whatever it takes to protect the national security of the United States. But when a celebrated scientist dies under mysterious circumstances, you are given your most difficult mission ever - assassinate an innocent family!
70th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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This game is played on Facebook messenger, and requires you to be logged into Facebook to play it.
This is a choice-based comedy spy thriller. Most choices are out of three options.
The story is set in a future where everyone is controlled by a PLUS chip, especially you, an Enhanced cyborg, the first of your kind and the number one assassin for the United States government. You are asked to assassinate a man and his 2 young children to preserve the current regime.
This heavy story contrasts with the goofy and often mean-spirited writing. Your choices are often reactions like 'OMG?' or 'This is nuts', etc. Your character frequently insults each other and seems to have problems with women. There are several errors (such as a character whose name changes from Roosk to Roost and back), and characters often seem to change motivation or personality without warning.
-Polish: The new system is very impressive, but the game itself could use some more editing.
+Descriptiveness: The author is good at vivid descriptions.
+Interactivity: At first I felt like almost all choices were meaningless, but some later on seemed definitely to matter. Whether or not it's true it was good at making me feel like it was true.
-Emotional impact: I tried to get invested in the story but the stakes and goals frequently change. Our character is a jerk, and I've realized that, while many people like playing as a villain, few like jerks, and the difference is that well-written villains have strong motivations for their evil actions, while jerks go out of their way to cause harm for no benefit to themselves.
-Would I play again? The somewhat slow performance of facebook messenger and the difficulty with backtracking or saving, combined with the length of the game means that I don't plan on replaying.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Oof, I can’t help but feel bad for the timing of launching a Facebook Messenger game the same week that it crashed. I didn’t run into any downtime, but I did find FB Messenger an awkward platform for this game, from really-annoying timed text, the need to manually scroll down the chat log after each prompt to see the options, and accidentally restarting the game several times when I tried typing instead of just clicking. It definitely seems like there could be advantages to the format that make it worth these downsides, but I don’t think The Belinsky Conundrum does anything that can’t be capably handled by more traditional platforms like Twine, and using one of those likely would have made the implementation a fair bit smoother.
The substance of the Belinsky Conundrum is also a little awkward. The blurb made me expect intense moral dilemmas, and then the opening seems to be framing a high-stakes espionage mission, important enough to be launched from the White House Situation Room, but your character’s dialogue options radically undermine any sense of gravity – like, upon being told that the mission will involve assassinating an American citizen and his minor children, my choices were “sweet!”, “that’s messed up”, and “oh my god”. Which, I mean sure, it is messed up, but I was expecting something a bit more articulate? This irreverent tone continues throughout the mission, and while I guess it’s meant to keep things grounded and conversational, it really took my head out of the game.
It doesn’t help that most of what you wind up doing is fairly dull. The primary gameplay is about managing the logistics of getting to the mission and gathering the needed weapons and transportation. Preparation can be a fun part of a heist story, but here there’s not much interesting going on in any of the sequences – even a (Spoiler - click to show)a surprise betrayal from a key contact played out in a low-stakes, low-consequence way – and I ran into what was I think a bug that made the resource-management part of these decisions moot, since I started out with several thousand negative credits (but could keep spending anyway).
I can see how things might pick up at the climax, but just as I got to the mission’s target the first time, I learned that they were about to be raided by the cops, and I decided to scrub rather than get caught in the middle. Turns out this ends the game, which is fair enough, but since there was no save functionality, rectifying that mistake meant starting over, and I didn’t have the endurance to face all that timed text again immediately (I eventually won -- see below). It’s a shame, since a good moral dilemma can be satisfying to work through, but I fear TBC might have gone too far in back-loading the good stuff.
Highlight: I did enjoy the drama of kicking off the story in the Situation Room – it’s a fun touch.
Lowlight: Getting a gun was a really tedious process, not least because you need to call through five different people with very-similar names to figure out which one is actually your contact. It’s pointless busywork since there’s no way to guess which one’s right, and no penalty other than sitting through identical wrong-number dialogue, if you fail.
How I failed the author: I haven’t logged onto Facebook in like 3 or 4 years (look, I’m not a big social media person) so I was distracted the whole time I was playing by a sidebar full of people I’ve flaked on writing back to for an extraordinarily long time. Sorry!
MUCH LATER UPDATE: I went back and replayed this one to a real ending. There’s definitely a climax that brings some excitement and ties together the plot threads laid down earlier, and presents the promised moral dilemma. This didn’t change my mind on the game too much, though, since the story felt very much on rails after the point where my first playthrough prematurely concluded. There’s a lot of action and some wrenching decisions, but they all appeared to happen automatically, with only one significant choice coming in at the very end. There do appear to be major consequences for the decisions made in the mid-game – there’s a score listed at the end, and there was definitely room for improvement – but I think front-loading the interactivity like this wasn’t a great idea, since it means there’s a lot of fiddly decision-making before the story kicks into high gear, then not much to do except click “next” once the ending arrives. If this had more of a heist vibe, where you could know a bit more about what the climax was likely to look like and make your preparations accordingly, I might have liked it better, but as-is the decisions felt too much like shots in the dark.
I liked the mechanic of playing a game in Messenger. To progress, you usually have three options you can choose from. It is a spy thriller, but much of it is played like a comedy. You are given a mission at the very beginning: to kill a man and his two children.
I was very interested to see where this would go. I played several times to get better endings. It seemed like a large percentage of the choices, mostly dialog, don't change the course of the story at all. I tried to pick different options on each playthrough, and eventually ended up at the same place, although I did find different endings.
Something that disappointed me: (Spoiler - click to show)I don't think you ever get the choice to actually complete the mission and kill the family.
The description says that it is a game about making difficult choices, but the character seemed to make the biggest decisions on their own. There is a mini-game with a bartender that I wish I could have skipped over when I played the game back. Also, I don't think there is a way to save. When I typed it in, the game ended.
I wish there was a walkthrough that showed the different endings and how to get them. I would keep playing to find them myself, but with no way to reload a game, I would have to click through a long series of choices to get to the part where things start to branch. If there ever is a sequel, I would definitely play it.
The Belinsky Conundrum is a Facebook Messenger app about a top-secret mission to take out a spy who's managed to avoid his kids being chipped. It's a compelling premise, and it's extra-cool that it's on a new platform, and you can do this sort of thing on Facebook, and you (presumably) won't be suckered into in-app purchases along the way to get a better ending. Which gives it a leg up on a lot of games on Facebook.
But unfortunately there wasn't enough of a conundrum to really sink my teeth into. The game follows a pattern of asking for 3 different options, some of which feel very small-talky indeed and maybe did not give all the variety I hoped for, even though they gave a laugh. Given the tone of responese, this would be okay for a comedic slice of life game, but it feels out of proportion in something more exciting–perhaps the author's strength is more with slice of life games. An example is below–I'm not sure of the differences, and perhaps it would be better to have no choice at all, or "nod impressively / stay still ". I think we have some latitude for false choices in choice-based games, but unfortunately here it seemed to contrast with the gravity of the situation. One early example is below:
(Spoiler - click to show)"The national security of the United States is at stake," says Admiral Houfy.
Sweet! / That's messed up / Oh my god
Still, I managed to put up with my boss's orders to succeed or else, and make it to Norway, where I bought a car and gun "off the grid," which was quite fun. Apparently I owned a wind farm, or could pretend to own one, to make the purchases plausible. The only real puzzle I saw was finding the name of the gun dealer, and I chose the most oddly spelled one, because it was foreign, and it worked. I felt satisfied, and I'd have liked more puzzles like that, regardless of how bad they'd kill you off it you messed up. I was also curious who it was that the government had tracking me to make sure I did my job. TBC brings it up on the NorAir flight I took. There are suspects that are so obvious they couldn't be the one and suspects that obviously could be the one.
TBC feels very high-stakes at first, but it seems the only chance to go wrong was at the end, where you had a choice to try a hit on Belinsky or not. I did not and was told to stand down shortly after. This is a point where being able to undo things would've been appreciated, as I was hoping to read about the moral implications or possibilities. But it took a bit too long to get there. That was the first time. Fortunately, TBC was short enough that it wasn't hard to play again. This time, I eyeballed the correct passenger (the old lady) and went to Iceland where I found an underground maze where I met an old contact. Then I burst into the Belinsky house. I had a long, winding adventure with Belinky, escaping both world and US governments as well as some philosophical discussions about safety vs control/surveillance. They were a bit didactic, but they helped me put things together. There was a dramatic end, and yet I still can't help feeling so many of the dialogues and choices were superfluous and missed out on a chance to develop the core story. There was probably more there than what came before, but people might miss it, so I'd like to at least have that for reference..
I think TBC buries the bulk of its good stuff, and not just because it was on Facebook Messenger instead of a more traditional, accessible and lightweight format. But there is good stuff. I mean, I don't want to find out all the surprises at once, but it seemed a bit back-loaded and never quite built to the climax it should or could have had, because after being hit up front with many dialogue choices that didn't seem to matter, I was never really able to get back into a strategic frame of mind. Though without too many spoilers, I think it's satisfying Roosk gets pegged as dislikable in the end. And the chase where you actually try to rescue Belinsky was, for me, probably the best part of the game. So you probably won't want to miss it.
I got about three choices into the game and it crashed. I selected "oh my god" in response to the explanation of what OPERATION SNOW is, and the game just… didn't respond any more. There's no restart/reset button, so I'm just stuck. I can't play anymore.
IMO, a game set in Facebook Messenger should should be a chat of some kind, like Lifeline or Emily is Away.