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Cost of Living

by Anonymous

Episode 1 of A Study in Stateful Media with Narrational Agency
Abuses
2022

(based on 4 ratings)
2 reviews

About the Story

If easy payment plans were to be really efficient, patrons' lifetimes had to be extended!


Game Details


Awards

(Out of contest) 14th Place - ParserComp 2022

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
A promising experiment that doesn't pay off this time, August 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Weíre getting close to the end of the Comp now (of the remaining five games, Iíve beta-tested four of them, and the remaining one has been pulled from the competition at least for now, though I may still write a review), and for me itís closing at it began, with a game whose interface pushes the limits on what counts as a parser game Ė in Cost of Living, you type into MadLibs style boxes embedded in the dialogue of two characters discussing a short story from the Golden Age of sci-fi, with your input affecting some of the finer details of their conversation. In fact, the game was briefly disqualified from the competition before an appeal brought it back, and while as Iíve said Iím not especially fussed about policing genre boundaries, I can see why, since while the only interface element is typing text and seeing more text get spit out at you in response, it departs from some of the deep unwritten rules about how parser IF works, like the playerís typing corresponding to some actor taking some distinct and discrete in-world action.

One could argue about the epistemological status of the game all day, of course, but I had my fill of arid formalism back in law school so I return to the principle I outlined in my Kondiac review: if itís in ParserComp, it gets a ParserComp review. So how does this work? On the whole, not great, in my view, though this isnít so much down to the novel interface as specific thematic and narrative choices the author made in the flame story which conflict with the text being riffed on. Itís hard to explain why that is without going into some detail on the embedded short story, so fair warning for 70-year-old spoilers.

The story, also titled Cost of Living and apparently in the public domain so itís fair game for reuses like this, is by Robert Sheckley and while it was published way back in 1952 it has some moments of spooky prescience in the way it depicts a far-future family living lives of convenience, swaddled in a home featuring numerous labor-saving appliances that spring to life with a single press of a button, and an omnipresent voice-activated assistant thatís not too far off of Alexa. Itís also modern in the way that it shows the corrosive impact of a rampant consumerism thatís displaced all other aspirations and values Ė the central conflict is about whether Carrin, the family patriarch, whoís more than maxed out his credit to buy all the gizmos and gadgets he barely uses, will effectively sell his son into debt peonage to finance yet more useless consumption that will keep him level with his neighbors.

This crass materialism and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status anxiety are juxtaposed against the hopes of the aforementioned son, who dreams of one day getting to be one of the few skilled laborers remaining in this static society Ė fixing the automatic machines rather than being effectively infantilized by them Ė or escaping it entirely by piloting a rocket ship to Mars and fulfilling a long-promised, but long-deferred, colonization effort.

In other words it isnít saying anything you havenít heard of, or thought of, before, as a person actively participating in the world circa 2022, but it is certainly relevant in a way a lot of 1950s sci-fi no longer really is, and while itís written in functional prose that lacks much in the way of subtle emotional shading or nuanced dialogue, Sheckleyís a good enough writer to make it work for the ten pages or so it takes for the story to unspool.

(Parenthetically, I should say that the whole debt peonage angle doesnít really make sense. The family is in hock for millions of dollars, with an annual salary of 30k, while the monopolistic company that makes all this expensive-to-produce junk pushes yet more stuff on them in order to heap up ever more implausible IOUs. This doesnít make sense given how these kinds of debt arrangements work in real life, which is to drive down the cost of labor and put it under the thumb of the owners of capital Ė think of the sharecropping system Ė because itís clear that the labor the father performs is completely useless, and itís not so much the high cost of labor inputs thatís holding back the companyís profitability as it is their habit of giving loans to people already leveraged a hundred to one. There are hints in the story that this is more a matter of political economy, as the company has secured legislation that makes some purchases mandatory, so maybe the idea is that the corporation is trying to substitute itself for the state by effectively privatizing the generational public debt that governments carry to steward society Ė that would be interesting to dig into, but the story doesnít really go there).

Again, all of that is completely non-interactive and just as Sheckley wrote it in the 50s. The part thatís interactive is a dialogue between two bodiless, backstory-less, quality-less characters (they have names, thatís it) who are discussing the events of the story. As they talk, one of them will say something like ďWhy is Carrin ____ about Miller?Ē (Miller being a neighbor of Carrinís who committed suicide before the game opens) and you get to type something into the blank. Then the next bit of dialogue will incorporate and respond to what you typed in. As I said, it looks like MadLibs, and sometimes that seems to be exactly how itís implemented, with your input mechanically parroted but not meaningfully impacting the course of the conversation. Other times the game does pull off the neat trick of seeming to understand what you wrote Ė I think at minimum, itís got a word list or algorithm that allows it to know whether a word has positive connotations or negative ones, so the dialogue can proceed accordingly.

Hereís an example of it working well. I got a prompt asking me to characterize the sonís mood after he responded somewhat sullenly to Carrinís overtures, and I wrote in ďenthusiastic.Ē The game recognized this was an inappropriate response:

Harris: What made you think Billy was in a enthusiastic mood?

Vesper: I was just being sarcastic. Itís obvious Billy isnít happy about something.

Itís a neat trick (even if now that I paste it in, I notice the game canít figure out how to get a/an to work). However, the reason I was being kind of a jerk and pushing back here is that Iíd first tried to type ďdisaffectedĒ, which I thought was a good explanation for Billyís mood, only to be told to check my spelling, and then hit the same rejection message after trying two or three more options. If this restricted approach was needed to keep the game on track, that would be one thing, but sometimes the decisions for whatís accepted and what isnít seem bizarre. In that above-mentioned ďWhy is Carrin ____ about Miller?Ē I tried putting in ďthinkingĒ, only to be rebuffed and asked whether I meant ďthinningĒ instead, which it was happy to accept when I dutifully typed it in. And due to the failure to characterize either of the conversationalists in any real way, it never felt like I was playing a particular role, or even that their disagreements had anything behind them other than airy abstraction, which further reduces the stakes and creates an aura of artificiality.

The bigger issue is that, perhaps in recognition of the fact that making this kind of natural-language input work well is really, really hard when engaging with ideas of any complexity, the authorís chosen to have the dialogue focus less on the ideas of the story but on having the Greek Chorus try to figure out the emotional states of the various characters. This is not very interesting because nothing here is at all mysterious; itís a sci-fi story from the 50s written by a white dude, everybodyís motivations, desires, and feelings are pretty straightforward throughout. Having the peanut gallery constantly interrupting the story to say stuff like ďDo you think Billy is ____?Ē also has the effect of flattening out what ambiguity there is, and making the story feel clumsier (itís also strange that itís not clear whether they think theyíre responding to a piece of fiction Ė they donít seem familiar with the storyís world, but they also appear invested in the charactersí emotional well-being and eventual fates in a way that felt deeply weird to me, a metafictional construct seemingly playing dumb).

As the story comes to a conclusion, the framing dialogue also goes off on a weird tangent Ė I donít think I can coherently talk about this by blurry-texting spoilers, so fair warning the rest of this paragraph discusses the latter portions of the frame narration. Without any solid textual prompting, the two characters decide that part of why Carrin is upset is that a throwaway reference to life expectancy now being 150 years means that there are life-extending drugs available, but these are unpleasant to take and his son being indebted means that he, too, will need to take these unpleasant medications to live long enough to work off the increased debt. Again, thereís no basis for this turn towards the more overtly dystopic Ė itís clear this remark is just Sheckley filling out his picture of a post-scarcity society, with no indication there are downsides to living longer Ė and itís at odds with where the story ultimately goes, which is an ironic coda showing that the characters have become so stunted by their situation that when they imagine the great adventure of going to Mars, all they can picture is pushing a button. Thereís no comparable final tag to the frame dialogue, or last moment of interactivity, so it feels like that whole thread just peters out.

Thereís clearly innovative thinking that went into presenting this story in this way. And I definitely get the draw of trying to create an interactive Socratic dialogue that uses textual input without being limited to the medium-dry-goods model of traditional parser IF. I can even see that this approach has some potential advantages, since at least with a keyword-based system you donít need to deal with the challenges of parsing grammar and can focus on understanding nouns, verbs, and adjectives that might not be bound by concrete physical objects, actions, or properties Ė which is still a hard enough nut to crack!

But I donít think Cost of Living qua game is a good advertisement for the power of this model; while there are moments where the game does seem to respond in a nuanced way to the playerís input, even then it comes off as a parlor trick, not just due to the limitations of the current implementation but because thereís a fundamental disconnect between the engagement the interactive frame offers and the themes the static fiction is presenting. In the end, Iíd have to say that Iíd have probably enjoyed this story more if Iíd just read it in a book, rather than playing through it like this. Thatís a damning indictment, I recognize, but I repeat that itís not because I think any departure from parser conventions is doomed to failure, or even that this particular departure is likewise preordained for perdition: itís primarily that the cogs in the two pieces of the game just donít mesh at the basic literary levels of theme, character, and tone. In theory these are fixable problems Ė though theyíre also generally the hardest problems in any kind of writing Ė and at any rate thereís value, and honor, in a failed experiment. From some of the conversation on the gameís itch page, itís clear the author is looking to refine their model, so I hope this critical review is useful for that, and Iíll be around to check out what they come up with next.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A game allowing you to reflect on a static short story, August 12, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes

This game was entered in Parsercomp, then taken out, then put back in.

I had a hard time engaging with this game. It's written for an online format that forces the focus onto text boxes. You are supposed to type words into the box that the game recognizes.

At first, I tried to put whatever words I thought fit good, but then I tried the boundaries. It recognized 'felicitation' but not 'felications', for instance. Eventually, I started typing 'fart' in every box and the game was just fine with that. It was a little dumb of me, but I wondered how it would respond.

And it didn't really do much. The main part of the story is a sci-fi story, which I felt was oddly watered down and non-descriptive. I tried to copy a paragraph of the text to pick at it and analyze it, but that's when I realized the game forced the focus so you couldn't highlight anything. In any case, I was trying to figure out what I didn't like about it, and I realized it reminded me of the overly wordy and empty-of-meaning style of writing popular in certain older books. I was surprised to find later that this story wasn't new to the author, but borrowed from a 1950's publication, which I seemed to have not noticed when it was mentioned.

Between snippets of this text, there are two characters having a conversation about the text, with blank boxes for you to fill in like mad-libs. These conversations are mostly analyzing the text.

Overall, the game was polished and very complex, but I bounced off of the main story and the side story. I think it has an appeal, definitely to other people, but for me the whole thing felt a little bloodless.

From a technical standpoint it seems very impressive, overall!

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