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Mysterious and mesmerizing, January 19, 2021
Anya DeNiro is one of my favorite authors of interactive fiction. This, along with Solarium, are two of my favorite IFs. From the presentation to the writing to the interactive structure, it all feels so right, all components fitting together to achieve a singular purpose. It is very much what I would imagine "hypertext literature" to be, if it ever escaped the bounds of academia.
We Are the Firewall is a dystopian story taking place in the near future of 2XX3. The world is on familiar modern cyberpunk territory, with surveillance drones dealing out "less lethal" violence, an addicting VR game that subsumed the educational system, and the cascading effects of climate change and social inequality. The tropes themselves aren't entirely original, but in this story they feel fresh and real, which is a credit to the extremely good writing. There is a large number of protagonists, displaying a broad swath of society, all connected by a conspiracy relating to the aforementioned VR game. Each character feels distinct, not just in their written voice, but in the way their story segments are organized. The security officer has his links as a to-do list. The "struggling musician" has cycling links that show the distinction between what he says and how he truly is.
Structurally, We Are the Firewall is a hypertext with a spoke-and-hub structure in much the same way as Solarium. From the beginning, it is possible to navigate to a number of different story segments corresponding to different perspectives (in any order), and each of these perspectives are necessary to complete the story. To make the story easier to navigate, completed story segments are crossed out. Dynamic text is used heavily, including gradually appearing and disappearing text, link replacement, and a lot of cycling links. Unlike in many other games that use timed text, it didn't bother me here, because it's used sparingly and with purpose.
Connecting structure to theme is one of my favorite twine mechanisms (Howling Dogs, Spy Intrigue, lots of others), and not many twine games do it as well as is done here. The patches of seemingly random text and shifting words reflect the chaotic and messy world in which we find ourselves. Text disappears and changes, as characters mount self-justifications for their atrocities. As mentioned before, the organization of the individual story segments reflects the characters' goals and worldview. Some are organized and methodological, others are desperate and frantic. The dynamic text both reveals and conceals as the mysteries compound.
There is an air of impenetrability to this story, which is more apparent at the beginning. There are often long lists of seemingly random phrases with a few highlighted links. As soon as links start getting crossed out, it starts to become manageable. The final ending depends on a time-sensitive link which is onscreen for less than a second (thankfully, it's mentioned in the in-game guide). In it, the mysteries behind the story are revealed. As usual with big reveals, it's a little disappointing, and weakens the mystery pervasive in the rest of the story.
Beyond that, the story is just really emotionally moving. Maybe it's just the 2020 effect, but I felt really sucked in by a story that felt like it was about the current moment. There was suffering, of course, but also hope, that at the end there will be something worth living for, even if it ends up being (Spoiler - click to show)a bunch of AIs made to look like mice living in a VR world. Like many of the best stories, this one burrowed into my brain and embedded itself into my mental fabric.