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About the Story
In the dystopian future, cyborgs have been stripped of their rights and treated as property. You find yourself owned by an entertainment company and forced to fight other cyborgs in brutal arena matches. Choose your badass cyborg body and your ridiculous cyberpunk weapon, and face off against your opponent in the Cyborg Arena!
33rd place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 7
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In this game you play a cyborg, forced into pugilistic slavery by dastardly conservative lawmakers and corporations. You life involves fighting other cyborgs in an arena - "To the repair!", rather than to the death - for the amusement of the populace. Half the game is backstory on how you ended up in this particular fight, and the other half is a combat simulator employing a rock-paper-scissors like rubric for deciding if you or your opponent takes damage and how much.
The interface is well implemented, with bar chart stats, life gauges a la Mortal Kombat, and colorfully highlighted dialogue for the different characters. I also enjoyed how the fight interface was pushed to the background, but not eliminated, during the flashback scenes. However, there were some issues with the text. At times both "you" and your opponents name would appear right next to each other as if the game couldn't figure out who was performing the following action. Also, there were continuity errors regarding which weapon your opponent was wielding.
Text based choose-your-own-combat scenes grow stale very quickly, and this one was no exception. You are provided with some incentive to choreograph your combat in a particular manner, but in my multiple playthroughs I couldn't determine how that made much of a difference on the ending.
The background information and flashbacks I felt had the seed of a good story in them, but they were applied like a plank of wood to the face: lacking depth and unnecessarily blunt. I had just started to care about the characters when the story came to what felt like a premature end without the payoff that I was expecting. Also, I couldn't determine much of a political message other than Conservatives Are Bad. I'm fine with political messages in my stories and games, even ones that I disagree with, but there has to be some substance to the argument, some allegory to modern life, and some solution to the problem. I didn't feel like I got any of that in this story other than a generic rise-up-against-your-oppressors vibe.
I hope the author tries again with another IFComp entry next year. I feel there is potential here, but it didn't manifest in this game.
Cyborg Arena has an unusual symmetry you will probably see if you play through a few times, and it's not hard to. On the surface it's a small competition: a cyborg-on-cyborg fight, for human entertainment. You get to choose your name and weapon (I suspect the flamesaw is a crowd and player favorite) and then spend a few rounds fighting your opponent. The major twist is that you (Spoiler - click to show)know your opponent and have fought them before, multiple times. You and they are more than friends. Throughout the fight, the crowd grows more or less excited. You have flashbacks of how you met your opponent and how cyborg fights have become kosher, and on multiple times through, you get very different endings based on how friendly you were, or how excited you keep the crowd. So you can play explicitly to win or to lose.
It's not hard to beat your opponent, since you can read them pretty well even if you didn't make friends with them. They have three moves, and each move beats one other--yes, even in technologically advanced society, 1) rock-paper-scissors is a thing and 2) peole can be suckered into wasting time and money watching it. There are bells and whistles, of course. But we know what it is at its heart. There's a bit more, too: smashing your opponent's health bar and running up the score isn't necessarily the point. Keeping the crowd cheering loudly is a different mechanic that you have to experiment to get right, and it affects your ending. I managed to completely outmaneuver my opponent and still get killed, for instance. On multiple playthroughs, it struck me that the "twist" in the battle, which was apparently a first, well, wasn't. (Spoiler - click to show)It was the first ever fight to the death. But the crowd wanted it to be, and arguing the point in the middle of a fight would, of course, be worse than hopeless. Successfully subverting the "twist," in fact, only makes the crowd roar louder. They think they understand your story, but they don't, really. They see brave fighters, but the story is complex because of how cyborgs have been treated.
Certainly, with what the story reveals about cyborgs and cyborgs' rights, the best you can do is be their favorite second-class citizen. Cyborgs had been granted personhood in the near future, but later, they'd gotten it stripped. This brought up a lot of issues for me, not because I'm a cyborg (I'm not,) but because I've had acceptance pulled away from me. Sometimes that acceptance was in good faith, and sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes I still felt second-class despite that acceptance. And I'm also reminded of how some (seemingly) popular kids loved to disrupt less-popular kids' friendships in high school, just for entertainment. Maybe popular isn't the right word here. They probably just understood power better than most. Well enough to get deference from everyone. But they also knew how to manipulate people just long enough to ruin a friendship. Here, it's institutional. There's a constant prodding for you not to trust other cyborgs, not even your friend who repeatedly helps you, and I think the diverging storylines worked well with the actual fights. It's so easy to do what's expected of you, but pulling yourself away to find an unexpected friendship–or one louder, nastier people would mock–or to help someone you should be competing with, is hard. You can blow your friend off, with the fight taking a very different tone.
And you can, of course, flip the script on its head, playing to lose, or even allowing your enemy to be the one to kill you and make the decisions. It was, to say the least, a bit different when I was at their mercy. So I got a lot more than I expected out of what seemed to be a dystopian sci-fi where robots fight and the crowd cheers. It's presented so straightforwardly it's hard not to get sucked in and give a few tries. But the funny thing: once I thought I'd tried lots of anti-establishment things against the repressive government behind the cyborg arena, I realized I never had let my friend win or come close to winning. Despite choosing some high-minded, selfless options during the flashbacks. And it's sort of scary how, even in a simulation with nothing concrete to lose, you can still do for you.
This is a small but polished game, one that feels like an intentionally compact micro-game. The system would be appropriate for a longer game, but there's not much room to fit more in the game besides having multiple matches.
You are a cyborg gladiator in a political climate that seems to be modeled on current transgender discourse. You get to choose how you treat your fellow cyborgs, and you also choose your body type and weapon.
Combat has a kind of paper-rock-scissors format, with unusual combinations pleasing the crowd.
The game uses strong profanity every few screens and has elaborate violence and (spoilers for certain paths) (Spoiler - click to show)some vaguely described sexual scenes.
I don't feel like the game lasted long enough for me to get a good grip on it emotionally, but it's polished and descriptive, and the interactivity was interesting and responsive.
|Electric word, "life", by Lance Nathan|
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