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Cyborg Arena

by John Ayliff profile

Science Fiction

Web Site

(based on 10 ratings)
7 reviews

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!

Game Details


33rd place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)


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Number of Reviews: 7
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Most Helpful Member Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Combat simulator with a slick interface and blunt political message, October 20, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: About 30 minutes

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.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
You've played this before, without all the technology--well, sort of, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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 friendshipĖor one louder, nastier people would mockĖor 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.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Combat as trust, October 27, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Hereís what I like most: the fact that weíre playing a variant of rock-paper-scissors where you are told in advance what the opponentís move will be. Of course this makes it utterly trivial to win the fight thatís playing out in this cyborg arena; but thatís precisely how youíre clued in to the fact that winning isnít the point. Making the audience happy, thatís the point, even though that may involve taking some heavy hits yourself. This is not a real fight; it is a cooperative ballet. And your partner trusts you so much that they never conceal what theyíre planning to do. Thatís the subtlety. Thatís what you have to realise.

All of this is placed in a serviceable framework, but apart from the mechanic described above thereís not much subtlety to be found. The political commentary is simple to the point of being simplistic and so are the emotional strings that get pulled. It works; but itís no more than a vehicle for delivering this one brilliant idea: combat as trust.

Reason to play this game: it makes us think about the narrative potential of combat mechanics.

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A brief fighting sim and relationship manager, October 24, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes

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.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
More than just fisticuffs, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(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)

The credits for Cyborg Arena include thank-yous to a large number of Patreon donors, and I can see how a game like this would be perfect for building a dedicated following on that platform: itís got a compelling and accessible hook, clean storytelling, lots of opportunities to customize the player characterís identity and key relationships, a complex but manageable set of mechanics, and a half-hour length thatís perfect for showcasing the impact of choices without letting things become unmanageable (and also makes it possible to finish new projects at a reasonable clip). Turns out this makes for a solid IF Comp entry too!

The premise here is sturdy, and well-communicated by the blurb Ė you guide a cyborg gladiator through a climactic fight Ė but everything is realized with more craft than it needs to be, from the grabby in medias res opening starting things off with adrenaline to the embedded character-defining flashbacks that go beyond the literal nuts and bolts of your stats to get at how you navigate the dog-eat-dog social milieu of the gladiator stables. While the worldbuilding doesnít go beyond whatís needed to support the big fight, thereís also some plausible social satire that I thought was well handled.

All this attention to bells and whistles (oh, and on that subject, the visual design is good without being overly fussy) doesnít come at the expense of the gameís core appeal, either. The fight involves juggling two distinct tracks Ė thereís a set of rock-paper-scissors combat options that depend on the stats youíve chosen for you and your opponent, but you also need to keep the audienceís interest high, which requires not repeating the same moves too many times. This means you have to mix things up and trade off fighting effectiveness against crowd appeal, sometimes taking a punch if it adds to the match's excitement. Itís not especially hard, but itís engaging to decide on your round-by-round approach, and this added complexity makes victory feels satisfying.

If I have a critique, itís that the game ends rather abruptly, and while there are lots of different ways the fight can conclude based on your decisions, thereís not much of a denouement laying out your characterís fate beyond the immediate events of the night. But since one of the key tenets of showmanship is to always leave the audience wanting more, itís hard to lay too much fault here Ė Cyborg Arena is already much more generous than it needs to be.

Highlight: The game takes a page from modern deckbuilders by disclosing what move your opponent is going to make each turn, meaning combat isnít a roll of the dice but requires strategic consideration of your options, as you consider both short-term success and your longer-term positioning in the fight overall.

Lowlight: I mentioned the abbreviated ending above, but I especially wanted a little more closure on the legal and social changes the game briefly sketches in Ė again, this is efficient worldbuilding but it left me feeling a bit unsatisfied at a lack of follow-through.

How I failed the author: Cyborg Arena is sufficiently short and player-friendly that I donít think I could have messed it up if I tried.

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