Cyborg Arena

by John Ayliff profile

Science Fiction
2021

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3 of 3 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 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.