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This Machine * Fascists, December 20, 2012
maybe make some change is a rare thing: a political game that's powerful without being preachy, a heavily-multimedia piece that doesn't feel gimmicky, a limited-action/brutalised-protagonist piece that feels justified. Dealing with the Maywand District murders, it puts you in the shoes of Adam Winfield, one of the US soldiers convicted of the premeditated killing of unarmed Afghan civilians.
PAX East 2011. At the IF Demo Fair, Aaron Reed is showcasing an early version of maybe make some change, then titled what if im the bad guy. To me, the experience of play feels like an attempt to represent post-traumatic stress disorder. The game is played with headphones: the soundtrack is a garble of radio static, yells and gunfire, through which emerge fragments of speech clips about the Afghan conflict and the War on Terror. In the screen's background, behind the text, clips play from first-person shooters set somewhere in the Middle East. The central text is terse and repetitive, the verb-set narrow; interactivity feels distant, a struggle through a haze of stressful stimuli. As a piece of multimedia IF, it's astounding, leagues in advance of anything comparable; otherwise, it feels more like a theatre-of-cruelty experiential piece than a playable story. A woman stops playing, refusing to enter the commands that she feels the game's demanding of her: Aaron gives her a hug. "That's a totally legitimate response."
maybe make some change is a more meditative creature than what if im the bad guy, less easy to read as designed primarily to shock and brutalise the audience. The voices are chosen more for calm tones, the crackle of radio and gunfire is less jarring (the predominant sound is of an eerie air-raid siren), the video more blurry and ghostlike. The game doesn't try to overwhelm you with multiple stimuli anywhere near as much. The narrators use less racist language. The overall effect is less of a hammer-blow to the face: still disturbing, but allowing more focus on the underlying content.
The game's basic conceit is a cycling Rashomon story: the same vignette is told over and over again by different narrators, military and civilian, before and after the event: sergeants, a pro-war relative, a liberal blogger, an army trainer, your prosecutor. Each retelling takes only a single action before switching to the next; the initial feeling is that this is a one-turn game like Aisle. The same sentences are used in each retelling, but as well as tenses, many of the words shift between narrators -- most significantly, the word used for the Afghan man killed by the platoon, which varies from 'civvie' to 'insurgent' to 'fuckhead'.
The game focuses on the strained and difficult positions that the protagonist faces, about situations and interpretations framed by other people. Most actions are invalid, either denied by the narrators or self-censored by the protagonist. The central thread to the piece is obviously about the conflicting pressures and limited freedom of the protagonist. But there's more to the piece than the weary The Game Is Oppressive, The Player Is A Victim dynamic.
(Spoiler - click to show)The central point of gameplay is to unlock the full suite of available verbs, then apply them to the correct narrators in ways that might conceivably have helped. For me, this successfully threaded the needle between ironic nihilism and demanding perfect-world outcomes.
There's a definite element of disassociation or derealisation about gameplay, a post-desperation feeling of 'okay, I'm fucked anyway, let's try anything'. But it avoids becoming navel-gazing; the game does an excellent job of contrasting the various American-centric fantasy wars with the man in front of you, the ghost of Mullah Adahdad who you must confront again and again from different angles (contrast De Baron). Similarly, for a piece that's about different perspectives, it does a fine job of avoiding pure-subjectivity soup.
The multimedia features are largely lost in the non-browser version; not recommended.