To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1

by Anthony O

Surreal
2022

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Number of Reviews: 5
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The real happiness was the game design choices I noticed on the way, November 26, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I remember being proud of myself for learning how to deal with long wait times on the phone. It was a bit annoying, sure, but I had things to do. I would plan out, for instance, cleaning out browser tabs or whatever, or maybe even tinkering with a particularly tricky script. Or I cleaned off my desk or, if the phone cord reached that far (back when all phones had cords,) the fridge or sink or whatever. It's changed over the years. But the important thing is, I have something to do, and I've gotten over the boredom and fear and so forth. There are some worries that I will get distracted and maybe even put the phone down, and that is exactly when the hold musical breaks, and the operator will say "Is anybody there?" and then hang up when they don't hear me.

Now I don't particularly deserve an award for this trivial bit of adulting. The cheesy line is that finding something to do to fill in that spare time is reward enough. I've even managed to find gethuman.com to save me a bit, too. I kind of had an ethical dilemma with that one: I was sort of lying to get to the head of the line, but geez, maybe everyone was doing it. Technology has taken care of these fears, or ways to lessen them, but I still remember them, and they resurface when my internet connection is down.

The protagonist of TPEEP has no such chance to grow or reflect or blow off inconveniences. They're not calling about that charge on their credit card that still doesn't belong there, but they can afford it. They aren't even calling to switch to online bill payments or to activate a gift card. No, their needs are much more basic: to jump from despair to happiness as quickly as possible. Who knows if they are asking for permanent or just temporary happiness? It doesn't matter, really. It's pretty obvious early on they won't get it. They have no chance. And they don't even have the thrill of the chase from more traditional stories. And perhaps they don't really believe they really deserve happiness, even if they hope the quick jump is there. The end result? You-the-character can wait a few turns, but you will have no choice but to hang up eventually.

There's not much text in the game, but I don't think there needs to be. It probably doesn't want to force the point home, but we get it, nonetheless. The options on the phone are not for customer service but for different types of happiness. Soon they diverge into how to avoid sadness. Of course, there is nothing to be done. That's the point. And I found it much more effective than more visceral tales of depression. You half get your hopes up, because you know not to get them all the way up, but all the same, it's still too much. It's like trying to get your money back from a casino. TPEEP has no sound, but I can still a fake-cheery voice rattling off the options. You know that it's blowing you off, and it's ostensibly speaking clearly and slowly so you understand things, but really it's just so that people will get bored and hang up, so the company has to hire fewer operators.

This is in the name of company profits. When the character calls the happiness conglomerate, well, you'd expect happy people would want others to be happy. Maybe that is true. Maybe the people who seem happy are as clueless as those who know they aren't. Maybe they're just saying they're happy to fool themselves and have nothing to say beyond "turn that frown upside-down."

Ironically, this lack of getting anywhere close to happiness in the entry provided me with a certain amount of happiness, reminding me how I'd at least avoided hitting some pitfalls repeatedly. I remembered the times I found happiness when I failed to get excitement, as well as good replies I discovered to bossy older people telling me "You can't be happy all the time, deal with it." (Protip: it's okay to be sick of barriers to happiness thrown in your way arbitrarily.) I suppose I wanted some agency to be able to deal with a big pitfall. Here the narrator has none.

A word about the interface: at first it annoyed me. You click on a verb at the bottom, and several nouns change color. You can drag and drop each verb over them. This was awkward for me at first and I felt, cynically, I'm glad this entry is short, or I would make it short. The repetition even after a few times was exhausting (part of that was the hour I played through) but then when you no longer had a choice, it felt worse. But then I got used to it after playing a few other Texture games, and on my phone and not just my desktop, which made me happy in a way that hammering away at one single Texture entry could not.

Entries like this remind me of the old Yiddish joke "Waiter! Such lousy food!" / "Yes, and such small portions!" which can be hard to pull off without, well, actually annoying the reader/player. Not that TPEEP is lousy, but it's about lousiness, and balancing that feeling or joke or whatever ("I give up" feelings without making the player give up) is tricky. But I think it works here. Though it does feel like the cleverness of being able to drop a verb over more than one noun wasn't used to its fullest, and one of the main mechanics is, after a few times, removing wait/give up choices for giving up.

TPEEP gave me a lot to think about for an allegedly short game. I'm comfortable in that wheelhouse, not needing a whole lot of physical details and feeling okay stepping away from something to come back to it. In this case, I stepped away from TPEEP and got some personal insights in the meantime. It felt, in a way, like I was sticking it to TPEEP's unresponsive in-game automated phone support, or phone support from my past, whether it sent me in a circle or cut me off outright. And in this case, I was amused that a game ostensibly about wasting a chunk of 15 minutes for me-the-character felt like just the opposite for me-the-player.