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Incomplete but intriguing, April 21, 2021
Blue November isn’t a complete game, but based on this Back Garden offering, I’m hoping to see it finished while also being worried about the scale of the task the author’s taken on. This choice-based piece has a really intriguing premise – it presents a game within a game, as a graduate-level cybersecurity class embarks on a simulation of an assault on the 2020 U.S. elections. So we’re in the realm of the technothriller (the title’s I think a tip-of-the-hat iteration of Tom Clancy’s Red October) but at a remove, as a bunch of 20-something students attempt to inhabit the shoes of hardened GRU operatives, beleaguered American election-security specialists, teenaged North-Korean hackers, and Anonymous gadflies.
That is a lot of sides for a scenario, and since most of the teams have three or four players (plus the professor) there are a lot of characters, motivations, and strategies to keep track of, made all the more complex by the secret objectives some of the game’s players have. At first the game makes you think you’ll be guiding the leader of the “blue” U.S. team, stuck playing defense, but the game’s main interaction so far is to allow you to shift to different sides and see what they’re plotting. Blue November adds to this drinking-from-a-firehouse feeling by adding layer after layer of references, strategies, and in-jokes: one character speaks only in Patton quotes, the Panama Papers and bellingcat get namechecked, the North Korea hackers are actually based in Uganda…. It’s a whole whole lot, but it generally stays on the right side of plausibility – I’m pretty sensitive to how politics is portrayed in games since it’s usually quite awful, but this one sure seems to be written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
After a fairly involved introduction that walks through the setup, the major characters, the sides, and their briefings, the rules of the simulation are revealed: it’s intended to play out in six rounds over multiple days, and in each round the teams all get to take both a public action (announced openly and subject to counterarguments from the other teams about why it wouldn’t work) and a secret one, with actions where the outcome’s uncertain resolved by dice rolls. When I saw that framework laid out, I had visions of a combinatorial explosion since even if the only variable is whether pre-defined actions succeed or fail, the potential outcomes would quickly get out of hand.
I’m not sure how the author’s planning on handling this, though, as the game ends as soon as a team tries to take their actions. There are other signs the game’s unfinished – much of the prose is unpolished (including a discrete/discreet error), jumping between teams is often clumsy because it’s not clear whether shifting will just change the perspective or actually move time forward, there are empty passages marked “TODO”, and the dice resolution system is described inconsistently. Still, I found this version of Blue November an effective teaser – the originality and geopolitical nuance of the premise are intriguing, the characters are introduced as stereotypes but are appealing nonetheless, and the simulation seems like it would be really fun to see play out. I’d say the game is worth a gander even in this very rough state, and definitely will be keeping an eye out for a future, more complete release.