In The Friend Zone

by Brendan Vance


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Probably not the penal colony you're expecting, November 20, 2015
by CMG (NYC)

If you are "in the friend zone," what this means is that you have been relegated to being "only" friends with someone (usually a woman) who you actually just want to sleep with. If you are a "nice guy," what this means is that you consider yourself an upstanding personality, but in relation to the person you want to sleep with, all your "positive" attributes are really just ploys to get them into bed. Both the "friend zone" and "nice guy" concepts are used seriously by people who feel they're unjustly treated, and satirically by people who think they're being babies (and misogynists).

In the Friend Zone takes these concepts as the basis for its story. Actually, it doesn't have much story. It's more concerned with deconstructing the concepts and fleshing them out into a surreal allegory.

It bills itself as "a horror-parody in the tradition of Franz Kafka," but I don't think this is accurate. Of course the game does owe something to Kafka. The Nice Guys™ in the game's world feel that they're being persecuted by obscure forces beyond their control, like many characters in Kafka's fiction, and one passage is inspired directly by the parable "Before the Law" from The Trial. But the piece is otherwise not similar to Kafka. You have nothing like Kafka's bureaucratic prose, circling around as it eats itself; you have nothing like Kafka's off-kilter absurdity; in fact, you always know exactly where you are with In the Friend Zone. The allegories are obvious, monstrously obvious. They smack you over the head and invite no alternative readings.

I don't think that this is precisely a problem. It just means the game is not advertising itself correctly. It's got much more in common with Pilgrim's Progress. The entire thing involves wandering around an allegorical landscape, and the protagonist is even referred to as "Pilgrim." Kafka fans are not necessarily going to enjoy what's being offered here.

When I went into the game, what I expected was snark in industrial quantities. I wasn't eager for this. What I got instead wasn't snark at all. Make no mistake, this game is critical of its material (criticism that I happen to agree with), but it's not interested in taking cheap shots. It really does dedicate itself to the allegory, painting a surreal hellscape that has been carefully constructed. More than that, it goes a step further and truly considers events from the perspective of the Nice Guys™, trying to walk in their shoes and unravel why and how people exist with such attitudes. They aren't being used as punching bags, which is what I was certain was going to happen.

I also admit that I expected the writing to be dismal. It is not. There are some typos here and there, but for the most part it's smooth, sometimes it's shiny, and the author has a knack for chipper dialogue.

In other words, I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing, but at the end I was also left thinking, what's the point? Who is this written for? What is it actually doing? It's not written for the Nice Guys™. It won't change their minds. It's not written for their critics. It won't change their minds. Rather, it's simply using the "friend zone" and "nice guy" ideas as jumping-off points to create a fantasy nightmare world.

But this is an unstable nightmare world that's anchored to something ephemeral in pop culture. In twenty or thirty years, will people still be thinking with this game's terminology? Many people right now don't even know about "nice guys" and "friend zones." They hover around in the same space as internet memes. They're more persistent, yes, but In the Friend Zone is essentially an entire game written to deconstruct a few passing linguistic fads.

Pilgrim's Progress and Kafka are still around because they're universal. I don't see In the Friend Zone sticking around. Maybe it's ridiculous to apply criteria like that to a Twine game -- to ask, will this be universal, will it withstand the ages? -- but that's actually something that I ask about every game and book and movie that I consume. Something like howling dogs, I can safely say, is universal. It strikes deep, major veins in humankind. In the Friend Zone doesn't, but the author certainly seems to have the writing chops to produce something more substantial in the future.