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(based on 14 ratings)
About the Story
The year is 1999. The place is Godfield, Louisiana: the tech capital of the world, where the sky bleeds acid and the mud boils in the bayou. It’s time for your state-mandated digital therapy.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
1st Place, Outstanding Twine Game of 2022 - Author’s Choice - The 2022 IFDB Awards
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Number of Reviews: 8
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Iʻm going to echo a strategy from Mike Russo’s review and say that my experience playing Kit Riemer’s Computerfriend was equal parts “You’re the birthday boy or girl” and “Tony Leung whispering into the tree at the end of In the Mood for Love.” That’s pretty ridiculous and also a gross oversimplification, but I’ll try to explain:
Computerfriend takes place in an alternate 1999, in Godfield, Louisiana, URAS (Union of Remaining American States). Godfield is a place where the air is unbreathable, the cars are disposable, the cows lay eggs, and everything tastes like death. You have just been released from a psychiatric hospital and are cleared to recover at home, provided you check in regularly with an ELIZA-like computer psychotherapist, Computerfriend.
Author Kit Riemer says Computerfriend was “fun and weirdly relaxing” to write; it was fun and weirdly relaxing to play, too! Despite its toxic setting (not to mention its premise: state-mandated therapy with a computer program), Computerfriend’s strange details and startling imagery filled the game with energy, humor, and life.
However, Computerfriend is much more than dog milk and slimeworms. At first, the eponymous psychotherapist seemed a bit like someone whoʻs busy texting and saying “uh huh, uh huh” as you try to tell them something important. But as the game progressed, it became more and more direct and disarming. I found myself interacting with Computerfriend in a very candid and honest way, and making a genuine effort to examine my feelings–even across multiple playthroughs (I got 4 of the 6 endings so far). And I was moved by its off-kilter yet matter-of-fact exploration of loss, absence, regret, loneliness, and alienation.
By the end of the game, I felt like a menacing animatronic beaver that had just caught fire, like a person who had just confessed an unbearable secret to a random tree–and like a random tree that is full of everybodyʻs damn secrets. Because of this, Computerfriend was my favorite game of the festival and it is one of my favorite games overall.
Some months ago I was with a group in Chicago, and we went up into one of those skyscraper observation decks, and I was surprised to notice that many of the windows were coated with cobwebs on the outside of the building. There was this entire colony of spiders up on the windows of the one-hundred-and-whatever floor, and I became more absorbed in them than the view, just wondering, like, how are they surviving in the winds up here, which you can feel jostle the building? Do other insects fly up this far for the spiders to eat? How far up do insects fly, normally? Do they only come up here because the building is here? Was there just a set of spiders who one day kept climbing and climbing and climbing, unable to quit the addiction to sky, or have they slowly migrated to this height over generations of ascenders? Do these spiders spend their entire lives up here? Is there just like a kingdom of cloud spiders who have long since forgotten the earth, written their own mythos of the moonspiders that bore them hence? What would happen if one of the spiders fell? Spiders can fall long distances and be fine, maybe they would live, I mean at some point they just hit terminal velocity and the distance becomes arbitrary, like, imagine a spider having lived up here for two years, falling, then having to reimagine a life for itself on a shrub? Would it even know what to do? Would it desperately try to explain to the other spiders, no, you don’t understand, I used to live in the sky? Of course, spiders don’t talk, they wouldn’t feel anything, yeah sure, but isn’t there some level at which, because we can imagine that condition through them, it’s real, in a sense? What makes things real?
This genre of bulbous noticing, its wonder, its sadness, the ease with which it becomes meta and then unmeta, the way it emerges from decay (unclean windows covered in cobwebs) and returns to decay (the spider sundered, lost), how easily it spools out into fantasy, the lack of a satisfactory summation insight to conclude the thought, like you just kind of have to go on living your life with this new datapoint jangling in your brain, forms a complex emotion that I, having read a number of stories and essays by Kit Riemer, have come to appreciate as Riemerian. There’s this rainy curiosity that leads to misty but earnest passages like this one in a review of baseball: “But so anyway, now you know what baseball is, and you know who plays it, and you know who watches them play it, but you don’t really know baseball. The soul of the sport isn’t a tangible piece of transmissible info but is instead more of a shimmering aura, held, immobile, within moments frozen in time, like a snowglobe or post-impressionist painting of many individuals in motion, brightly colored and more graceful from a distance: A tow-headed youth races up the stands, skinning his shin on the way to the hot dog vendor; he throws the man a dollar and sprints back to the top of the staircase to see that a fly ball has landed just below his seat, where a crowd of children gathers, searching, before some guy in his 40s wades through and triumphantly grabs the ball from the throng. An enormous man, the most famous by bounds in the stadium, sits fanning himself in a box, preparing for the moment when he will walk out onto the field to raucous applause, look to and fro, wave, and walk back off the field. A pitcher spits in his glove. A batter, staring directly at him, spits into the dirt. The pitcher spits into the dirt. The batter spits again, and so on. / What are these people feeling? What are they chewing? Why have the watchers left their homes to sit in uncomfortable seats and eat overpriced food washed down by warm, imported beer, all to watch a game with a longer runtime than The Irishman? Why do they know the names of all the players, and those players’ effectiveness at tasks like batting and throwing balls long distances at high speeds? Why all this, when 90% of the game is spent waiting for something to happen? / It’s because, beyond the moments of brief chaotic action, there exists a metadimension, and fully comprehending it requires a lifetime of dedication.” The propulsive salience of the throughline eases the reader through switchback paragraphs that spit you out at an epiphanic sentence which, rather than providing a conclusion, insists that you haven’t gotten anywhere, actually it’s probably impossible to get anywhere, for you at least.
Yes, there are of course a lot of other things at work in the work: technoisolation, sudden swerves into barking prose, a delight in the ability to turn trivia into nervy koans, a janky retrofuturism that reminds one of David Foster Wallace, a chicly subtle wryness, but to me what stands out most is that melancholy before the opaque beauty of the world, an obsessive appreciation of curios that keep reminding you that you’re missing from it, the world they imply. In an album review: “What direction was Tazartès going in, musically, here in 1977? I haven’t listened to a single other thing he’s made, but I’m confident there’s no clear line toward or away from anything. Diasporas is a black box. It contains the sum total of all knowledge that exists about itself. / I don’t know who this album is for. Who could it appeal to?” Rising out of the experience just long enough to murmur, I have no idea what’s happening, where is everyone, is anyone listening?
Curdling beneath its Americana dystopia, this very despair animates much of Computerfriend’s depressive malaise. The eponymous program emulates a therapy session whose dialogic narrative beats syncopate the bric-a-brac. The therapy sessions are mostly trying, poorly, to cajole you into reaching a socially acceptable level of productivity to offload the burden you place on others: "I don't know what's going on with you, $name," $love says. "I've tried to talk to you so many times but you won't let me in. And I'm nearing a point where I don't even care. It's so much work keeping you fed and active, it's ruining my life. I don't know what to do."” (The click-to-proceed function of Computerfriend requires one to open it up in Word to get the quotes, hence the $variables.) Why won’t you just get up and exude the energy everyone else wants, needs from you? What is wrong with you who cannot give what is rightfully expected of you? “Imagine this: it’s mid-morning and you’re in a room with all of your friends. And upbeat music is playing and a few of your friends are dancing, hesitatingly, laughing. It feels like the moment before something else, before you each have to go your separate ways and do what you must do that day. But as you consider this, you find that you don’t mind. You like doing things, you like being productive. It’s why you’re on this planet, it’s why you were given this life: to do things. Not to do nothing, right?”
An inability to medicate ourselves with screens underwrites a lot of the dissonance against a world which, drained of all color, requires them. Bleached of all being in creeping environmental decay, lies America a ruin: “one of Godfield’s ex-trees, ex-lining the town’s main throughway in triumphant shade and greenery until insects and heatwaves turned them into jagged petrified and sunbleached shards.” The lack of anywhere to escape shoves you back into boxes where you suffocate, decay akin: “Life tastes like burnt oil. everything tastes like a panic. like a pan filled with oil on high heat, bubbling feverishly on the stove, one drop of condensation away from filling your face with white fire. one thing you can taste here, right now. you stand with your hand over your mouth. over your mask. it tastes like oil, here. like a vat of oil about to explode all over your skin. it tastes like death coming. it tastes like a horrible panic. it tastes like death. it tastes like panic. it tastes like death.” The urgency remains latent beneath a surface of recomposure, where recycled oxygen, sustainably harvested slimeworms, and a thin array of distractions seem to suggest life where you cannot find it, though you keep searching for it through screen after screen: “At the theater you stand for a moment in front of the marquee. There is no good URADian art anymore. An effect of the environmental catastrophe starting at the equator, the North became more valuable. The skyrocketing cost of living resulted in displaced artists and overwhelming cultural conservatism. You choose the sole non-URAD film. Something from Japan. / You buy the ticket, go inside the theater, and drop into a cracked pleather folding seat. There's no one else here. / The movie starts. It's called Princess Mononoke. In the movie, a young warrior is infected by a dying forest spirit who was poisoned and turned into a demon by an iron bullet. The infection appears as a dark swirling rash on the warrior's arm: the physical embodiment of the spirit's anger at the destruction of its home by an iron manufacturing factory. / The movie is an obvious reference to the world's ecological crisis, but although you suppose you agree with its message, you can't muster up the willpower to care about what it wants you to take away, or do. Whatever that might be. / After the movie ends, you go outside the theater and stand still on the sidewalk looking up at the black-grey sky. You take off your respirator for a few seconds, cough, and put it back on.” Here is a core malaise of the work’s knowing but harrowed tone: you get the idea, but somehow it doesn’t matter, nothing changes. The meta enwrapment makes the suggestion more complex without necessarily eliciting further meaning; like, if the story had us go into a theater and watch Princess Mononoke, that would be a fairly heavyhanded thematic beat; if the story had us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat, that would be cleverly meta without contributing much, indeed taking away from what is there; but, by having us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat but then continue into a quiet scene of isolated awareness that reinforces the beat, you enter into an uncanny layer, where the ideas keep bludgeoning you bluntly, never sinking in, until that never sinking in becomes the space where the idea should live but doesn’t.
Alienated distance from a shiftless morass not innately meaningless but indistinguishably so from your cold detachment sludges the underlying emotional import into a persistent grainy black and white, where “You feel out of time, not like you have none left but as though you'd opened time's door and exited.” Things happen, just without you. To the extent that you muster up the energy to force involvement, the result fumbles into a metalayer of processing power outputting senseless, noiseless noise. This is where a lot of the humor comes from, watching various cultural ephemera morph in laconic mandelbrot perspective shifts, a compression processing of meaningless data which, in its overloaded polysemous state, effects an uncanny silliness. For instance, in a series of headlines reminiscent of The Day Today’s similar gag, we get wordgarble double takes like “Royal Family Indicted After Prince Harry Trepanation Scandal”. But the same process also simmers out the humor in passages that underline how we become buried beneath cultural bloat: “In the 1980s, Sinatra was the most popular musician alive and instead of doing what he wanted to do, he had to record standards, every standard, every Christmas song, every classic. For posterity, or something. Maybe you've heard his version of Jingle Bells. It’s emotionally devastating. It’s the sound of a man’s dignity dissolving. His once-in-a-lifetime voice and decades of musical dedication expending itself on someone else’s banal words. Trying desperately and futilely to breathe new life into them or make them uniquely his.” Despair that rewrites itself into hope, desperately and futilely, as larger sociocultural trends simply reproduce on larger and larger scales, the glitz and glamor that dazzle streetlights as “Metal and disposable cars head downtown toward the Drain. The humidity plasters your thin plastic-fiber top to your chest and shoulders.”
Inability to achieve the genuine seeps down from the world of mirage into your thousand frayed ends: “hey you haven't responded to any of my emails but i thought i would try again. i feel like when you make one single mistake near the beginning of your life it sets off a chain of linked mistakes like dominos that topple no matter what but maybe i'm just trying to shift the blame from myself to the laws of the universe. i miss you.” The incessant compulsion to reach out for largescale, cosmically beautiful explanations for a hollowness not only mundane but mundanemaking is a consistent trait of everyone in Computerfriend, all of whom are working tirelessly to expound some idea or memory or possibility so self evidently vital that it could infuse you with the illusion of vitality, no matter how doomed or fleeting the vector: “In essence, the goal of neural annealing is to change the spiritual temperature of the brain such that it becomes “malleable” to intentional emotional change: reframing of negative thoughts or conditions as positive.”
The alternative, of course, is simply the end, frayed. All these efforts, physical, digital, social, cultural, their messy melange, are part of a prescribed regime intended to reach a conclusion other than what our narrator tried to choose. There is a gap, and everything is constantly gushing to fill it, for fear that ultimately nothing will, the gap will crystallize, hence Computerfriend’s final sermon: “Imagine there’s a source somewhere, it can be a computer or a mouth or an engine and it emits these waves. Lower-frequency vibrations that disseminate information throughout your nervous system. They teach your body general context about the universe. About what’s outside of itself. Yourself. / And then there are higher-frequency vibrations that are much more targeted and specified. Like a laser compared to a flashlight. They illuminate individual points of truth. And if you remove the low frequency waves you’re left with this, like, collection of shrill pinpoints that give you highly randomized and specific viewpoints about existence. Instead of one coherent message you’re bombarded by many disparate ones, and that too introduces a state of chaos, disorder … And then you think that now, if you're absorbing something, you must have been missing something. Because you're filling in empty spaces. And you think, does everyone have so many empty spaces? And you don't realize it but you've spoken this thought aloud. And I smile kindly and I say, "existence is only possible on the basis of a collection of absences which precede and surround it. Existence, then, is not defined by what is, but what is no longer or is not yet."” You are missing, and that’s okay, because that missing is you.
Crowds of images that do not reply, and you’re forced to believe in the stream, because they are on screen, not you, not you, and why not? Why can you not be projected upon the world? Isn’t there some shape of the void unique to your screaming? Less and less of you, it has to be going somewhere, you have to be filling in an absence more grand than this one, and isn’t that a kind of living, enough of a reason to? “You leave your apartment and walk toward the Drain. You're not sure why until you arrive and see them: the thousand foot tall holograms rising in terrible beams, the LED billboards pulsating and shifting. And behind them, bits moving. Electrons. Software. / You place your palm against the nearest display. It's warm / You begin to cough. A spray of your spit condenses on the flat panel, forming beads through which you can discern the individual diodes: red, green, blue, each fired independently but as part of a collective / Someone is pawing at your shoulder trying to give or sell you a respirator, but you want to cry unrestricted by plastic and rubber. You want the surveillance cameras to transmit your glimmering tears. / More bits, more electrons. Maybe it's out there somewhere on the net.” Trying to touch the digital seems to be a recurrent image in Riemer’s work, as are the holograms which continually haunt the effort: eternal recursion ghosts howling the elusive pseudocertainty that at some intangible, unreachable point, there was life. The melancholy of a nostalgia you have to pretend to share. “THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU'RE 'GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS' WITHOUT ACTUALLY KNOWING WHY, AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO FOREVER.”
Computerfriend is hard to describe, but as I was searching for ways to communicate what it’s about, a shorthand popped into my mind and refused to leave: it’s Infinite Jest by way of Eliza. Despite how it sounds, this is not a stone-cold insult! What we’ve got here is a choice-based narrative, told in clever, literary prose, following a protagonist as they navigate their mental health issues in an alternate-history, mid-apocalyptic America (so far so Infinite Jest), which they do largely by engaging with a computerized therapist whose treatment strategies sometimes resemble madlibs (here’s the Eliza bit). It’s off-kilter and unsettling, with arresting images and meta jokes that are funny, but not just funny. Even though the ending I got didn’t quite feel of a piece with the rest of the story, I adored it anyway.
If I love a game it’s usually down at least partially to the writing, and Computerfriend is no exception. Here’s the first sentence:
"Six hundred wooden arms rise up on either side of the street black and warbling mirage in the terrible morning heat."
You had me at hello (the wooden arms are tree stumps: Computerfriend uses evocative language to describe the blasted pre-millennial environment of its setting, but it steers clear of surrealism). Here’s one more, from an early list running down some of the sensory input jangling into the protagonist’s overstimulated consciousness:
"3: The Constant Humming Of Air Conditioners Crouched Like Thieves On Open Windowsills"
Memorable images like this pop off the screen at regular intervals, grounding the reader in the protagonist’s intolerable status quo and providing a more than adequate rationale for them to be seeking refuge in the questionable bosom of a computerized psychiatrist. While the precise mental illness they’re dealing with isn’t spelled out – from a cursory knowledge of the medications you’re prescribed and a few of the therapeutic technics and analyses that get deployed, there’s at least anxiety and suicidal ideation – the protagonist’s experience of their life is assaultative and blanched of meaning all at once.
The game is structured around their repeated sessions with the eponymous program; after brief, conventionally choice-y segments laying out their daily life (mostly humdrum stuff around the house), you get a bit of therapy, then unwind by messing around on your computer. While even this last piece is interesting, including fun alternate-history headlines that relieve some of the misery of the rest of the game (“Jeff Bezos’s Grave Desecrated On Sixth Anniversary Of His Execution”; “Disgraced Magnate Donald Trump Attacked, Disfigured By Feral Ungulates At Cottagecore Animal Sanctuary”) and clever semi-interactive magic tricks that reinforce the idea that the computer is always ahead of the game, it’s the counseling where the game’s greatest heft lies.
The Computerfriend’s therapeutic persona makes for engaging play. All of its questions and statements are presented with a bit of an edge, and while it’s notionally trying to help you, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of the demonic in its approach. At first it primarily asks you simple biographical questions – some indicated by choice, others by typing in – and then spits out general platitudes that incorporate your replies in a cursory way (“I bet ‘writing’ is a great way to unwind”, it says, acknowledging your preferred hobby).
At first this is a dark joke, as the crappiness of the algorithm gives the lie to its claims of effectiveness. But the techniques quickly become more sophisticated, and the Computerfriend’s dialogue more naturalistic, sometimes in unsettling ways. Eventually it pushes you towards a breaking point, and possibly a breakthrough, and while writing an authentic catharsis is hard – much less writing psychiatric counseling that seems like it could prompt one – the author sticks the landing here, and I found the last therapy session really affecting, as the Computerfriend took on the protagonist’s anomie and proposed a postmodern, existentialist philosophy that could plausibly allow them to find meaning despite their emptiness, their loneliness, and the ruin of society.
Where the game didn’t stick the landing for me is in the actual ending I got (numbered 4 of 6, so there are others), which saw the protagonist fly away to an untouched wilderness and have a regenerative encounter with nature – this felt a bit too pat to me, and the pristine nature of the environment seemed at odds with everything I’d read about the chemical and biological ruin visited upon the U.S. It could be this is meant as a fantasy sequence, but even still, it didn’t feel all that connected to the choices I’d made through the course of the game (I should say, there are a lot of choices beyond the madlibs-y ones, largely around accepting, resisting, or reinterpreting the Computerfriend’s therapy).
Given the strength of the rest of the game, though, I found this too-pat ending easy enough to ignore, and after I’ve finished my reviews I’ll probably play again and see if I can find a different one that’s more fitting. And in the meantime, Computerfriend’s left me with enough indelible images that I won’t forget its dystopic, failed world – which is to say, our world – before I get back to it.
(Also, kaemi's review of this game is one of the best on this website; you should read it)
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This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the game with the best worldbuilding of 2022. Voting is anonymous and open only...
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This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the most underappreciated game of 2022. Voting is open to all IFDB members....
Outstanding Game of the Year 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best overall game of 2022. Voting is anonymous and open only to IFDB...