Computerfriend

by Kit Riemer profile

2022

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Number of Reviews: 6
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Blisteringly powerful imagery, June 13, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

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)