I Should Have Been That I Am

by E. K. Wagner

Science Fiction

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A philosophical short story, December 31, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2018

This is a philosophical short story about free will and AI, told through a poker game. Despite the short length of one playthrough, this game is surprisingly deep, with a lot of paths through the story and some replayability.

You play as a robot casino worker who has also been employed as a sex worker. The game takes place entirely within one round of poker, with a few flashbacks and optional digressions. There are at least 8 possible outcomes of game.

The cards that are dealt can differ between playthroughs, and this affects the outcome of the story. At first I thought it was random, but it actually depends on your first three choices in a pseudorandom manner, as described in the spoilers below. It feels like a commentary on free will and the nature of "randomness".

(Spoiler - click to show)
- recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 8 of clubs -> get drink for sunglasses man -> 10 of clubs -> girl with hood wins
- recognize, answer yes, donít deal the turn: Jack of hearts -> Ace of hearts -> man in sunglasses wins
- recognize, answer no, deal the turn: 2 of hearts -> husband asks for water -> 2 of clubs -> husband wins
- recognize, answer no, donít deal the turn: 7 of hearts -> 2 of hearts -> wife wins
- donít recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 3 of hearts -> kiss the singer -> 7 of hearts -> older woman wins
- donít recognize, answer yes, donít deal the turn: 5 of spades -> 4 of spades -> newcomer wins
- donít recognize, answer no, deal the turn: Queen of spades -> wife discovered cheating -> 8 of diamonds -> singer wins
- donít recognize, answer no, donít deal the turn: 7 of diamonds -> man cursing -> Jack of diamonds -> slot player wins

I like how the choices (or lack of thereof) interfaces with the themes of the story. This game makes a great use of the forced choice technique: you can choose to not deal a card, but youíll always be compelled to deal eventually. Your programming as an AI leaves you no choice but to fulfill the directives that your employer imposed upon you. Thereís also a lot of talk of binaries. Humans always think in binaries. You as an AI are programmed to work in binaries. And thereís always at most two choices, until the very end.

Also I liked the writing style. The diction seems ďroboticĒ and unemotional on the surface, but thereís always the sense of deep internal turmoil. The robotís programming controls her internal thoughts/analyses as well as actions, but the writing creates a sense that thereís something going on inside her mind that was unanticipated by the programmers.

If thereís any criticism I have for this game, itís that the game is much too short, and re-playing feels repetitive. With only one playthrough, itís easy to miss a lot of interesting content. And the open ending, while it makes sense from a thematic point of view, is unsatisfying if one is more interested in the character or story.

Thereís some uncomfortable content here. The robot protagonist is often the victim of violence, especially sexual violence (there are also references to domestic violence not involving robots). Robots in this world have become receptacles for the worst of humanity. As often happens with can-robots-be-human stories, there are parallels with working class experiences, especially in the women-dominated service industry.