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I have affluenza, and the only cure is more nano-woven abalone cards!, April 16, 2014
Ultra Business Tycoon III is what life as a corporate executive looks like after half a gramme of cocaine. It's set in a surreal world, overtly inspired by the aesthetic of early 90s video games, where cops are gigantic multi-limbed hulks of muscle, and business consists of wanton theft and murder without even a token attempt at negotiation. Just to drive the point home, the famously anti-capitalist Porpentine has placed herself in the game as PorpCo, your first enemy.
This sounds disgusting, and it is, but it's also fun. Immoral behaviour tends to be attractive, after all: why else would anyone engage in it? Your desk contains a seemingly infinite number of randomly-generated business cards in sensuously detailed materials and textures, which serve no in-game purpose other than aesthetic pleasure. The setting is ugly and hostile, but also vibrant and (unsurprisingly, given that this is Porpentine) utterly unique. You get to engage in seemingly hour-long gunfights and use rare tycoon powers. Even when you kill yourself to escape justice, you look like a badass.
Ultra Business Tycoon III claims to be a port of a 90s business simulation game, and does a great job replicating in text the aesthetic of 8-bit games and our nostalgia for them. It's an aesthetic I love: bright reds and purples, white streaks imitating reflections, the cyberpunk jewels of nocturnal cities. Of course, Porpentine put words to it better than I ever could. There is even an intentional glitch sequence.
This absurdism and exuberance is filtered through a story-outside-the-story, the story of the player of Ultra Business Tycoon III. Unlike the Tycoon (whose sex and name you can choose), the player is not customisable. She (I believe she's female, but I think some passages could be read both ways) is a teenager, hiding from abusive parents in the power-fantasy of the game. She is transgender: ironically, PorpCo would be her ally, not her enemy. She has a strained relationship with her older sister. She is also a memory: some of the italicised passages mention her adult life, implying that she got out of that prison eventually.
The game was apparently Porpentine's most extensive work, at least at the time, and it shows. Twine works often get the "not a real game" label, but that doesn't apply here. The puzzles are excellent, and occasionally difficult enough to leave me stumped for months (again, like the generation of games that inspired this). The one that stumped me for the longest time was finding the password to Oasis Zone VI.
(Spoiler - click to show)Eventually, with some hints from other reviews, I realised that you're supposed to type in the serial number from the NFO sheet Porpentine created for the game. At first, I was a bit disappointed: the developer has a password field, the ultimate puzzle; she could have dropped any kind of clever hints in various parts of the game, why just hand us the password? Then I realised: the puzzle is to think like a capitalist. You need to have the capitalist mindset --to have, yeah, bought into it-- to realise that the game will reward you for merely buying it legally rather than filesharing. Like Sierra's King's Quest III, which gave you more points for following the copy-protection instructions than for the puzzles you legitimately solved.
I have some nitpicks, like I always do. As far as I'm aware, the game cannot be placed in an unwinnable state (bad endings will kill you and let you respawn back at the hub, which is nice and merciful), but it is still possible to end up playing several iterations of an ending that requires clicking through non-interactive screens before you respawn. In my experience, even the best prose (and this game has darn good writing) loses its lustre if you read it a few times in quick succession. The ending is -- not bad, but a bit unbalanced.
(Spoiler - click to show)But then, I guess that is the point. The old sim game only gives you a bald "YOU HAVE WON" screen. Our player gets something at least hopeful.
I could probably go on about this game for page after page: the layers of irony in providing a capitalist "buy this game legally" message in a freeware pastiche that has never been for sale, for example. But I'll leave with this:
The video games that my generation loved and are shaped by were created by corporations to make the maximum amount of money. So is most art, of course, but video games make it blatant: they intensify stimuli, rewarding us with visuals and music and expanding storylines, making us work for more stimuli, making us feel guilty for putting the game away in frustration. It's manipulation. If I were to write a story where the main character is as influenced as I was by, for example, Zelda or Final Fantasy VII, it would come off as product placement. And yet, that dreamlike experience of exploring new worlds is equally true.
HyperCapitalism and sense of wonder. Ultra Business Tycoon III shows where they intersect.