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About the Story
Algie was a Twine developer. Now he’s gone, but one of his online remnants is in your hands.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
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Number of Reviews: 2
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This game/narrative is one that references the IF world directly, something I'm always interested to see. I've played Bez's games since 2015 and been listening a lot on Twitter, so I was interested to see how things coalesce.
The result is a complex narrative similar in structure to last year's The Dead Account, but with very different content. Both games put you in the role of a moderator closing down the account of someone who's passed on, a kind of in-memoriam/Citizen Kane/Spoon River anthology review of someone's life and whether they are of worth.
What makes this game unusual is in its complex rewriting of reality and the IF world. It's a difficult feat to call out an entire community without calling out the individual people in it; to do so, Bez has created an entire false community replete with echoes of shadows of real people but which is so entirely different as to render it impossible to point fingers. This is a real feat; I feel like I've been embedded in the community under question here and played a role in many of these events but I couldn't point a finger at any person and say 'I know who that is!
For instance, the Jot Archive Volunteer Project is strongly reminiscent of both IFDB, the intfiction forums, twitter, and the old rec.arts.int-fiction forums and IFMUD. MrDear makes me thing of Ryan Veeder, Mr Patient/Sean Shore, Graham Nelson, etc.
The content of the game is several years worth of tweets or posts, describing a journey through games that is clearly (even mentioned as such in the author's note) Bez's own journey through the IF world, even if it doesn't always meet up one to one. Sometimes, the parallels are obvious (Bez's Queer in Public vs Algie's "Queer As F*** Because F*** You"), and other times its harder (there doesn't seem a clear parallel to the real 2020's Lore Distance Relationship, Bez's most popular game).
Points made about the community include:
-Twine is often overshadowed in big competitions by parser; even though there are clear outliers it remains the reality for most entrants
-Cis white males often have more success in IF with what seems to be less effort
-Due to the prominent position of some women in IF (which I'd assume would refer to both cis women like Emily Short and trans women like Porpentine), the marginalization of most people who aren't white cis men goes unnoticed
It's hard to disagree with those points.
Beyond that, there's some excellent quotes about writing games in general which I copied down:
"Making games is about giving somebody a hidey-hole to see my heart through if that makes sense? And nobody seems to really care about that imho."
I've often thought that IF and writing in general is a way of sharing a piece of your soul with someone. So I agree with that. But then he presents a new thought which hadn't occurred to me:
"But it is also only the version of me that was preserved at that time. AND does not mean you 100% know me or what I’m thinking. Unless I say it is all me in there, don’t assume that ffs."
I've never really thought about how media takes a snapshot of our current selves and saves it for the future, whether we want it to or not. I think that explains a lot of older authors wanting to remove things they wrote in the past that were objectionable or cringe.
And this is the last thing I copied down:
"I feel like my need for external approval is an ouroboros that will never EVER be fulfilled. Either I seek it and don't get it (often) or I seek it and do get the level I wanted (rare) but it ain't enough. My goal is so far away, and it keeps moving, so maybe I gotta lower my damn expectations—towards myself and in the IF world."
The end of the game concludes with Bez's current reality and deepest fears brought together to their possible end: the death of an author after a forgetting mind disease, followed by a second death when the community forgets him.
As a side note, I found it emotionally jarring when the game started with you helping an older IF figure to prune and delete people's old stuff, because that's what I'm actually doing in real life right now, working on a project where I close out people's old stuff that's no longer relevant. Fortunately, it's just bug reports, so no one's hard work or creative labor is being lost.
Assigning a rating to a game like this is behaving exactly like the narrative actors it contains, who judge and rank and sort and gatekeep. However, I am going to do so anyway:
+Polish: The game is thoroughly polished
+Descriptiveness: The writing is vivid and detailed.
+Emotional impact: clearly the game resonated with me
+Would I play again? I think so.
?Interacivity: On one hand, there's not much to do besides run through the list of things and then make a decision. On the other hand, the game itself talks about how stories don't have to be approached as systems first and stories later. On the other hand, I don't think I should give a high rating in a category just because the game calls it out. On the final hand, though, I wanted to rethink my decision at the end and spent a while reloading the page because there was no immediate reload, so it seems clear the interactivity worked for me at some level.
Immediately after playing Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony, I came across another game with challenging bleed-through between art and artist: A Single Ouroboros Scale is primarily an archive of the Jots (lightly-fictionalized tweets) of IF author Algie Freyir, who has many overt similarities to IF author Naomi Norbez (who goes by Bez), who wrote SOS. Fittingly for a protagonist named after the eponymous mouse in Flowers for Algernon, Algie’s latest Jots show him struggling with rapidly-decaying mental faculties, including a failing memory; per the author’s notes, this affliction is also affecting Bez, meaning that Algie’s desperate attempts to assess and even safeguard his legacy take on a terrifying, poignant power, since none of this is theoretical.
The frame here is reminiscent of that used in one of Bez’s previous games, the Dead Account – the protagonist is a nameless volunteer trying out for a place with an archiving project that’s maintaining a backup of the IF community’s Jots since the main site has closed down. Rather than preserving information, though, the project director – your potential boss – seems more intent on destroying it by imposing a significance test on posters, and deleting the Jots of those who fail it. The business of the game, then, has you reviewing 8 years of Algie’s Jots and then facing the binary choice of whether or not his account, which is framed as being low-rated, should be deleted.
This of course doesn’t make much logical sense – how does someone who believes in restrictive curation wind up in charge of an archiving project, especially when the deletion can save at most a few thousand words of text (he also misgenders Algie in the final sequence, cementing his status as a villain)? The stakes of this decision for the notional protagonist are also quite low – there’s a suggestion that joining the project will somewhat enhance their standing in the IF community, but that’s pretty thin gruel. But this setup is very effective as to Algie, as this record of his participation in the community is threatened with oblivion – and while in theory his games would survive on whatever the fictional IFDB analogue is, of course all we see of him are his Jots meaning the stakes feel total. And while it’s hard to imagine any good-faith player sincerely picking the “delete” option at the end, putting the player in a position to make such a decision works very well to implicate them in the processes by which the IF community determines who is and isn’t worthy of remembrance.
Overall though this layer is relatively thin, and the main action of the game involves reading, and reacting to, Algie’s Jots. And on these terms the game definitely needs to be judged a success, because I think most players will have many, strong reactions to the Jots. Many of them are very personal, charting Algie’s journey towards understanding and embracing his trans identity and falling away from his Christian faith. Descriptions of the games he’s working on, his influences, and artistic aspirations are also really compelling, enlivened by repeated allusions to two poems – an Emily Dickinson one about the miraculous and weighty responsibilities of being a flower, and one by Rebecca Elson about dark matter but also touching on death and the possibility of resurrection. And of course there are the heart-rending final ones charting Algie’s despair as his mind disintegrates. There are some good funny bits along the way, too, despite the darkness of the game’s progression – Algie’s response to folks telling him to stop talking about personal stuff so much is that he’s “gonna complain about parsers SO much and SO many of you are gonna be pissed,” which made me laugh.
The main subject, though, is the IF community, and the trajectory of Algie’s attitude towards it shifting from one of bright-eyed excitement at finding a set of fellow-artists and a potential audience for his writing, through gradual disillusionment as his games are ignored or met with patronizing uninterest from most of the community, through desperate, vituperative anger at the prospect that his work will be forgotten and these years of engagement will produce no legacy. From the specificity here, as well as the out-of-game author’s notes, it’s clear we’re meant to engage with these critiques not just according to the fictional frame where they chart out a tragic character arc, but also reflect on what they say about the real-world, Jot-free IF community.
This is an important goal, and I do think many of the criticisms land – and probably would land with even more force if I’d been around during the bad old days of the Twine Wars. Still, I think embedding them in the fictional construct of SOS undercuts the power of many of these arguments, and can make them sometimes frustrating. We’re only able to see one side of the conversations, and Algie’s complaints are sometimes vague and hard to connect with real-world people, incidents, and behaviors – this is understandable given the fictionalized, in-character nature of the Jots, as well as by a laudable desire not to call out specific people, but I found it put the arguments in something of an uncanny valley, too real to appreciate solely within the game’s made-up world but too far afield from reality to be conducive to concrete, specific action. For example, the project director’s dismissal of Algie, and folks working in hypertext in general, is really slippery:
"You know, keeping creators whose work are more relevant to the growth of the IF scene. Offshoots are ok, too experimental not as much. We’re also leaning more towards parsers, considering how important they are to the community, compared to the hypertext stuff going on outside of the main IF circles. Nothing against hypertext obviously, but I just haven’t seen much development there compared to parsers, and neither has the community."
“Growth”, “offshoots”, “too experimental”, “important”, “development” – these important words aren’t elaborated on or defined, nor am I finding it easy to map them to critical conversations I’ve personally seen. There’s also a Manichean view of the community as either “parser” or “hypertext/Twine”, which doesn’t take account of a contemporary scene where many players, and even authors, move between them – though much of this seems to me as about importing parser sensibilities into choice-based frameworks, which per SOS’s values might be seen as a colonizing or at least tokenizing development. And similarly, it’s hard not to see Algie’s blunt dismissal of parser games (“I don’t get it but you do you I guess? Like I said, never liked them very much… But you do you and I’ll do me”) as symmetric with the disinterest with which others greet his work – of course there’s nothing unfair about saying responsibilities look different for less marginalized vs. more marginalized members of a community, but this subtlety isn’t pulled out in the game.
Again, for a fictionalized polemic, this is completely understandable, even notwithstanding the constraining circumstances Bez’s medical condition has had on the game’s composition. And he’s also clear that these arguments can be taken in different ways, and is primarily focused on generating, rather than resolving, discussion – in the final notes, he says:
"The JAVP and Robert Evans’s vision/execution could be an “IF dystopia” as one beta tester put it, or an alternate future closer to our reality—up to you, but I do want to raise the question of how IF history is remembered/recorded."
I have to say, even after all these caveats, sometimes I did feel annoyed and thought SOS was taking some cheap shots. It’s hard to ignore the fact that I’m one of the cisgendered, straight, white, middle-aged, male parser authors who are the clearly-signposted bad guys here, so it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that rather than being a completely disinterested and fair reader, my feeling that these critiques aren’t fully relevant and persuasive are biased by some defensiveness. I haven’t seen too many reviews of SOS out in the wild and the ones I have are generally from folks with backgrounds apparently similar to my own; I’m very eager to see what others coming at it from a different perspective might think of the game.
Wrapping up by going back to Algie, though, there’s definitely self-awareness and clarity on some of the tensions inherent to his desires, especially in the really well-written final sequence of Jots. Here he reflects on the contradiction that gives SOS its title:
"Does anybody ever die satisfied? I’m pretty sure no matter how successful you are or big you get, you got loose ends SOMEWHERE. And that’s kinda reassuring? But I also feel like I gotta die “right”/“well”, y’know? Which means seeking satisfaction there. But I won’t be satisfied. But I keep trying. Endless ouroboros.
"And I’lll be replaced. I know that. Once I stop making stuff or die somebody’s gonna pick up where I left off and take over. The internet’s full of people clamoring for attention on their work, including me. And I’m replaceable by any of them."
Both pieces of this are true; we all want to be remembered, and we’ll all be forgotten (though given society’s biases, some of us will have an easier time lasting longer in the memory than others). Finishing SOS, I thought about my twin sister, who died two years ago. Afterwards, the Department of Defense named a reasonably significant award after her (she helped run the military’s sexual assault prevention and response programs), and I felt pride that her memory will live on this way. But of course, in another ten years odds are nobody involved will have any idea who she is, and her name on the award won’t have any real meaning. And in another twenty, odds are that they’ll rename it again.
I also thought about a poll conducted in the UK 1929, about which authors would still be read a century hence, in 2029. Number one went to John Galsworthy, who’s now a footnote to history; Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and James Joyce were absent or near the bottom of the list.
What counts as enough of a legacy to be satisfied? And if the worm can eventually turn, who are the ones who are turning it? SOS doesn’t provide answers to any of this, but I’ll certainly remember it asking the questions.
1: He wrote the Forstye Saga, which as a person who’s read a lot of dead white males I only know because of a middling Masterpiece Theater adaptation from the early aughts.
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