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About the Story
INFINITUBE: where the imagination stretches as far as limitations can reach Were you ever told you can be anything? Well, with INFINITUBE, you can be just that!
87th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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This is sort of a difficult game to describe and review. It was a university MFA project, so it has clear literary aspirations and fancy writing. But those aspirations seemed to clash against the actual game design.
From a UI standpoint, this is as default twine as it gets. I’ve been spoiled in this comp for interesting CYOA visual designs, so it was a little disappointing, but no big deal. There is heavy use of time-delayed text, which was annoying. I sometimes tabbed out when that happened. Maybe for a reader who is in the correct mindset, it is okay to have time-delayed text, but it didn't work for me.
On one level, this is a story about a virtual reality world, the INFINITUBE, where “you can be anything”. It’s supposed to be an infinite world driven by the imagination, but instead it’s a gamified and monetized tech product like anything else out of the startup world. Your experience in the world is presented as a series of lightly interactive vignettes, which seem to be slice-of-life experiences for vaguely middle-class white Americans (the "WHITE" part is emphasized for some reason).
The main “mechanical” aspect of the game is going through the vignettes and trying to gather enough attributes so that you can sell them for tokens, and use these tokens to renew your subscription to INFINITUBE. You gain attributes by taking various actions. This could have been a cool mechanic, but it’s not entirely clear what actions will gain attributes (is it actions that are "successful" on some level?), or how much those attributes will be worth. Which is troublesome as gaining attributes is necessary to progress the game.
The problem is that if you don’t have enough tokens to renew, the game completely resets, apparently back to the beginning. This is made more difficult by the fact that costs for renewal escalate each session. There are also bugs where selling attributes don’t net the value that is shown. And if the game resets, you have to play from the beginning all over again. With all the time-delayed text, tons of clicking to reveal every sentence, and so on. It became tiresome enough that I just stopped playing. It feels as if the game doesn’t want the player to actually experience the whole thing.
There is a deeper layer to the story here: (Spoiler - click to show)Family drama. The creator of the INFINITUBE was apparently a boy named Charlie, who lived with his mother, Linda (?) (who was divorced acrimoniously from his father, who was probably abusive). Their lives are shown as vignettes in the INFINITUBE virtual reality segments. Somewhere else in the virtual world, Linda’s avatar is Minerva, and Charlie’s avatar is Boniface, but at the same time Charlie still exists in the game world as himself, and is trying to escape? Is the player also trapped in the virtual world? The story is interesting, and I would have liked to read more of it, but it seemed like I was always unable to progress due to a lack of tokens.
Edit: the INFINITUBE vignettes seem to be randomized. I got a vignette about a Hollywood actress dealing with an abusive work environment, and one about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle (I liked that vignette; it's interesting to see how much things haven't changed).
Oof, this one just didn’t work for me. There’s obviously a lot that went into Infinitube – a lot of work, a lot of writing, and a lot of targets for an omnishambles social satire. But perhaps playing it on a day that was already a lot (it was the day Trump got COVID and the world went even more bonkers than we've gotten used to), in a season that’s already a lot, and in a year that’s a lot more than a lot, was just too much.
To back up a bit – the conceit is that the player gets a free trial to the eponymous product, which is some sort of reincarnation or simulation or mind-hopping service that allows one to vicariously experience various, well, experiences. Through each vignette, you make choices which give you different traits, which are worth different amounts of points (some can be worth negative points) and may have an “attribute” which modifies the scoring of other traits. You cash out your traits at the end of each round, and then need to pay a point toll, which ratchets up each cycle, to have another go-round. If you can’t pay the tax, it appears you get booted back to the beginning to try it all again. (Spoiler - click to show)There may be a way to end the cycle and come out the other side, but I was unable to do so – see below.
The game layer is pretty thin, though – the meat is really in the experiences, with the accumulation of traits primarily serving as sharp jabs of satire or polemic to underscore the narrative. And the experiences are – unpleasant, I guess was my main reaction? I’m not sure if the sequence is truly random, and if so, whether I got dealt a bum hand, but the ones I pulled included being:
• An orca stuck in Sea World
• A 7-month-old inducted into the Marines to re-enact a new civil war
• A conniving sitcom star working on an abusive set
• A frustrated sculptor pinning all their hopes on finagling a rent-controlled lease
Each of them were evocatively written – the style is very David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, to give a rough flavor. But man, they’re all pretty dark, and at times I’d even say flirting with nihilism. To give some more detailed, spoilery analysis for the Marines bit:
(Spoiler - click to show)the premise is obviously over the top, but the sequence condenses into having to choose a side in a conflict that’s based on current struggles for racial justice: either a “Waker”, who’s super-woke, or a “Dreamer” who’s blinded by the American Dream, per Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing (which is explicitly cited). You are white – in fact you get a “white” trait which makes all the other traits worth more to you, which is a good illustration of how the mechanics underline the social satire. I chose the Waker side, which shunted me into a sequence where I had to prepare for battle by giving away some abstract inventory items to different members of my squad – my “ten year plan” to parley military service into personal success, and my “bouncy body” from being an infant. I found one combination that let me win the first battle, but that took a lot of trial and error. And then there’s a final sequence that reveals that you lost after all, because the buddy you joined up with – who’s now revealed to be Black, I guess? – chose the other side because he feels responsible to support his family. It feels like an out-of-nowhere gotcha, punishing the player for trying to believe in change with a “twist” that’s not exactly surprising to anyone who’s moderately informed about racial dynamics in the U.S.
There’s similar dark futility, if not unkindness, as well as tonal oddity, in the other scenarios – I’ll share a few light spoilers here. As the sitcom star, if you try to complain about the abuse, it’s revealed that actually this is the early 90s, no one cares, and now you’re unemployable. And if, as the sculptor, you succeed in getting the apartment, you get this list of outcomes:
“YOU NOW HAVE A RENT CONTROLLED LEASE IN THE EAST VILLAGE
YOU ARE NOW A THWOMP
YOU ARE NOW UNDEAD”
(I think “Thwomp” is those trap-things from Super Mario Brothers?)
In fairness, there are indications that we’re meant to find all of this hellish – you can come across a character who seems to be trying to escape. But for me, that didn’t change the fact that the experience of playing was really unpleasant! There are also some typos and I think real bugs, which led to some dead-end passages and sequences playing out of order. I also ran into one that stopped my progress by zeroing out my points, at which point I stopped, about an hour and a half in – details might be spoilery: (Spoiler - click to show)the description on the “white” attribute flagged that if you get too many duplicates of it, you sort of overdose on whiteness and get a different trait that acts as a value-inverter – so positive traits give negative points and vice versa. This wound up happening to me, so I tried to do a shoot-the-moon run by seeking out negative outcomes in hopes of a big payday. But the point-inversion didn’t work when I got to the cash-out sequence, so all the negative points wiped out my total and I couldn’t continue.
Going back to Infinite Jest, that is a dark book at times, but what made it palatable to me was the vein of humanism and compassion threaded throughout each of the different narratives (leaving aside whether DFW embodied that in his personal life!) Infinitubes’ apparent approach of sequencing globs of awfulness one after the other, with a faint hope of reaching something positive at the end, doesn’t work as well for me, at least at this moment. This is clearly a big work, trying to speak to big things, and I suspect there are players for whom it will resonate very strongly, but sadly I’m not among them.
The subtle humour here is brilliant, starting with the tagline “where the imagination stretches as far as limitations can reach”. I also appreciated the strangeness of the vastly diverse experiences I was subjected to, but overall found it had too many choices and too much repetition.
This game was created as part of an MFA in writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where it was accepted as part of the program’s requirements, the first time a game has been accepted as part of their requirements. The author has also taught classes in Narrative Design in Twine.
This is a huge Twine game. The main idea is that you experience randomly-selected stories, and in between them a greater story builds up. You must acquire certain attributes or tokens to sell to advance.
This game correlates well with my experience of the academic environment vs submitting a game for evaluation by the wide world through publication or (in this case) IFComp.
The academic ‘audience’ is typically 4-5 people, the members of your committee. If its anything like math, the committee will likely spend very little time looking at your work, trusting perhaps your supervisor who has had weekly meetings with you to assure you that the work is high quality. For this game, I suspect the committee likely played for a few minutes until a death happened. In this environment, appearing to be a big time investment is the main goal, and appearing to be deep is another (which this game accomplishes by referencing racism and misogyny).
In the ‘open world’, though, other things are valued much more, #1 of which is a lack of bugs and typos, of which this game has many. For a large game entered into the competition, it needs far more testing, and hopefully publishing a proofing copy on Twinery and running it through grammarly or hiring an editor.
The game also uses very slow text in the middle. It features an undo feature which is very helpful, but if you reach a segment where you have to pay more tokens, even very late in the game, and you die, there is no choice but to restart, playing through the entire game.
I definitely think this work is valuable and I think that this is worthwhile to make, but it’s difficult to please two groups of people at once, and making a game that appeals to a wide audience is something that takes practice and a lot of help from others.
-Polish: Needs more polish.
+Descriptiveness: The game was very descriptive.
+Interactivity: This was good for the most part; the tokens are what got me.
+Emotional Impact: This game made me think a lot about my own past in academia.
-Would I play again? No, it felt a little too dificult to go far and the tone of some of the segments left me cold.