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Intentionally alienating, unintentionally buggy, December 8, 2020
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.