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Theatre of Mercy, December 6, 2011
One of the better CYOAs to be released in an IF context, this deals with territory that's unusual for IF but standard for theatre: a small group of characters who don't like each other very much but are stuck with one another. There has been a fair amount of discussion in IF circles about the PC as director, steering other characters rather than driving the action directly, but The Play is the first game I've seen in the IF sphere that really does this.
The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.
It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.
The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.
Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.