Stand Up / Stay Silent

by Y Ceffyl Gwyn

Science Fiction

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A good message does not a good game make, December 11, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

The randomizer giveth, with three games in a row I really enjoyed and some solid highlights immediately before that (Sage Sanctum Scramble, A Murder in Fairyland, and then a Rope of Chalk was also bracketed by Magpie Takes the Train, which I beta-tested so I’m not reviewing it yet but is also quite good, and my own game which, whatever its intrinsic merits, I’m happy to see finally show up). But the randomizer also taketh away, and Stand Up / Stay Silent is where this world-beating run came to a close.

Look, I get that SU/SS has its heart in a good place and is trying to convey the urgency of fighting for social justice. There’s a list of Black Lives Matter-related resources displayed prominently if you check for the credits at the beginning or at the end, many of which I think are pretty good. But holy Jesus, the way the game communicates its convictions is via a hectoring, didactic “fable” that’s only slightly less off-putting and unsubtle than someone shouting “ARE YOU A GOOD PERSON? YES OR NO!” and then hugging or slapping you depending on what you answer. And I say this as someone who works for a civil rights organization in my day job – like, I’m one of those wild-eyed defund-the-police radicals (supply your own scare quotes as desired), albeit in the spreadsheets-and-regs division rather than the whose-streets-our-streets side of the cabal. If you’ve got someone like me mulishly clicking the fascist-hugging “stay silent” options, something’s gone deeply wrong.

I don’t want to go into a laundry list of faults here, but I think there are two design choices and one flaw that are just completely fatal to SU/SS’s aims. The first choice is the sci-fi frame, which is beyond under-baked outside of establishing that we’re on Mars and there’s been some terraforming. I suppose this is in the service of delivering the fable promised in the subtitle, but the problem is that the player has no concept of what’s actually going on and there are zero stakes. The opening suggests that there’s income inequality, but doesn’t really frame that in a way the player can understand or engage with (there is a note that an expensive cocktail costs about three hours’ wages for the main character. I was curious about whether I could deduce anything about the overall economy from this, and the fanciest cocktails I could find at Michelin-star restaurants are like 35 bucks – so even assuming a hefty markup to deal with the being-on-Mars thing, this suggests the main character is making a bit above the minimum wage where I live, and is able to save up to go to a fancy restaurant, which doesn’t seem that bad?) There are indications that mass protests are heavily regulated, but it’s not really established what the protests are actually about. Once the player starts making choices, jackbooted thugs do start showing up (including getting ready to tase someone in the middle of a fancy restaurant, which seems odd…) but this is all very bloodless and completely fails to establish the bone-deep sense of revulsion at injustice that powers much activism, much less the ways those injustices are embedded in social and public systems.

The second design issue is that the choices are completely binary, with no room for nuance or even delayed consequences. There are as few as two, or I think as many as four, choices in any given playthrough, with one of them offering a “Stand By” as a middle-ground between the always-there “Stand Up” and “Stay Silent”. There’s never any ambiguity as to what option the game wants you to take: stand up, and you get a charge of self-righteous energy and your partner thinks you’re sexy; do anything else, and the game tells you you’re a physical coward and you get dumped. And this all plays out immediately, so you don’t even get the (incredibly common in unjust societies!) experience of worrying that a decision will blow up on you later on. Again, this feels excessively didactic, and given the focus on your flatly-characterized partner, much of it feels like it reinforces a retrograde “protesting will get you laid” message.

The flaw is the writing. It’s technically fine (though there’s one early misstep where there’s a comma right after a dash, about which I can only imagine the Ferryman’s Gate protagonist freaking out), but it’s both vague and overly-conclusory. It’s hard to separate this out from the sketchy worldbuilding, but I was very frequently at a loss to understand what was happening. Like, the inciting incident is a member of the waitstaff at the fancy restaurant standing up on one of the tables and mumbling. If this happened in real life, my first thought would not be that the server is pissed about economic injustice! But the main character’s internal monologue leaps ahead and makes a bunch of assumptions about their motivations and what they’re up to that are just not supported by the described behavior. Similarly, later on when you hear your partner talking about their plans for direct action, the description is sufficiently muddy that it really wasn’t clear to me whether they were plotting terroristic violence – seems relevant!

There is good art to be made about the queasy compromises of living under authoritarian regimes – and the dangerous, giddy elation of taking action to try to win freedom. But getting that right requires enough context to give the player a stake in what’s going on, and enough sympathy for the fallible human beings who live in these systems (in all systems!) to portray the situation with nuance. Despite all the good intentions in the world, SS/SU falls profoundly short of the mark.