by Simon Christiansen
Interactive fiction can create a sense of spatiality with a minimum of ingredients. It doesn’t have to be literally about a big space with lots of rooms. Rather, a sense of an entire world outside the game space (the “magic circle” as someone once called it in a different context). Parser-based gaming can be exceptionally well-suited to this; Porpentine’s their angelical understanding from last year’s comp had an uncanny bigness to it that never let you rest or get comfortable.
AlethiCorp on the other hand, basically creates a company intranet that you inhabit.
You have to apply for a job first though; let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Emily Short has a good summary of the initial experiences of working through the interface of the game–fully implicated in a nexus of surveillance in the near future. Whether you extricate yourself from that, or not, becomes the central conceit of the story.
I have to say that, upon reading the corporate training seminar, with a quiz at the end, my eyes started twitching uncontrollably, as I was having bad flashbacks to working in a Fortune 100 company. So, dead on, there.
The weird thing about it though–and why I think I thought the satire was pretty effective–was that I didn’t really hate any of the characters I worked with in the Big Evil Surveillance Company. Some of them even seemed to realize what a pointless situation they seemed to be in, considering the “subversives” we were targeting were, shall we say, ineffective at best. But they were planning potlucks, trying to keep their careers on track. Is this the “banality of evil”?
It’s all about the super-structures; that is to say, the institutions and ideological underpinnings that keep those institutions running along. There is a touch of “old school” THX-1138-esque dystopia to this game, in that sense. But perhaps the genius of this game is replicating the activity of being “productive” within the system. I haven’t played Papers Please (so someone correct me if this is way off base) but rather than the funneling through a singular checkpoint (and the pressure build-ups of fighting the system that come from those moments) we have in AlethiCorp the “free floating signifiers” of the post-modern workspace, where one isn’t only supposed to be one cog in the surveillance state, one is supposed to find it fulfilling. In fact, your bosses want you to be fulfilled.
And the people who offer you a way out do it with a smiley face email.
With no guarantees. Because fighting the system has no guarantees of anything. And in that, this game is absolutely mimetic.