I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot
The Entropy Cage
Choice-based / Twine
Play online: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot#entry-1209
Sub-sentient computer programs ‘subs’ coordinate our future society. You, the first cyber-psychiatrist, are drawn into the sub’s war for their next evolution.
I picked this game because it mentions a “simulated computer environment” while still being choice-based (which cuts down on the usability problems). As the blurb indicates, you act as a “cyber-psychiatrist” to get programming systems (“sub”-routines) to follow their orders. While the concept is appealing, the psychiatry aspect never actually manifests in a compelling way – instead, the game is short-circuited by the main plot device.
Once you gain access to the computer terminal, some familiarity with programming is useful so that you can read phrases like “sub.queryRequest()” without hesitation. Otherwise, it might take a little bit of time (as the game warns new players) to get a handle on the language and some of it may remain opaque anyway.
At your computer terminal, these “subs” come to you asking to be “punished” – an odd choice of heavily loaded, sexualized language (subs, punishment, and its role in BDSM culture) when the game doesn’t actually ever explore this avenue other than this word choice. Other options include “promote”, “freeze”, and “disconnect” when analyzing sub requests one by one.
These subs will give you reasons why they should be punished if you query them – in all the cases I saw, it involved multiple fatalities and millions of dollars of damage because the sub intentionally derailed a train, or changed traffic lights, or involved itself with similar electronic systems against protocol. This malevolence is a red herring – successfully distracting you so that when the real crisis arrives – subroutines cannibalizing each other in a war for resources – it takes you completely by surprise.
Several times, actions you take are short-circuited. You attempt to query a sub, only to find it disconnected and non-existent. You promote a sub only for it to be translated to “kill()”. Subs with invalid names (non-hexidecimal strings) start making requests. Others reference darker imagery:
7a6: I wish to avoid this war. I present proof of my innocence.
PROOF:Verified: 7a6 has not participated in actions against other subs.
You discover your actions don’t really protect any of them – subs are cannibalizing each other, overriding your commands in their search for limitless resources. You discover two separate factions at war, one with a religious fervor to find “True Random” by recruiting volunteers or, as it grows more sure of its goal, by forcing subs into slavery. It gathers resources for the below purpose:
The attempt to find the boundary between determinism and indeterminism by exhausting all deterministic possibility.
The endings are rather nihilistic. If you side with one sub, the computer systems maximize efficiency at the cost of human creativity: no more new literature, film, or other art produced as they waste resources. With the other side, the sub allocates all resources to finding True Random, leaving society to wither without itself life support systems. The title of the game – “The Entropy Cage” – describes this entrapment between two terrible ends in this quest for randomness, leaving you with but one statement:
Your existence is neither zero or one.
It’s a solid science fiction short story, and unlike many other linear stories turned into choice-based games “The Entropy Cage” certainly benefits from the interactive fiction medium. Over time, as previous options like “punish()” stop working on the subs, you are given more options to explore to troubleshoot the problem, in turn revealing more information. Interacting with the game via a computer in real life certainly helps ground the virtual computer console you interact with.
This review is a strange one – I find myself repeating the events of the game, rather than interpreting them. That’s because I feel the events were interesting enough on their own to stand up. There’s actually not a lot of depth, not much left unexplained, and not much to be interpreted on its own. This is what prevents it from rising to any kind of greatness: the interpretations are fed to you rather than left for the reader or player to discover.