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
By Simon Christiansen
Play Online: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot#entry-1150
To play, sign up at the website and apply for a job. Yes. Really.
Do you have what it takes to be an Associate Information Management Consultant with one of the world’s largest information management companies? Can you leverage synergies with the best to operationalize our global market traction? If you were a bear, would you be an American Black Bear or a Siberian Brown bear? If the answer is Yes, apply today!
I loved this game because I love the genre (or subgenre?) it’s in. It relies on a technique called false documents that are all about trying to make your fiction appear as nonfiction constructs. Mainstream games use false documents all the time as intel pieces – letters, emails, coded messages you intercept. Gone Home is a game built entirely upon false documents, and it’s common trope in any investigative or clue-finding game. This is the “mockumentary” of video games.
Since it’s Spooktober I’m going to off on a tangent. There’s a whole style of writing called “creepypasta”, a term for creepy internet horror stories pretending to be “real events” often using false documents like fake forum messages, fake facebook messages, fake tweets, and so on so forth. Some of my favorites are the old school classic Ted’s Caving Page or the mixed media Dionaea House or the one about the dead girlfriend on Facebook or the entire SCP Foundation wiki or the wonderfully bizarre eHow-style Instructions for a Help. There’s so, so many more.
In the case of AlethiCorp, false documents are in the form of a fake interactive corporate website where you apply for a job, fill out a personality test, and then do all your work (remotely, I guess) using the company portal. You can send and receive emails, sign up for social events, and even take an online class! The game puts a lot of effort into selling you the idea of this website being a real company employee portal. (I really want to know if they used any tools specifically to make this game, because it’s quite clever).
This game most reminded me of is Extrasolar, another game focused around a corporate website where you can apply for a job (volunteer, really) manning a rover on an extrasolar planet. Like AlethiCorp, the corporation has ulterior motives and you develop connections with hackers looking to take down the system. (I highly recommend Extrasolar). Some of the mechanics in AlethiCorp also reminded me of Christine Love’s games. In Digital: A Love Story you have the ability to read emails and “respond”, receiving canned emails back in the same form you can send emails or flag items for further analysis in this game.
All this – without really getting into what AlethiCorp is about – shows that the game’s functional conceit is interesting enough to make it worth playing. Technically, this is a choose-your-own adventure, only the choices aren’t binary “Choose X or Y right now” that you tend to see in branching stories. Instead, the branching happens more naturally and just involves you using the system at your disposal (deleting evidence or flagging suspicious activity, for example). It’s a more organic and more engaging way of interacting with a choice-based system.
So what is it about? AlethiCorp is about inept people being inept, especially when they are trying to do Serious Stuff TM like invade privacy with an Orwellian surveillance state, effectively manage a multi-billion dollar corporation with appropriate synergy, herd radical left activists, empower the oppressed, write self-published dystopian novels, dismantle the government from within, and share recipes. Actually, it’s pretty good about the last part. I received a lot of unsolicited recipes from my supervisor at AlethiCorp.
As a new hire, you’re tasked with investigating a possibly “subversive” element – an amateur, self-published writer who’s currently begging bookstores to carry his anti-government book, and whose own father is telling him, “Look, kid, this writing is shit.” Investigation involves reading reports (which are humorously penned by someone who relentlessly mocks the idealistic nonsense, comparing it unfavorable (!) to Atlas, Shrugged), and reading intercepted emails, phone transcripts, and in-person reports by information officers. You can then flag these items for follow-up investigation, fill out your eight-hours in the time card, and return the next day for more information.
The writing in the game is a solid A++ and I found myself entertained by the jokes, both explicit and implied if you read between the lines. The corporate culture is satirized but a bit too on-the-nose at times – the silly online course on “Hakka” was a painfully accurate description of agile development. An HR member keeps sending pictures of trains out – I guess that’s the 2054 equivalent of comic sans and cat memes (or maybe that’s just my company…?). I reached my maximum lifetime quota of the word “synergy”.
The surveillance culture isn’t treated seriously either. You can even flag other analysts at the company, who then has to analyze her own analysis of the “subversive” literature for subversive content. Spies go on dates with persons of interest, and then make the company foot the bill. Your supervisors cheer you on for finding subversive content in emails that have nothing of the type. There’s a lot of meaningless pep talk like below:
However, management is concerned that a greater than normal percentage of people examined have been determined to be unsuspicious. Obviously, you can’t find what isn’t there, but let’s be extra diligent that we aren’t missing any genuine suspicious activity. Sometimes, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. Remember: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance!
Meanwhile, you find yourself reading about a radical left activist group at the local college spreading pamphlets full of jargon they copy-pasted from other jargon, referred to as “haphazard excerpts from Baby’s First Radical Textbook” by your fellow analyst. They are trying to fight the system and educate the ignorant, oppressed masses from within their elite, privileged, Ivy League bubble and all they can think of is a bit of harmless destruction of property. And yet, even there they are frozen into inaction because they need to vote. Again, the satire is very on-the-nose here, mocking college activists as slackivists, idealists, and generally totally out of touch with real issues.
There are some other small story threads – the amateur novelist, the journalist trying to write a story on the next generation, the secret anti-government group that appears to be just as inept as the corporations it’s fighting. The ending I received was humorous and fit right into the whole “everyone is inept, even you” kind of plot.
“We’re lucky that Miss England was finally caught,” says Oskar Jönsson, head of IT security for the UK branch. “After she had won the trust of her colleagues, she proceeded to delete as much data as possible, severely disrupting an important AlethiCorp investigation.”
In hindsight… it was obvious that I would get caught. I wasn’t a very good traitor.
Ultimately, the game is a fun diversion that reminds me a little of Burn After Reading or Hudsucker Proxy (but that gives Alethicorp maybe a little too much credit). You can see the potential of the game to turn into a Coen Brothers-style comedy of errors about inept people and comic misunderstandings, but it doesn’t really have a satisfying conclusion and doesn’t up the stakes over time. It’s more of a slice-of-life story in this light-hearted corporate dystopia than a riveting story with a strong plot arc.