IFComp 2016: Yes, my mother is…

Spoilers follow the break.

In this piece, you’re the daughter of a celebrity activist firebrand, one of the founders of the “n/a” movement, practically a legend in her world. You’re trying to support your mother’s ideals by working as a sort of public counselor, helping the beleaguered work out their problems. To some extent, you get to choose how her legacy affects you and your clients — whether you talk about her at all, whether you correct people’s misapprehensions about her or take advantage of her mystique. But however you play it, her shadow lies across every encounter, affecting how people treat you.

Structurally, it’s a small-scale branch-and-bottleneck. Four people come into your office in sequence: two legitimate clients (one new, one familiar), one curious fan, and one angry yob with a baseball bat who hates what your mother stands for and mistakenly thinks he can intimidate you. For each, you get several pages of text and a few choices about how to deal with them: how much to humor them, whether to advise reconciliation or rebellion. I don’t think the encounters affect each other at all, but they all feed into a fifth section where the PC reflects on her day and evaluates what it all meant. Between encounters, you have the option of reading unlockable documents that give backstory on what just happened.

It’s interesting that these documents only become available after they would be useful to help you understand what people are talking about. It avoids front-loading the exposition dumps, but it also avoids keeping things indefinitely mysterious, effectively making the reader want the exposition dump before providing it — and even then, making it optional in case they don’t. A single play-through still leaves a lot of lacunae, though, especially concerning what exactly it was that mom was fighting for. The first segment drops the term “n/a” a few times, but even when we get a document specifically about that, it turns out to be a bunch of Wikipedia editors arguing about how to describe it. The closest thing we get to a definition is “person not identifying themselves with any of the given options for a given social category”, with the caveat “As of today, many different people label themselves as n/a for many different reasons.” There’s an obvious relation to non-binary gender here, but it seems to be less specific than that. It’s a group identity formed by an absence of a group identity, and not even a particular such absence. A nothingness, and yet, in this world, it inspires feelings strong enough to provoke violence. I’m choosing to see the emptiness as the author’s way of generalizing the whole thing, of making it clear that this isn’t really about any specific social movement, even as the personalities involved are described in increasing detail.

At the end of the story, you’re invited to try again. There are five endings, we’re told, and a number of unlockable documents you haven’t seen yet. Despite my completist leanings, I found I didn’t want to go for completion here. Making new choices means producing whole new pages of text that cover much of the same ground as their alternatives. It seems to me that replay is better encouraged by shorter and more skimmable passages.

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