IFComp 2016: Fair

Spoilers follow the break.

Although the setting here is a science fair at an elementary school, the experience is more like a three-ring circus. There’s a lot of stuff going on at once, more than you can pay a satisfying amount of attention to in the short time you’re given. To some extent, this is fakery: every turn throws you some randomly-generated descriptions of people wandering the crowds. But it’s mixed with enough genuinely interactive events that I always felt like I was passing up opportunities. At one point, a helicopter lands outside, but I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on it. A couple of young girls roam about doing mischief like cutting the ribbons that tie the numbered balloons to the exhibits they identify, and while I did manage to part them from their scissors on one play-through, it ultimately seems inconsequential: if you can’t identify exhibits by number, you’ll ultimately just call them by name, or, if you’ve been too busy to even look at an exhibit, identify them as “second from the right” or similar.

Your role in all this is that of local-celebrity judge. As a self-published sci-fi writer, you’re the closest thing to a scientist they’ve managed to rustle up. As such, you can spend your time trying to hawk copies of your latest space-opera epic in order to make your rent — the only score the game keeps is how much money you’ve raised. Selling books is essentially a salesmanship mini-game, a series of menu-based conversations where randomly-chosen potential customers ask questions and you try to guess what answers will appeal to them – for example, are they asking if it’s kid-friendly because that’s what they want or because that’s what they don’t want? Interestingly, your options change as you try them out, the PC improving his patter with practice. But by far the most successful strategy I’ve found in this game is to just tell blatant lies, like “It’s just like Harry Potter”. Thus does this game enter the realm of social satire.

The satire continues if you decide to give up on selling books and actually look at the exhibits. Supposedly the ones you get to look at are the best of the crop, the few that remained after the potato batteries and such were eliminated. And they’re all perfectly abysmal. There’s one about the power of prayer, one extremely professionally-built one about how global warming is a hoax. One purports to explore the mechanics of pain reactions, but is basically just an excuse for the entrant to hit his brother a lot and videotape it. The one that I felt was most deserving of winning was one about the effect of scent on attraction: the entrant, a cheerleader, tried asking several boys out while wearing different perfumes, with the punch line that the hypothesis about certain scents being preferred had to be rejected because none of the boys ever said no. But at least she reported the results accurately; bias against publishing negative results is a serious problem in science. Also, she’s the only one who both isn’t deeply deluded and didn’t try to bullshit me when I asked for details, and she basically had a healthy attitude about the whole farcical event — although maybe that’s just a matter of her successfully reading the player character and giving him the reaction he wants, just as the player character does to others for his book sales.

Regardless of whether you choose to interview the exhibitors or just play the salesman mini-game, you’ll be hustled to the stage to rank the entries before you’re finished. Thus, your first pass at the game will inevitably end in passing judgment without adequate information. The game thus encourages replay, and it reinforces this by keeping track of which endings you’ve seen (although the endings are mainly just a matter of who you picked for first place). But there’s another element to this that I only learned about from the walkthrough. Out in the back of the school, there’s a number of losing exhibits already discarded. If you examine them enough times — which is to say, more times than I did — you find a time machine, activated by the classic adventure-game magic word “xyzzy”. With this, you can repeatedly turn back the clock and finally do things thoroughly in a single pass. I’m not sure whether to regard this as just an easter egg or as an essential part of the game. It’s pretty much essential for getting the maximum score, which requires both selling all your books and accepting a couple of bribes.

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