IFComp 2019: URA Winner!

IF through the medium of fake college admissions test prep software! A friend of mine from college once wrote a non-interactive short story along similar lines, putting social commentary into the format of reading comprehension questions. URA Winner! doesn’t take that route. Instead, it mainly goes Fission Mailed with it.

Most of the interaction takes the form of picking answers to multiple-choice questions in a series of brief practice tests for the Undergraduate Readiness Assessment. Between tests, you visit “Examination Island”, a little gameworld with areas devoted to the three major sections of the test: English, Mathematics, and Social Studies. For the most part, the only choice you have in the island is what order you visit the three areas in, which does seem to affect the content somewhat. The first hint of something peculiar going on is that “Social Studies” doesn’t mean what it usually does. Instead, the test questions there are about the unwritten rules of social interaction — for example, one question concerns the appropriate way to acknowledge seeing a friend unexpectedly in a movie theater. Later, the narration on Examination Island starts uncomfortably shifting registers. One moment it’s being all edutainmenty and talking about the importance of reading critically and what kinds of calculator are allowed in the exam room, the next moment it’s in a more fictive mode, narrating your inner thoughts and reactions to things, treating other characters like real people with their own problems that don’t have a lot to do with your exams. Some of them aren’t particularly motivated to help you study for your exam, and treat you with impatience and consternation. There are vignettes where you just plain fail to get any help at all. These are jarringly out-of-place in their context. The effect is uncanny.

Now, I said that the Social Studies material is the first hint of something wrong. That’s not quite true; it’s just that the earlier hint is one that’s liable to go unnoticed at first. At several points throughout the tests and the island interludes, there are words in boldface. In fact, these are hyperlinks that, when clicked, make little changes to the text of the page, turning it into something less friendly and encouraging and more bizarre, sometimes in Chinese. The thing that makes these easy to overlook is that they’re not part of the choices presented to you as choices. Each page normally has a button at the bottom that says “Continue”, or a sequence of multiple-choice questions, or a map of the places on Examination Island. In all cases, the choices are set apart from the text. But if, like me, you get all the way to your final evaluation without clicking on the inline boldface, there’s a final message, hidden at the bottom of the page after a big gap where you have to scroll to it. “Still, you can’t help but feel like you missed something.” The brilliant thing about this is the boldface on the “missed something”. Those words are a hyperlink back to the beginning, but this time the emphasis is strange enough to invite a click. And once you’ve done that, you’re primed to click on any other boldface you see.

The second pass through the game is shorter, because it helps you along by cutting out things you don’t need to revisit. Find all the special links, and you get a new scenario, heading to work on a train that apparently links Examination Island to San Francisco, followed by a very silly moment when the world’s ultimate secret, the prize for all your efforts, turns out to be a reprise of Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, the author’s pseudo-educational entry in last year’s Comp. The whole ending is even more dreamlike than the rest of the game, blurring disparate things together and throwing in a large handful of nightmarish anxiety.

The feel of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Too Many Cooks and Unedited Footage of a Bear. There’s a similar sense of things being not quite right, of a breaching of realities. And, ultimately, of things reaching a breaking point where you can’t take it seriously enough to find it disturbing any more.

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