IFComp 2020: Sense of Harmony

The main point of interest here is the UI, and how it affects the way you read the story.

Choice-based works usually take one of two forms: either the choices are separated from the text (usually placed after it), as in Choicescript or a paper gamebook, or they’re hyperlinks embedded in the text, as in Twine. This is one of the few works I’ve seen that does both, distinctly and with different meanings. The player character is cybernetically enhanced, and links within the text are, in effect, consultations with autonomous subsystems. You’ll see someone smile, for example, the word “smile” will be highlilghted; clicking it, you get a report from your vision system in a little popup in the space to the right of the story, giving a microexpression analysis telling you that the smile is forced and the person is probably under stress.

Other systems include the rest of the senses (hearing, touch, smell, taste), internal diagnostics, memory, and, most intriguingly, wifi. Each subsystem has its own attractive glowy color used in both the links and the popups. What’s more, if the information provided by the popup suggests additional actions, it’ll add them to the choice list under the story text, in the same color — frequently, there are no choices at all until you unveil them in this way. Usually the color is enough to tell which suggestions come from which popups, but in addition, hovering the cursor over a choice lightly highlights the popup, and vice versa. It’s all very nicely put together, especially in that you don’t have to fully understand the rules of the system to use it.

To an extent, it’s busywork. It could just as well skip all the clicking and just show you all the popups automatically. Certainly there were times when I just clicked on all the links before reading a page at all, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t perform any destructive actions, which can’t be the approach the author intended. But it didn’t really bother me, possibly just because it looked so nice.

And anyway, it uses the medium of the popups to paint a picture of the fictional technology behind them. The systems give you superhuman clarity, and an enviable ability to read people’s emotional and physiological state, but don’t always produce good suggestions. Indeed, sometimes they don’t produce suggestions at all; the memory system in particular is prone to spouting useless trivia that you can’t act on. Sometimes every single system will suggest the same action except one that dissents, which, to my mind, clearly means that that’s the option I have to pick.

And this brings us to the actual story. The protagonist is a sex worker, who uses her special abilities to better do her job. It’s surprisingly sensitive about the subject, too, humanizing her and her coworkers. The opening is all about setting boundaries with a client who imposes on your free time, implicitly treating you as worth a little less than him. And that’s the part I just described, where all of the systems except one tell you to put his needs above your own. It’s a clever use of the medium to show the pressures she’s under, and how she’s internalized them.

And as much as the narration takes care to humanize her in the main story window, the robot hive-mind in her skull is somewhat inhuman in perspective. As much as her enhancements are a superpower, it also suggests a mind that’s fragmented, as if she’s mentally ill. Then there’s the treatment of the wifi, her least human trait. Uniquely, wifi doesn’t just suggest actions, but makes them possible, letting you control devices remotely. But it also essentially involves your consciousness leaving your body, described in terms that make it sound like a dissociative episode. Here, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s being handled with sensitivity or not.

Anyway, I’m making it sound symbolic and allegorical, but the story is largely pulp. There’s the beginnings of a mystery, then a fight scene with another enhanced individual that raises more questions. And then the game ends without resolving anything, being just the first chapter of a larger work. That’s always unsatisfying in the Comp, but I wish the author well in completing it.

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