IFComp 2020: Ulterior Spirits

This game’s blurb describes it as “A Christmas Carol meets Mass Effect“, and, well, fair enough. But as Chirstmas Carol riffs go, it’s a strange one. The only “ghost” our surly space admiral sees is a glimpse of a dead enemy from an old war, and that has a prosaic explanation by the end. Instead, mainly what you get is a series of death threats and menacing video messages. Some of these can’t be shown to other people for one reason or another, suggesting the possibility that they’re imaginary, symptoms of a dementia caused by guilt, but there’s definitely an assassin stalking you as well, breaking into your quarters while you’re at work and the like. Still, all these problems, real and possibly-unreal alike, just kind of melt away at the end when the player character has a change of heart about alien orphans.

Are we to take, then, it that the death threats caused this change of heart, made the admiral more sympathetic? That being stalked and harassed provoked an emotional reaction other than feeling justified in harsh response? That rings false to me. At the very least, I can definitely say that the player character’s reactions are not my reactions, and that consequently, the redemption loses some power as a redemption. It’s not something I did, or a result of decisions I made for the character. It just something that happens to you: the successful result of a psyop by a hostile power, targeting a VIP who’s writing Coalition policy statements.

The presentation is exceedingly slick, a cool blue Enterprise-console-looking UI that sends out ripple-rings when tapped, with a panel for professional-looking illustrations (in shades of blue with yellow highlights), and rollover text defining its sci-fi terms (albeit usually not saying much of importance). I have a few complaints about it, however. First, it doesn’t work in my default browser; I had to switch to Chrome to even see the main menu. Then there’s a lot of small built-in delays as it slides choice buttons out and clears the main text panel with a swipe. Sometimes, in the smaller text chunks, I spent more time waiting for the text to appear than I spent reading it. The impatience this provokes made me inclined to skim through the longer passages, especially when there was just a single button to advance rather than a choice — yes, this piece is in the school of “break up large text dumps with frequent choiceless prompts”, and if you’ve been following this blog, you know how I feel about that.

This inclination to skim may be responsible for my surprise at learning that the player character, the space admiral, is a woman — something that only registered for me when her son, with whom I’d had a lengthy phone conversation in the beginning of the story, addresses her as “Mom” for the first time in the ending. OK, in fairness, it’s established in the very beginning (albeit hardly ever referenced after that) that her name is “Renee”, but I suppose the distinction between the feminine “Renée” and the masculine “René” is lost on an English-speaker like myself. So I don’t think the confusion here is deliberate. And that makes me think I misread some of the social dynamics earlier in the story, including the whole stalking and harassment thing. So I really don’t know what to make of the story now.

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