ParserComp 2022: Cost of Living

Here’s an experimental one. It’s a two-layered narrative: layer one is a short story by classic sci-fi writer Robert Sheckley, a critique of technological consumerism and consumer debt, and layer two, where all of the interactivity takes place, is a discussion of the story by a couple of audience members, breaking in periodically in a different font. Their conversation contains occasional blanks for the player to fill in with interpretive words: “Don’t you get the feeling that Carrin is ______ about Miller?

Now, the system makes it clear that it’s paying attention to how you fill in the blanks. An introductory section is very clearly responsive, asking yes/no questions, and later parts bring up words that you typed in previously. Nonetheless, it felt mostly inconsequential. Obviously the course of the pre-existing Sheckley story isn’t going to vary with your choices, but even the discussion seemed like it was just producing the same output regardless of what I typed a lot of the time, just swapping in the words I typed. I suspect that it really was varying the output, but not being very obvious about it. I could accept this as what Emily Short calls “reflective choices”, prompting the player for a reaction just to provoke one, but a lot of the prompts seemed to be angling for specific responses, like a middle school English test. Consider the passage:

Vesper: He gossips about everyone in town. Company’s code. Yeah right!
You know he uses that line at every house on that block.

Harris: You don’t think Pathis is being ______?

How do you fill that with anything other than “honest”? And if you’re giving me a purely reflective choice and making it clear what you want me to choose, I start to feel like my interaction isn’t serving any purpose at all.

Also, the ending is less than satisfying — so much so that I thought at first that I had hit a bug and the game had ended prematurely. Admittedly, the inner story’s ending is unsatisfying by design — it’s depicting an unsatisfying world! — but the game gives the last word to Sheckley, not the audience, and I would have at least expected the commentary track to have a summing-up, giving the fictional audience’s thoughts after seeing the whole thing.

But I can kind of see a thematic justification. Two-layered stories always implicitly ask “What is the relationship between the layers? Why is this particular story told in conjunction with that particular story, and how do they resonate?”, and once you’ve posed that question outright, the obvious answer is that the Sheckley story is about a society that’s technologically advanced but constraining, pressuring people to conform while plying them luxuries that don’t really satisfy them, and then the interactivity is similarly technological but constrained, unsatisfying, and pressuring. I don’t really buy this, though, because you have to ignore so much about the story to make it work. The inner story’s central ideas are luxury and debt, and the outer story doesn’t reflect that at all.

Still, I give it kudos just for experimenting with form. That’s always interesting to see, no matter what the result.

1 Comment so far

  1. Dorian Passer on 2 Aug 2022

    Thank you so much for this review, and for all the other reviews. I loved reading through them. And I really appreciate your kudos for my experiment, even though it’s all over the place.

    But, I have a lot of space to explore in future experiments. So I’m very grateful for your thoughts on how to thematically integrate stateful and stateless layers!!! Do you have any recommendations for books or articles where I can study more about this? Thanks!

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