Inside Woman: Moving Along

Well, the month of October is over, but the judging period for the Comp lasts another two weeks. I think I’ll keep playing IF for the duration, but I’ll take this as a signal to give Inside Woman a rest for a while. There are still five games I haven’t tried on that list from IFWiki, and I’d like to give most of them at least a cursory write-up before getting back to mainstream stuff.

I do want to get back to Inside Woman at some point, though. I’m currently about 1/4 of the way through by points, and quite stuck. But I’ve been stuck in this game quite a few times before, and so far, I’m still overall enjoying the experience. Somehow, this game is less stressful than the other IF I’ve played this season. Where Make It Good and Cacophony and Blue Lacuna were largely about puzzling out the hidden meaning of the gameworld, Inside Woman is all on the surface. Utopia is Bad Guys, and acts like it.

If there’s one thing this game does well, it’s self-contained sub-scenes that operate on their own rules, like the pizza place I mentioned earlier, or the simple cyberspace-hacking scenes (of which I’ve seen two so far), or even, in the very beginning, passing through the first security checkpoint by answering questions about your cover identity. That last bit struck me as not really fitting in the story — here I was trying to quickly find information in my personal documents that surely the player character would have memorized, so it was a puzzle aimed at the player, not at the character. It was still a pretty satisfying easyish puzzle: it put a little smile on my face every time they asked something I already knew.

Inside Woman: Nanci

The Utopia Arcology is essentially a city in a tower, and like many urban games, Inside Woman has you tour the city and all it has to offer by starting in the slums and working your way up. There’s a point where you have to earn some money to progress, so you wangle a job slinging pizza. This lasts for one shift: once you’ve had the experience of solving pizza-serving puzzles, there’s no reason to revisit it. It’s time to move on up to the museum and the university and suchlike. Paying your dues to increase your status — it’s like a highly abbreviated American dream, except that you’re doing it to destroy the system from within.

Just in case you forget this, your sidekick makes occasional heavy-handed comments reminding you how evil everything around you is. I haven’t mentioned the sidekick yet: it’s the disembodied voice of a teenage boy, code-named NANCI, or Nanci for short. We’re told in the beginning that Nanci is an agent assigned to monitor you via a nanomechanical transceiver you’ve ingested. He can see through your eyes, hear through your ears, think perverted thoughts during your gratuitous shower scene 1I say “gratuitous shower scene” because that phrase has become an idiom, but I suppose it’s not really gratuitous here. It occurs when you go through decontamination on entering the arcology, so it’s not out of place. The clothing you bring with you is removed and a standard-issue Utopia jumpsuit issued standardly in its place, which seems like it’s done at least as much for its psychological impact as for public health issues, and the moment of nudity also seems like an important part of the experience as well — the almighty security guards want you to leave your first encounter with them feeling vulnerable and humiliated. You could even invoke myth here: like Inanna entering the underworld, she gives her garments to the threshold guardian before descending into the perils below. Still, none of this makes it less pervy. — he’s a lot like the player, in fact.

As a wisecracking commentator with no physical presence 2I leave it up to the reader to decide what this phrase modifies., Nanci unavoidably reminds me of Arthur, the AI sidekick in The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time. I hated Arthur. Let me tell you about my experience with Arthur, and how it was optimized to maximize hate. In JP2, you don’t start off with sidekick Arthur: you have to solve a sequence of puzzles to obtain him, and once you have him, he’s essential to solving other puzzles. I failed to notice a hotspot in the game’s hub that was supposed to lead to encountering him for the first time. Consequently, I played as much of the game as it’s possible to play without him — maybe 1/3 of the game can be explored this way — then got stuck. (So already my first encounter with him is associated him with a bad experience.) When I finally got him, I was horrified at how he transformed the game. I had been enjoying the quiet, lonely atmosphere. I didn’t want it sprinkled with stupid jokes and insultingly unnecessary hints.

Nanci is better than that, though. He seldom speaks spontaneously — just on important plot developments, which, at the rate I’m going, occupy a small minority of my playtime. Usually he’s silent until you explicitly request information about something, which you do by simply focusing your attention on it with the “focus on” command. It’s like a third alternative to “examine” and “search”! I don’t think I’ve seen anything yet where Nanci yields essential new information, but he does at least provide the guidance of an additional point of view, like examining things with Poet in Suspended.

He doesn’t seem to take much advantage of being on the outside, though — you’d think he could look up information not available to you, contact the relatives of your fellow citizens, things like that. Maybe he’ll get to do that at some point, but so far, he might as well be inside the arcology with me. Which makes me a little suspicious. Maybe we’re headed for a third-act twist here. Maybe the nanomachines I swallowed aren’t a transceiver at all, but an AI. Alternately, maybe he’s just a delusion. The whole mission briefing was told in flashback — it could easily be a false memory. Maybe, just maybe, Alice Ling is nothing more than a dangerous madwoman who hears voices in her head, voices that tell her that Utopia is evil and must be destroyed. But that doesn’t explain where she gets her martial arts skills from.

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1. I say “gratuitous shower scene” because that phrase has become an idiom, but I suppose it’s not really gratuitous here. It occurs when you go through decontamination on entering the arcology, so it’s not out of place. The clothing you bring with you is removed and a standard-issue Utopia jumpsuit issued standardly in its place, which seems like it’s done at least as much for its psychological impact as for public health issues, and the moment of nudity also seems like an important part of the experience as well — the almighty security guards want you to leave your first encounter with them feeling vulnerable and humiliated. You could even invoke myth here: like Inanna entering the underworld, she gives her garments to the threshold guardian before descending into the perils below. Still, none of this makes it less pervy.
2. I leave it up to the reader to decide what this phrase modifies.

Inside Woman: Adventure!

I vaguely remember watching a drama about Hollywood some years ago. At one point someone mentioned something about a “film” to a studio mogul, only to be corrected: “Films are for the French. I make movies.” And that summarized the difference in what the two characters wanted to do with the medium.

Something similar could be said about Andy Phillips. The term “Interactive Fiction”, despite its history, connotes artsy, experimental stuff — it’s just barely removed from “Electronic Literature”. At a time when indie games are entering the mainstream, IF is indier than indie. Phillips doesn’t write IF. He writes adventure games.

At one point I wanted to remove a nail from a wall, previously used to hang a calendar. After unsuccessfully trying to pull and twist it out, I tried breaking it, and was surprised that my character snapped it off with a single swift downward kick. I don’t know why I was surprised. She’s a secret agent of the Chinese military. Of course she has martial arts skills. This is an adventure game.

Interactive Fiction is a collaboration between author and player. An adventure game is more like the player bending to the author’s will. It’s a maze, and you’re the rat. You think you have a reasonable alternate solution that would plausibly work in the real world given the materials at hand? Ha! I scoff at your alternate solutions. You will find the solution that the author wants you to find! Or you will get stuck. That happens to me sometimes. In fact, it happens so much that I’m barely past the point I was at in my last post. I’m still having occasional breakthroughs, and I think they’re all the sweeter for the relief they provide from stuckness. But I’m very much aware that I’m basically playing a guessing game most of the time. The thing that triggers a breakthrough is usually examining a random scenery object, or searching it, or even looking under it. You get used to this, and you make it part of your routine. Fortunately, this gameworld is pretty thoroughly implemented, and examining random scenery objects usually yields more descriptive text.

Inside Woman

And now, the prolific Andy Phillips brings us an epic tale of corporate espionage in the 22nd century. No one’s really sure what goes on inside the Utopia Corporation’s arcology in the flooded ruins of San Francisco, because no one is ever allowed to leave, but things are so desperate elsewhere that a lot of people are willing to take a gamble that it’s better than their lives at home. Alice Ling — not her real name — is hired to infiltrate it by posing as an ordinary refugee in need of work, and my guess is that she’ll probably wind up blowing the place up or sinking it into the sea or something once she’s ferreted out its secrets. You know how reviews of fiction sometimes describe a particular work’s setting as an additional character? I don’t really understand what that means, but but it probably applies here — certainly the Utopia Arcology itself has more personalty than most of the actual people I’ve met there. And it’s not just any character. It’s the antagonist. It’s a 35-story tower of high technology, bright promise, dashed dreams, hidden cameras, and armored security forces.

Phillips has released several games, all of them major, but I have to admit that the only other one I’ve gotten around to playing is his first release, Time: All Things Come to an End. I had very negative comments about it at the time, as did some others, but to his unending credit, Phillips has shown that he can take criticism, and seems genuinely interested in honing his craft. 1I was going to expand on this point, but in the interests of peace, all I’ll say is that I’m really glad I’m not involving myself in the comp this year. Still, I can’t help but think of T:ATCtoE as I play Inside Woman. My chief complaint about the former was its extreme linearity. It was basically formed of a sequence of small areas in which you’d solve a puzzle to proceed to the next small area; there was generally no going back once you had advanced, and that was a big problem, because sometimes puzzles relied on easily-missed items hidden in earlier sections. The early parts of Inside Woman are similarly linear, as you proceed through security and registration and decontamination and so forth. Obviously I don’t know yet whether or not I’ve failed to discover any essential items in now-inaccessible areas, but the game has gone to some length to prevent me from abandoning or destroying essential items once I’ve obtained them, and that inspires a little faith. This linear introductory sequence lasts longer than some entire games, but things do seem to broaden out after a while, as you gain access to more of the arcology’s floors. This is an aspect I quite like: the in-game orientation handbook explicitly lays out for you the different security clearances and what they can access, which gives a structure to the future.

But any judgment I make now is highly tentative. Judging by my score, I’ve only played a bit more than 10% of the game so far. And, having said that, it strikes me that of all the IF I’ve played this month, this is the first to provide a numerical score.

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1. I was going to expand on this point, but in the interests of peace, all I’ll say is that I’m really glad I’m not involving myself in the comp this year.