IF Comp 2011: The Play

It’s comp time, so I’m going to short summaries in my RSS feed in order to avoid dumping spoilers into the aggregators. And, as usual, I will be skipping games that have no evidence of beta-testing.

“The Play” is an Undum piece by Deirdra Kiai (Life Flashes By, Pigeons in the Park). “The Play” concerns the dress rehearsal of a play about a statue come to life, her artist, and an escaping gladiator. There’s a certain amount of slapstick humor, but mostly the story is about juggling the moods of the actors you’re overseeing in an attempt to get through the evening.

In the review to follow, there are some comments on thematic content at the beginning, then spoiler space, then a more detailed discussion of structure. That said, even the thematic comments give away a certain amount of what the game is about, so if you want to encounter it entirely fresh, don’t read on.

“The Play” is about sexism and privilege, and specifically about how much and how to fight expectations that are ingrained in the system. Depending on how you direct the originally rather objectifying script, you can achieve a range of outcomes from just getting the play over with to completely subverting its message. The character of the director doesn’t directly alter the course of things (and this itself is kind of interesting, because it mutes the director’s voice a bit), but she can accept or discard input from the actors and stagehand.

To complicate matters, the actor with the greatest vested interest in the status quo is also explicitly the most skilled and experienced of the lot. He’s arrogant and a pain to work with, certainly, but it’s easy to sympathize with his irritation as the other actors try to ad lib a more acceptable ending for the play.

It’s this problem that (to my mind, at least) made “The Play” more interesting than a simple statement about being a female and feminist creator in a culture with significant gender biases — because it goes on to acknowledge that trying to speak from a position of traditional silence is hard both extrinsically and intrinsically. It’s hard extrinsically because there are a lot of people who will give you feedback about how the status quo is fine, and because institutions are often set up to support one way of doing things; it’s hard intrinsically because there isn’t always a lot of prior work to follow. And because art just is hard.

That description may make it sound like a weighty piece, but “The Play” is comedy, sometimes shading into farce, solidly implemented with an attractive customized version of Undum. A single play-through will take only a few minutes, but you may want to play enough to revisit several times. Recommended.

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“The Play” is probably the most substantial use of Undum I’ve seen so far, and worth a look for authors considering that system (or ChoiceScript or Varytale, for that matter — the effects are related). The narrative interspersed with differently-formatted passages of play script looks good and delivers several sly jokes; options for the player are cagily selected.

“The Play” preserves information about the mood state of all four characters, and the effect of this is not just a cumulative counting of points (“how many times did you decide in Karl’s favor? in Henrietta’s?”). If a character is flustered or irritable, she may react differently to a choice than she would if merely tired. Moreover, some actions have a positive effect on one character and a negative effect on another, demonstrating the antagonism between them.

Quite a few of the choices in “The Play” are about letting the reader dispense exposition: click on “Karl” to get a short description of Karl, click on the longer phrase in order to actually take action. Reading the bit about Karl doesn’t remove the opportunity to move the story forward later, so there’s no reason not to click both, in order: exposition, then advancement. (I’m taking an improv class, and one of the practice games we play goes like this: one person tells a story, and the other can interrupt at any time to say EXPAND or ADVANCE. EXPAND means the storyteller needs to go into more detail about whatever they’re talking about; ADVANCE means stop explaining and move the story forward. Many bits of “The Play” do this as well.)

Generally I like this effect; it works especially because “The Play” does a great job of signaling through word choice which options are going to be EXPAND options and which are going to be ADVANCE options.

My only gripe about this implementation is that it’s possible to miss a lot of the material about the sexual harassment case that set Brock against Ainsley. Without that information, I found my first play-through (where I was focused just on making the rehearsal come to a non-catastrophic end) a little flat; it became considerably more interesting on later run-throughs, when I better understood what was at stake. As a rule, I like player-controlled exposition, but I think it’s important to guarantee that a first play-through will always contain at least the critical information to understand what a story is about; I felt like “The Play” didn’t quite deliver on that.

But this is a minor gripe and didn’t really cause too much trouble. My experience with “The Play” was that I started out thinking I was just supposed to prevent disaster (and there were plenty of potential disasters to avoid — Erica walked off set a couple of times) and then gradually through replaying discovering that I had the opportunity to shape the play into something more effective.

That’s a good shape for an interactive experience to have: initial expectations about agency paid off, new vistas of possibility opening up, and outcomes that the player wouldn’t have been able to anticipate at the outset.

24 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Play

  1. One thing that I liked was that one of the choices that (at least in all my playthroughs) was Pareto-optimal for the actors and thus for your play — it improved one actor’s mood without annoying anyone else — made me feel like an awful person. (Letting Brock spout off about sexual harassment.) That seems to me to make a pretty decent statement about the perils of throwing sand in the gears.

    Did you see Ainsley as definitely a woman? I interpreted that character as a man, mostly because of this passage:

    “There was a time when you, too, once thought women reported harassment just for attention, as some cheap attempt to become more well-known and further their careers.”

    Which I guess could be read with “women” meaning “those women who report harassment.” And “Ainsley” is more of a woman’s name, but again I read Brock’s anger with Ainsley as partly being a feeling that he had betrayed the brotherhood. I suppose it may be a deliberate ambiguity, though Kiai didn’t choose an iconically gender-neutral name like Jordan, Casey, or Taylor.

    • I interpreted that character as a man, mostly because of this passage:

      Ah, hm. I took that as a comment on the fact that women also often reinforce the effects of patriarchy, either through ignorance or because they’re emotionally invested in being approved of by the existing power structure.

      • I definitely see that reading, it’s just that I’d find it a little more natural to say “other women” there instead of just “women.” Still, that’s compatible with deliberate ambiguity. (Also, I realize which one of that is more of an authority than the other on whether a woman might express that thought in those words.)

  2. I’ve played through twice so far; I’m extremely amused at the assumption that letting everybody ad-lib everything is a recipe for energy, enthusiasm and success. “Actors just want to be FREE!” I can’t say this matches up with my experience – though I confess that if the show *is* about to be catastrophic, then improvising is a good way of getting some easy laughs in.

    The sexual harassment/personal history lines were definitely underplayed in my run-throughs; I think I’ll go back and try to root them out intentionally.

    • I’m extremely amused at the assumption that letting everybody ad-lib everything is a recipe for energy, enthusiasm and success

      Yes, that struck me as curious as well, but I don’t have enough acting experience to comment on it extensively.

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  4. I managed to meander through a playthrough where the sexual harassment thing was very much downplayed–for whatever reason, the disaster-in-the-offing air made me read the piece as probably being humor, and so when there was a glancing mention of sexual harassment I took it as, well, a glancing mention rather than a hint to explore that angle more in the game. I suspect this would look very different to me with replays, now that know what to look for.

  5. “The Play” is about sexism and privilege, and specifically about how much and how to fight expectations that are ingrained in the system. Depending on how you direct the originally rather objectifying script, you can achieve a range of outcomes from just getting the play over with to completely subverting its message.

    Soooo… I played through the game a bunch of times, largely because I was really hoping to find this part. It *seemed* to intended to be explored, given how much reference it was given in various asides throughout the game. But I searched a lot of plausible options, and didn’t find anything more substantial.

    Maybe I’m missing a big chunk of the game, but I’m not seeing any more about objectification here than “let’s let the female character be randomly assertive” and the occasional “people who disrespect women and/or ignore sexual harassment are jerks.” Your choices are who to abet and who to argue with, but I didn’t come across any point where the issue came to a head in any significant manner. And it’s so easy to ignore this thread entirely, that I really can’t see that as “what the game is about.”

    (But maybe I *am* missing something major? I never found so much as a chance to improve the stage manager’s spirits – only ways to tire her out less.)

    • SPOILERS, but: I understood it as fairly clear that the script as written was highly constraining and objectifying (consider the description of the playwright, James Dough, and Brock’s arrogant conduct), tapping into a myth about how men get to construct the women they want to interact with. So there was, IMO, something dissatisfying about the as-written performance of the script, even if you manage to get it to go off right.

      By abetting one or both of the younger actors, you can get the gladiator to take the statue’s place, or get the gladiator and the statue to leave together, depending on which sides you take. (If both the gladiator and the statue are happy, there’s a potential for a real-life romance outcome for the actors, as well.) This doesn’t involve an actual discussion in which you as the director assert a position verbally — the silence of the director in her own person is pretty constant throughout. But I took it to suggest that redressing the imbalance of the status quo, and achieving something approximating an equal relationship between men and women, requires the involvement of both women and of men open to their concerns.

      I agree it’s possible to get through the game without seeing a lot of the backstory — which may be a structural mistake or may be attempting to make some point about how it’s hard to learn about injustice unless you’re willing to listen. Nonetheless, I’d say almost all of the interactivity is about the objectification issue one way or another. The character dialogue comes into play here, of course, but so do personal descriptions. The slapsticky bit with the statue’s dress is pretty much forcing you into one of the standard objectifying approaches to female sexuality, for instance — the statue can either wear the too-tight dress that makes her look “like Marilyn Monroe” and eventually rips, or she can dress as a frump in a gown reminiscent of a schoolteacher. And you can also choose to treat Henrietta as though she “ought” to have traditional feminine skills of sewing and mending, or accept that she’s actually better at carpentry.

      • Well, I got the backstory, I think, but it never seemed to affect the current action much.

        I really didn’t see the interactivity as being about objectification. They were framed as choices about whether to allow changes or not; the content of those changes was hardly up to you. My attempts to pay attention to Erica got me nowhere interesting; all the significant choices were allowing people to go off. You’re describing a game where you’re trying to deal with implicit gender roles and objectification in an unreceptive environment; that’s not this game at all. The narrative I got here was “director gets actors enthusiastic by letting them change the play in response to their criticism of it,” which – in order to be effective – makes me wonder why on earth the director chose this play in the first place, if its original form required such extreme subversion and rewriting to be palatable.

        The choices to do with Erica do touch on the issues you describe, but I have great difficulty accepting a description of the game as being “about” these issues, when (a) your own available choices and responses are so distant from these issues, and (b) some of the gameplay deals with this issue, but so much of it doesn’t (the broken sofa; Karl’s nervousness; allowing continued improvisation; winning Brock’s respect).

        I guess I’m disappointed because I can easily imagine a game which *does* focus on these issues more directly, and gives you agency to confront them. And also, one wishes, which deals more realistically with directorial confrontation between classic works and modern values – because those can be fascinating.

      • The choices to do with Erica do touch on the issues you describe, but I have great difficulty accepting a description of the game as being “about” these issues, when (a) your own available choices and responses are so distant from these issues, and (b) some of the gameplay deals with this issue, but so much of it doesn’t (the broken sofa; Karl’s nervousness; allowing continued improvisation; winning Brock’s respect).

        I guess I’m disappointed because I can easily imagine a game which *does* focus on these issues more directly, and gives you agency to confront them.

        Hrm. I don’t imagine I’ll argue you into seeing it the way I did, but I did think a lot of those choices and responses were relevant. I saw alleviating Karl’s nervousness as part of getting to a positive resolution, and the question of whether Brock’s respect was worth anything also ties in closely with the backstory. Allowing further improvisation or not obviously determines how much and how well the play is going to be revised.

        Yes, you aren’t allowed yourself to make a speech stating a position about feminism, objectification, etc., but you are allowed to speak through the work you ultimately create (as I saw it). This approach streamlines the agency — the same way that you have agency in Textfire Golf through how you swing at the ball, or agency in a shooter depending on what you shoot, in The Play you have agency through which actors you encourage and which you quash — but it doesn’t mean that you’re not fundamentally dealing with the issue of what your play will present and why.

        I agree that it’s not a very convincing representation of what workshopping a play would actually involve. But that is (to my mind) a separate issue.

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  8. My only gripe about this implementation is that it’s possible to miss a lot of the material about the sexual harassment case that set Brock against Ainsley.

    This is interesting, because my experience (and sort of the foundation of my major problem with the game) was that the theme in general, and that part of it in particular, was unavoidably in-your-face from the first playthrough. I suppose this is the standard problem with crucial-information-delivery in IF.

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  12. Ok, no one spotted the obvious reference to Emily’s own Galatea? In fact, in one dialogue, the director comes short of calling Erika “Emily”. :)

    this was a nice game, sure.

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