The Act is a very unusual arcade game I’ve been hearing about for years but until recently had never gotten a chance to play. The player has a single dial, which she can use to move the body language of the main character along a spectrum. Typically (though not always) that spectrum runs from Bashful Dope to Hardened Pickup Artist. The gameplay centers on getting the character to moderate his behavior appropriately in a number of social situations, but especially when flirting: don’t come on too strong at first, but don’t be too slow to pick up cues. Get the interplay just right, and you can complete the scene and move on.
Given that even such supposed interactive narrative stars as Heavy Rain have characters who routinely walk into walls, the idea of a game that was pretty much entirely about reading and responding to body language intrigued me. (L.A. Noire tries that too, of course, but in a very different way.)
And now that The Act is out for iOS, I finally got a chance to play.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the game is as lush and beautiful as the screenshots always suggested, that there’s lots of goofy charm, and that when things are working right, The Act really does get the player to think about social cues from other characters and respond to them appropriately. And the sheer technical achievement of creating this dynamic, interactive 2D animation is immense.
The bad news is that it’s very often a fiddly, finicky, difficult play. This is not, absolutely is not, a branching narrative or a narrative where you get to make choices with your body language. (Contrast the shorter, simpler, but curiously evocative Ruben and Lullaby.) There’s one right way to proceed through each scene in The Act. The timing can be very fussy.
Add to this that the body language dial doesn’t do the same thing in every scene. In some scenes it’s quite obscure what you’re supposed to do in response to some cues, and there’s not always strong feedback on failure. Also, in some sequences there are many seconds of set-up and follow-through for a single failed twitch of the dial, so you spend a lot more time watching the same clips repeat than you do performing the activity you’re being graded on.
In short, this is a game that combines the read-the-author’s-mind puzzle fun of old-school IF with the performance challenges of a platformer. Almost all the interaction sequences are likely to take several tries to get right, even the very first one; a few took dozens of attempts. That frustration level kind of, sort of makes sense as a cabinet arcade game if the aim is to get people to need to spend a lot of extra quarters; but from the perspective of enjoying an interactive story, it’s distracting and discouraging.
On some levels there’s explicit tutorial text to guide you if you make too many errors in a row, which is helpful. But that’s not true for all of them. A particularly distressing passage featured a choking man I was supposed to help — only, of course, my character isn’t actually a doctor and doesn’t know what he’s doing. So I felt all the more incompetent and guilty each of the 30 or so times the choker turned navy blue in the face and died before I worked out the right method and tempo of dial actions to give him the Heimlich maneuver. “Simple controls,” boasts the website: but “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”
Another issue with the game would have been a problem for me regardless of format, but is exacerbated, I think, by the absence of dialogue. Perhaps The Act imported some genre expectations when it copied other aspects of classic 2D cartoons, but the gender politics are retrograde. The protagonist, a window-washer, falls in love with a nurse he glimpses through glass while on the job. All he knows about her is that she has Bambi eyes and the figure of a Disney princess, but that’s apparently enough to send him rocketing after her, through a hospital environment where all the doctors are dudes. Then we get to explore how freaked out our protagonist is when (disguised as a doctor himself) he’s asked to apply a stethoscope to the chest of an older lady. Because OMG saggy breasts are the most disgusting thing ever!
I’m not making a point of a half-second exchange, here. There is an entire gameplay sequence — maybe 5 to 10 percent of the total playable content of the game — devoted to how the protagonist has to screw up his courage just the right amount before trying to place the stethoscope on the woman’s chest, and this is so appalling a prospect that he trembles and shivers. It seemed to be saying, “if you don’t live up to beauty ideals, you’re so repugnant that no one would be willing to draw near you even for a fairly brief and clinical interaction.” The horridness of this kind of body shaming is turned up to 11 when I’m asked to perform it myself as a player.
Then, too, having the protagonist’s shallowness enacted in this way seriously distanced me from him. He’s not especially attractive himself, nor clever nor successful; what he’s supposed to have going for him (I think) is that he’s a nice guy. The stethoscope sequence undermined that a lot.
Taking the structure and content issues together, I find The Act a pretty unsatisfactory game if I think of it as a piece about body language and subtly-mediated social interaction. It’s too difficult, too unresponsive to exploration, too linear. The message of the mechanics would be something like “social interaction is desperately difficult to get right, and if you time anything wrong at all you will FAIL.”
The whole thing works a lot better if I think of it instead as a game about performing a satisfying cartoon scene, according to the strict rules of how cartoons are timed and how their comedy works. Seen that way, the difficulty and linearity make more sense. Then the message is “cartoon comedy is desperately difficult to get right, and if you time anything wrong at all you will FAIL.” That seems like a true message to me, but it means The Act is closer in my mind to Loop Raccord than Sims Body Language.
The Act is an interesting and very attractive piece of work, and it’s available on iOS for 99 cents, so there’s not much cost to trying it out; all my gripes aside, I recommend it to people interested in the gameplay of social interaction because there is nothing else like it. But I’m still interested one day to see the game I thought this was going to be, a more simulational and socially fluid exploration of physical cues. And I could really have done without the interactive hating on older body types.