“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.
“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.