A(s)century (Austin Walker)

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A(s)century is a cyberpunk Twine piece about a dystopian future in which the line between corporation and government has been wholly erased, and your job (at least initially) consists of writing ghastly corporatese copy for various advertising purposes. It’s dark satire — often very dark, with companies that offer tourist services to view the end of a species going extinct, and “therapeutic services” where people can donate to pretend to themselves that they’re doing something to help the world, even though their donations do nothing and mean nothing. Workers are interchangeable and disposable, the line between human and AI gradually erased. Creative workers are referred to as “crates” and are treated about as well as that naming might imply.

Interspersed with these visions are real quotes about capitalism, just to confirm the sense of inevitability, of this dystopia as a logical extension of the present. (Sometimes the present feels dystopic enough.) As I played I found myself thinking of some of Jim Munroe’s work (not so much his IF as Ghosts With Shit Jobs or Everyone in Silico); or Alan DeNiro’s Twine piece We are the Firewall. These worlds are all crowded with rules and entities that we don’t initially understand; in A(s)century, unfolding over the course of decades, the world is not only alien but also in constant flux. I always felt like I was a little on the back foot, not quite sure of all that was going on even as I played a character who supposedly had significant power to control the flow of events.

There’s a soundtrack, separately hosted on Youtube. (Click the “soundtrack” link on the first page to open this in a separate tab.) It’s stark and spare, like the all grey-scale screens.

While I enjoyed a lot of the particulars of the writing, I had a little more difficulty with navigating A(s)century as a game. You are collecting stats of various kinds as you work, and these stats clearly affect your intermediate choices (on one playthrough, some options were ruled out for me; on another playthrough, a different set were off limits) as well as the endgame. The stats are also ultimately reported to you. But it wasn’t quite clear to me along the way what qualities were being assessed or how those mattered; it felt a bit like a ChoiceScript game in which the player profile screen had been made off-limits. The alien setting added to the sense that I wasn’t in control of my fate, because I didn’t always even fully understand the stakes or the world in which I was operating. (How much AI exists when, in different points in the game? How many corporations are there, and what are their relative strengths? etc.)

So though I played through to two endings out of 5, I don’t really have strong ideas about how I might play differently to get the other three endings, and I am also not quite sure what those endings might be likely to entail or whether any of them would be better for my character than the outcomes I did get. I doubt the options include the one outcome I’d actually want — the power to dismantle this appalling society and replace it with something substantially more humane.

Nonetheless, that lack of agency feels sort of fitting under the circumstances. And the writing is peppered with bitter little seeds of humor, even to the end.

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