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About the StoryYou are battle-weary. Your armor is scanty and your countenance is loathsome; you tire of the swords flicking at your neck. But you have a duty. There is nothing you can't take.
(Content warning: Violence, implied adult themes, fameballs.)
28th Place - 22nd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2016)
The Breakfast Review
I kind of get the sense that there's some sort of social commentary involved here, or that can be made. Maybe I'm overthinking things; but then, a game with no proper "win" state--or rather, one where the only way to win is to put oneself in the shoes of the person to whom we lost--must surely be trying to say something, right? Something about people who are meant to lose and people who are meant to win, and what it's like to be in the shoes of the designated loser? I don't know. I'll just say that it was interesting to spend a few minutes walking around in this story, with the whole thing unfolding around me.
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Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling
Games on hard topics
Nothing is private. Everything occurs in public, to be commented on and reviewed later. You simultaneously have a reputation and no friends; devastating loneliness and an audience of thousands. Your “combat” scene is being reported to your opponent’s friends, so you can be mocked and criticized. There is no affection between the participants, no trust or good humor. (I don’t call them “partners” because they definitely are not.) The rules of engagement are rigged in a gendered way. By having sex at all, the woman is construed to have lost; she is the one who has to deal with any physical repercussions and any social stigma.
I wish that the design were such that more people saw what TAKE is doing. It can be rather obscure. But with that understood, I have huge respect for a piece that can combine that much rawly-felt emotion with such exact observations, together with mechanics that also tell part of the story. It’s brave and devastating, with some of the best prose in this year’s competition.
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Essentially you are a journalist plugged into the current mass-media machine, right now, today. This is conveyed by an allegory about gladiatorial combat in a dystopian society, but what you’re actually doing is writing “hot takes” for a soulless editor who wants you to flay open your personal life and put it on public display. Your value as a writer depends on how many “hits” you can generate/withstand, but this value carries over to your value as a person, because it determines whether you can make enough to continue supporting yourself. Nobody cares about you as a person, however. Not even your supposed fans. You’re simply cutting yourself open so that they can consume your “content” as they would consume “content” from anyone else willing to undergo similar exposure. The content in your “content” doesn’t matter, as long as it's intimate. It just has to be salacious enough to slip down the throat easily. And if it doesn’t slip down the right way, they’ll still pick you apart, and you’ll see every petty and mean-spirited criticism on Twitter. In short, you cannot win, and indeed the game ends when you’re “taken” yourself, not by yourself, but by an unfeeling audience who finally make you their own and discard you for good in the same moment.
As I said, this is all presented via allegory. Your mental reactions to the gladiator fight are translated into “takes” that feed into a monitor built into your chest, and this monitor also alerts you to all the incoming negative tweets that people write in response. Escape is impossible. Society has welded this contraption into your body. The gameplay itself plays a role in the setup, where examining and taking things are the only actions that you are even equipped to do. Nothing else matters because the game says nothing else matters because it’s making a comment about our current culture where nothing else matters.
As a game, this is extremely effective. You couldn’t ask for mechanics to be built into a story more.
As an allegory, like last year’s In The Friend Zone, it chains itself in a major way to popular slang that will sooner than later fade out, but under the slang are issues that will persist, most probably, as long as humankind survives.
There’s also a gendered aspect to the narrative. You aren’t simply a journalist; you are a female journalist, and the game is as much about society’s attitude toward women as it is about society’s obsession with consuming endless “content.” These hot takes that you’re writing are a journalistic form that has grown and mutated from the literary memoir, which is a genre historically fostered by women. Now it has been repurposed to make them victims for even attempting honest self-reflection. By sharing their viewpoints, they are simply making it easier for the leering audience to gawk at them, and the monitor being inset into your exposed chest, which your scanty armor doesn’t cover, isn’t a trivial design element. Great attention is paid to how prettily disfigured you can become during the battle, and to how actual disfigurement, real wounds, must be camouflaged to look aesthetically pleasing; the audience doesn’t want to confront legitimate suffering because that would spoil their entertainment. A few lines seem to echo passages from howling dogs, where the bone-footed empress must practice her death pose to ensure its elegance, but whereas howling dogs offered relief, even if that meant plunging deeper into a delusion or a dream, there’s no relief anywhere here.
The protagonist’s experience is contrasted by an epilogue that unlocks after the main game is finished, where you play as her opponent and see how the combat unfolded from his perspective. He is radically, grotesquely, stereotypically a “he,” and the game’s own hottest take arrives via this epilogue, which is titled Use and limits its verbset to that command. Whereas the characters, actions, and environments were described with penetrating detail during Take, in Use everything is reduced to brainless mush. “Pretty sweet battlefield.” That’s as deep as the commentary’s going to get. There are no more levels, there is no more thought, and everything exists, of course, to be “used,” including “the girl they sent.” Moreover, “using” anything will produce an automatic one-move victory. This epilogue is where its venom climactically overtops the game’s cup and absolutely everything on the table becomes infected.
There’s no solution offered here, and these characters aren’t people. They are monstrous parodies pitted against each other in a death battle they’ve both created: an eternal victim and an eternal persecutor. Nothing will ever change. It will only evolve, as the “hits” in the game’s dystopia did from virtual to physical, to become more complicated and more hideous. Subtleties don’t tease out meaning. They provide more openings for attack. We may sympathize more with the victim but our sympathy is as worthless as the takes that she’s writing because it will have no influence on anything. We might try to say, “I understand,” but she’s still going out onto the arena floor to suffer.
I don’t think that art needs to offer solutions. Sometimes pointing a finger at a problem is already hard enough. I certainly won’t propose to offer a solution in this review to the problems the game is highlighting, but what I can do is give my own opinion about a few issues, and the foremost thing that I want to say is that sharing your opinion is not “giving a hot take.” Writing an essay is not “writing a thinkpiece.” Playing a game, reading a book, watching a movie — these activities are not reducible to “consuming content.” And yet people do reduce them, every day. They reduce them by how they approach subjects, how they use words to frame discussions. When communication is drowning in #ironic #hashtags #about #hottakes, that begins to color how people actually interpret reality. When people self-consciously discuss their #brands, they are heating the fire for their own branding irons. Even the last two sentences that I wrote are contributing to this problem.
I’ve seen other authors, during perfectly innocent conversations, refer to themselves as content-creators, and to their games as content. The thing about content is that it matters less than the receptacle it’s filling. Even in the niche interactive fiction world, people have adopted this terminology and its accompanying mindset from the mass-media treadmill that’s responsible for crushing people as Take’s protagonist is crushed. It won’t stop crushing anyone until people stop turning it. Stop slathering everything in corrosive irony. Stop swallowing authors whole and then banging the table to demand more. If you turn life into a blood-drunk meme, “one joke until expiration,” then that’s what it will become.
I don’t agree with everything this game depicts, and I wonder how effective it will be at getting players to think about certain topics, but it’s certainly straining to do as much as it possibly can with the tools and the room that it has. It’s impeccably written and designed. Even newcomers to parser should be able to play it. Recommended, but beware the spikes.
In MS, I never felt quite connected to the story: you kind of view the whole thing from an audience's point of view, being able to interact with scenery and "script" your way through some kind of play. Here, something ironic and strange is going on: take is the primary verb, but it's not used in its usual and traditional parser-IF agency-setting way, but it's supposed to be your take on things happening around you. You don't take things, you write your take on them to some mysterious audience eager for some kind of perverse reality show. Who are the audience? why, certainly we, the players. The protagonist keeps us enthralled by his descriptions and we write back and with our feedback, he lives on. something metaphorical here...
Despite lacking apparent user agency, your take on things is what keeps you alive: you're some kind of clone or android - with the audience always in contact to you via some monitor (probably text-only) installed between your ribs. Yeah, the setting is kind of disturbing. So, either you keep them enthralled by your takes or you're history. Choosing your takes is the challenge. So, ironically, this is choose-your-own-takes in parser form to great user agency effect. :)
The story goes from the point of view of what looks like a gladiator in his late years, a fading star in his profession still into this for his skills in taking anything - including opponent blows. It seems there is indeed nothing he can't take and taking it graciously to his audience to keep them enthralled is what the gameplay is all about. I found the setting pretty fascinating by itself, and the narrator is clever enough to keep it gripping. Finely crafted prose at work here.
The pacing is quite linear and although there are a few physical locations with their own props, you don't move with cardinal directions, you're moved through the scenes in time. Like most other games in IF Comp this year, it looks like a short game because they forgo long linear plots with single solutions in favor of a multibranching solution space, where many paths may be rewarding in their own. It has quite high replay value and you keep playing to see where other branches might lead you. Not quite a puzzlefeast, but still got enough beef to keep you wondering...
one of the best this year, hands down.
Btw, earlier I called the player character a "he": it's not quite that and it's only when we take the point of view of the adversary that we can understand the meaning to the empty sheath and fragility of the old gladiator. There's quite a lot to digest in what looks like simple uncompromised fun here. Some playthroughs are a must.
And btw, my personal take on it: (Spoiler - click to show)it's an ironical description of hetero sex, with the player character being a female whose only role is to take a beating from the sword from the male adversary. She doesn't seem to enjoy it nor take it lightly, thus it's never a win. You only win when you can USE the sword, as the point of view by the male protagonist reveals. So, yeah, a single joke, but a well thought out and executed one.
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