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Body Bargain

by Amanda Lange

Horror
2012

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Number of Reviews: 4
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
If by bargain you mean "drenched in blood", it's definitely a bargain., December 4, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform
(I originally published this review on 7 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 10th of 26 games I reviewed and it has been updated at least once since the review was written.)

Body Bargain is a horror game set in a near future world of cybernetic body modification. It reminds me of the film The Human Centipede in its aesthetics and ideas, and while none of the characters here get sewn together, I will echo the consumer advice displayed by the game on startup, that if you're squeamish of gore or violence or clinical disturbing-ness, this game will probably squeam you. It also deals with something that remains challenging to successfully negotiate in IF, the continuum of moral and ethical boundaries between the actions a PC might be likely to take based on his or her personality and the in-game situation, and the actions different players might be prepared to take based on their out-of-game personality. Body Bargain doesn't evade all these complications, but even as raggedly implemented as it currently is, I found it morbidly engrossing and definitely interesting. For horror fans, a must play.

The PC wakes up after surgery she has opted for to transform her whole body from that of an overweight human to that of a toned blue elven woman. The story suggests, through the tone of its conversations and the thoughts of the PC, that such fantastic transformations are now contextually acceptable in society, maybe even common. You have paid for your own surgery by becoming the new assistant nurse at the illegal practice which performed it, presided over by the more-machine-than-man Doctor Overclock. However, a big early problem in this game was that it was not clear to me that I had made such a deal. Why some robot doctor was expecting me to help him perform surgery on a stranger just because I had walked into his operating room baffled me. It caused me to fob off his request and look around other areas in the game. In those areas I found information to fill in the gaps, but I don't think it was the author's intent to let this point slip.

The first episode of surgery is a good litmus test for whether or not any particular player will have the taste or stomach for what is to come. You have to scalpel shoulders, handle severed limbs and put up with the spray of gore from the doctor's sawing, but the result appears to be what the patient requested. (Spoiler - click to show)Not so for the next patient. His grotesque fantasy drawing of the giant-schlonged dragon he wants to become prompts the doctor to euthanase him as a "pervert". It's this moment that is likely to mobilise the player, especially when they discover that the next patient is their own sister. She already has a punk hairdo and piercings. Will she attract the pervert label?

You can now continue to follow the doctor's orders or start to do otherwise. The game is ready for many permutations of what can happen, impressively so in retrospect, but some of its positions are significantly weakened (Spoiler - click to show)in the first place by the sketchy implementation of the sister character. She is attended by numerous bugs, gives the impression of being asleep even though she is awake and has nothing of use to say to the player. Surely my character is likely to alert her to the murder of the second patient that just took place? My character does not, creating a blank stage for action in which the player can choose to blithely butcher the sister character or not. This is simply an unrealistic presentation of the situation, stealing power from the choice the player makes and what results from it. The PC has demonstrated that she is not a blank canvas upon many previous occasions; with her thoughts on the grossness of her old body and the grossness of the second patient's dragon fantasies, and with her shock at the murder of the second patient. But she seems to become a moral vacuum, as far as the prose is concerned, after that murder. I believe these kinds of inconsistencies can be incredibly difficult to deal with for any author. They have often stumped me just at the stage of thinking about creating a game in which the player might be called on to perform actions generally considered repulsive. Body Bargain has not overcome all of these problems, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting game for playing with them.

There are a lot of technical troubles with the game, ranging from duplicate and erroneous messages (automatic doors are always opening and closing, sometimes more than they should) to under-helpful implementation (typing "cut X" always asks "With what?" in a game about surgery and stabby violence), verb guessing (the keycard reader I'd never have thought to type AUTHORISE) and synonym weakness ("card" and "key card" are not accepted for "keycard"). There's also an unfinished feel to some of the emptier locations in the southern vicinity of the hospital. Nevertheless, I found the core design of Body Bargain to be clear, distinctive and effective. I like the way the operating rooms are laid out diagonally from the hallway, the device of the doctor leading the player from one operation to the next and the grisly but clinical depiction of the operations. Again with The Human Centipede, the incident with the dragon patient's fantasy sketch reminded me of the opening scene of that film in which Doctor Heiter gazes with fascination at the photo of the three dogs he has sewn together.

Body Bargain is novel and has all the ingredients to be a really high quality piece of horror gaming, but technically it needs a lot of work and it faces conceptual challenges, too. These factors make for rough play and work against the game's ultimate effects. I'm glad to have played what's here already and would certainly designate this as a must play for horror fans.
Note: this review is based on older version of the game.

Comments on this review

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dream, November 18, 2012 - Reply
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Although I believe that readers need to know the plot of the work to decide if they should like to play it, and it is the case that it is necessary to spoil some aspects of the game in disclosing the early plot, I fear that in the first two paragraphs, after the publishing comment, the review has erred on the side of excess spoilers.

Given the preceding context:

"...that such fantastic transformations are now contextually acceptable in society, maybe even common."

It is not quite clear in

"The price for this surgery is that you become the new assistant nurse at the illegal practice which performed it,"

that this is a personal cost for the protagonist, not necessarily the cost that every patient must pay.

It would be helpful to disclose changes in the latest releases since your review. From the Ifcomp website:

Game changelog:
2012-10-30: Vers. 3: (Spoiler - click to show)Smarter conversation options for Savannah. The doctor will also not try to work on her if she is not present. Interactions with the computer should be clued better. Edited the walkthrough to remove a redundant step that confused some.

2012-10-04: Vers. 2: Fixed a bug that would cause an item to seem to appear twice. Fixed a bug that allowed moving a fixed in place item.

I'm not sure that obscenity promotes IFDB in a positive light.
-1 Obscenity (Spoiler - click to show)"arse".
Wade Clarke, November 18, 2012 (updated December 6, 2012) - Reply
Hi heartless. Thanks for reading. I agree with you that the price of surgery bit could be misread the way I've written it, so I'm going to change that.

As for the other points, I believe it's still at the pretty fundamental level of information about the game to say that the patient wakes up in hospital and ends up assisting in surgery. The game is called Body Bargain and I've then discussed the bargain of the title. If a person cannot stand to hear that much, they're likely to stop reading at that point. People have to take moderate risks if they're going to read reviews of things, assessing their own tolerance for spoilers and with a right to expect spoilers won't be outrageous, and I'm satisifed information here is not in that camp. As it progresses into detail there are also spoiler tags.

The game is definitely for adults, and if I want to talk about other adult material like The Human Centipede, I need to be able to do so. I don't know what other word I can substitute for certain a-words EDIT so I just say 'sewn together'!

It's reasonable of you to want to see an updated review with information from an updated game, but I've only just posted 26 revised reviews here already, an enterprise of several days after writing them in the first place. The review is prefaced indicating it was written during IFComp and that the game has been updated since, which is more contextual information than IFDB requires (it asks you to tick a box saying you're reviewing an older version of the game, and this flag appears only after the review.) I don't plan to methodically re-review every game and I don't expect any reviewer to keep all their reviews up to date with author revisions, only to review what they had at the time and make it clear when that time was. In the long run, this review will be valid as is as a document from IFComp, but I may revisit it just because I like this game.
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