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About the StoryPull yourself together, Ainsley. Just one more rehearsal until the big day, assuming nothing catastrophic happens. But really, all you have to do is get your motley crew of actors to run their parts once through from beginning to end. How hard can it be?
3rd Place overall; 2nd Place, Miss Congeniality Award - 17th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2011)
Winner, Best Story; Nominee, Best NPCs - 2011 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 4
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Related reviews: ethics, feminism, theatre, CYOA, if comp 2010, persuasive games, institutions, NPCs
The pitch: you're the struggling director of a wretched play, trying to get your demoralised, infighting actors into some kind of shape in your last rehearsal. The tone isn't as doom-laden and jaded as it initially appears; in spite of the acrimony, it's a comic melodrama at heart. The writing is solid and efficient if not scintillating, and the game in general gives the impression of a high craft standard.
It's very much a set-piece, short and efficient: narrative backbone is provided by the rehearsal, which you're determined to plough through. Most choices are binary, but (with considerable state-tracking) this adds up to a broad range of possibilities. The overt mechanic lies in managing the enthusiasms of all four NPCs, trying to elicit strong performances without annoying anybody so much that they quit.
The framing of gameplay, then, suggests that you should take a balanced approach and rely on moral credential effect. But the hidden mechanics tell a different story: individual decisions have individual effects, managing people is not a zero-sum game, and some viewpoints genuinely are better than others. This conflict between apparent and real best-strategy is a standard technique of persuasive games, but as a persuasive game The Play has some problems. First, its delivery of its main theme -- sexual harassment and institutional resistance to addressing it -- is somewhat uneven: some players miss it entirely and others end up feeling rather bludgeoned. Secondly, it's not interested in persuading anyone that sexual harassment is a genuine probem: it takes this for granted and moves on to the (more difficult) question of what can be done about it, and about how institutional resistance works. Thirdly, its use of slapstick and melodrama don't quite mesh with the serious material; the women are all Strong Women and predictably capable at traditionally-male roles, the sexist villain is straightforwardly villainous, there's a general sense of values being enacted rather than explored.
Persuasive games are always difficult, and I don't want to give the impression that The Play flubs anything terribly; the core of its ethical arc works as designed, I think. Rather, a lot of things are just a bit off, and this adds up. But despite this, it's an entertaining and impressive piece of work.
The fact that you need to manage the emotions of four different characters, and that some decisions may make some happy but others will feel worse, create somewhat of an optimization problem, with multiple strategies possible: I kept going back and playing around different things, like "ok, this time let's try to keep that guy somewhat happy" or "i'm going to try to make this person so enraged they quit", when my first playthrough was less game-y and more "i'll stick to what i think is right". The game itself is very rich, and the state in which the characters are is genuinely important: depending on their mood, they might interject with new lines, or not say anything (and thus some choices are never offered), etc. This gives the impression of a lot of content to explore; furthermore, since everything is justified so nicely, it always feels coherent and polished, which is extremely enjoyable. I also loved that the final bit is a review of your play, with lots of variations and summing up and reflecting very well the choices you made and how everyone feels.
The game deals somewhat prominently with themes of female empowerment and sexual harassment, but not too heavy-handedly, as it is always focused on the present actions (the play, the relationship between actors). The pressure of having to finish the play further complicates the matter, as dealing with such issues also implies making some people happy and some unhappy, which is a practical consideration you will want to take into account as well; it makes the judgement calls having real consequences, which is more interesting than just applying absolute considerations or your own values. But I also liked that there were other situations influencing the state of things: tensions between director and actor, between old actors and young actors, between good and less experienced actors, etc. The only thing I felt was missing was in the character of the stage manager, who doesn't really get emotionally involved (at least, she didn't in my playthroughs), when there could have been more drama from the opposition with the actors (and the director) here too.
One of the things I didn't really like was that you could make choices as the director, but you didn't have control over the tone or content of your own line; as a result, I felt that sometimes Ainsley's lines were a bit too sharp or passive-aggressive given what I was expecting to achieve with this line, e.g. trying to move forward but ending up making a mean comment. But then again, if my own experience in theatre taught me anything, it's that the director is always tempted to lose their cool and fire back with a sharp tongue when actors are not being 100% cooperative (or even when they are); after all, the director is stressed too, and sometimes an artistic ego that clashes with the actor's. I don't know if the game would have been improved or needlessly complexified by the addition of a state of mind for the director as well (maybe it would lock you more in choices or in downward spirals, thus making it more frustrating for the player), but that could be interesting.
To sum up, 'The Play' is a very good 15-minute game, with lots to see and to play with; the setting feels fresh, yet coherent and realistic, and attempting to fulfill all the goals is fun, while giving food for thought about the complexity of relationships and group dynamics (and putting on plays!).
NOTHING'S FAIR IN LOVE, ART, OR REVIEWING, IFDB Theatre, June 19, 2019
The Play is a fantastic choose-your-own-adventure comprised mainly of just one scene, and is therefore not that long, but you'll be drawn back to try different outcomes again and again and there is a lot of variety there. My first playthrough consisted of going with my gut instinct, and I think that's the best way to approach things in the beginning. Like the actors in the play that he directs, Ainsley M. Warrington follows the spirit rather than the letter of the player's instructions to him, and as a result the outcomes can be a little different to what you would expect. This just adds to the fun and the variety, and is certainly what drove me to try everything.
The issues that it deals with are certainly serious ones, and sometimes the contrast between that and the humorous pratfalls, slapstick and witty repartee can be a little jarring, but I think that makes it all the more effective. Five wobbly couches.
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