IF Comp 2013: 'Imposter Syndrome' by Georgianna Bourbonnais

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Another link-based web story, Imposter Syndrome voices the internal conflict of a black woman working in a near-future tech industry.  As a social piece, the story criticizes the sexism and misogyny in the contemporary tech industry, and the specific criticism is more effective than a generally feminist theme would have been.  Its greatest failing is that there is not much to the game as a whole beyond its social purpose.  There is characterization, but the plot, the interactivity, and even the setting could all use more development.

I agree with the slightly uncomfortable theme -- that for all our advancing technology and our supposed progress, we aren't even coming close to eliminating the conventional prejudices and basic human cruelty.  The game offers no optimistic hope that we might transcend this.  In fact, the end of the game uses a hypertext technique to limit the sense of agency, and thus create a stronger sense of inevitability.  Progress failed professional women, passing by without changing anything, and the game hints that progress may have also failed society in regard to privacy and basic decency as well.

As a result, the protagonist's voice feels more weary and resigned than cynical.  Her resigned, self-doubting nature is obviously an important part of the theme, and it also serves as the most significant aspect of the protagonist's characterization.  Georgiana (the protagonist, not the author) is defined as a victim of sexism, much like the game itself is defined almost exclusively by its reaction to sexism.  There may be a little bit of meta commentary in this.  The game is almost entirely about sexism because women have been forced into reacting against the social expectations of the culture, even if doing so prevents them from defining themselves simply as individuals.

The near-future setting is a believable extrapolation from both current mobile technology and current digital culture.  Worn optical devices are the next big thing for app developers.  I appreciate that the setting doesn't use the cliché of cybernetic implants, but the futuristic extrapolation isn't enough to create any significant science fiction element.  Still, the setting does produce a secondary theme -- the detriment of the lack of privacy.

It's also worth noting that games seem to have little place in this future.  The protagonist reminisces about creating an apathetically-received adventure game for the optical platform.  It seems unlikely that "smart glasses" or contact lenses would make efficient human interface devices for gameplay purposes, at least without supporting hardware.  It's a reasonable extrapolation that the nature of optical devices could kill the renaissance of the indie gaming community.  This leaves the future digital app-making culture in something like the cold practicality that 20th-century romantics like the Inklings criticized in the intellectual culture of their time.

Structurally, the game is linear progression of scenes, allowing hyperlinks to be followed to screens that provide backstory and information about the protagonist's current frame of mind.  The link that progresses to the next scene is immediately obvious without any puzzle or mechanic, so there is no need to replay unless you deliberately skips scenes.  The game uses internal hyperlinks instead of separated choices, which is the right design for the tone and structure.

Imposter Syndrome presents a fairly nuanced and look at sexism, avoiding angsty backlashing against the establishment.  However, explicit moral appeal only works so far.  To be great, a theme has to be shown organically out of plot, setting, and dynamic characterization.  Here, there is not enough of those things to truly embody the theme, and the minimal interactivity strengths the feeling that everything about the game was designed around the social issue.


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