IF Comp 2013: 'Our Boys in Uniform' by Megan Stevens

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.

Self-described as "cynical" in its blurb on the Comp voting page, Our Boys in Uniform explores the viewpoint of an unwilling American soldier during World War II.  There is no satire for the cynical attitude to hide behind, and the final screen has a "Message" link where the author gives readers a relatively non-controversial pep-talk related to the theme.  The result of the combination of cynicism and openness is that although the game feels somewhat preachy, it also feels less manipulative and heavy-handed than an overtly cynical work should.

The narrative technique is interesting.  The first screen briefly explains the relationship between the links and progression through the narrative -- a technique that I wish more Twine games would adopt.  The narrative is structured around the commentary of the first-person protagonist.  The innovative part is the way the commentary progresses.  The links scattered throughout the text evidently represent emotional hot-points for the narrator in his perpetual rant against American idealism.  Most of the links in each screen produce a jaded message before returning to the parent screen.  But two links on each screen are different.  One of them represents a cultural meme that the narrator believes to be a flat-out lie; when clicked, it rewinds back to the first narrative screen (after the explanatory text).  The other represents something that the narrator perceives as a warped or ironic truth, advancing toward the end of the vague montage-style plot.

This is evidently supposed to be a sort of a puzzle.  The player-reader is punished for selecting the "lie" link by having to click back through all the screens again.  It's good to see the tedium of going over the same screens multiple times taken into deliberate consideration.

However, this mechanic doesn't work as a puzzle, for a few reasons.  First of all, the natural inclination to mindlessly navigate the game by clicking links either randomly or systematically (in the "lawnmower" fashion) is not sufficiently deterred.  The set-back of having to start from the beginning is slightly annoying, but the game is small enough that restarting once per screen doesn't make the game much harder to solve.  Secondly, the fairness of the puzzle hinges on the "lie" link and the "truth" link being discoverable by a careful reading of the screen's text.  Granted that I may have missed the pattern, I don't see any special connections or themes relating the words that form the "lie" and "truth" links.  There certainly doesn't appear to be any kind of cipher on each screen with which to deduce the correct links.  Perhaps more importantly, all of the narrator's viewpoint texts are interesting, including those produced by the "lie" links.  Despite giving special value to certain links, Our Boys in Uniform can't shake the impression that all paths need to be explored in order to achieve the full experience.  This makes "lawnmowing" through all the links the only effective method of achieving the implied goal, diminishing the penalty of the "lie" link to a mere nuisance.

The reader's impression of the narrator-protagonist might be even more important to the impact of the game than the reader's feelings regarding the opinionated content.  The game doesn't try too hard to wring out sympathy for the protagonist.  The narrative concentrates more on showing the protagonist's cynical reactions to the conditions of World War II than on depicting how much it sucks to be a cynical draftee in an army full of idealists.  This gives the reader room to dislike and disagree with the protagonist, which is critical to the legitimacy of an explicitly opinionated story.

I initially sympathized with the protagonist's questioning nature and his distrust of authority, but my sympathy wore thin toward the end, where the character's cynicism remained unmitigated throughout all the horrors of the war, including the discovery of Holocaust concentration camps.  I don't dispute that the protagonist should remain cynical no matter what; that is the defining part of his character.  However, there was surely a lot of other things to be horrified of in World War II besides misplaced idealism.  I know that this game is short and focused and has a specific point to make.  Still, the fact that this questioning, presumably open-minded character never doubted his own feelings makes him somewhat of a hypocrite, undermining my ability to sympathize with him.  I think it's good to question authority and cultural assumptions, but I think we earn the right to be cynical by questioning ourselves first.  Surely peoples' blind certainty in their own righteousness is the true cause of misplaced nationalistic idealism, and the protagonist exhibits this flaw as thoroughly as the idealists he marginalizes.  He might not actively think of himself as righteous, since that kind of morality seems foreign to his worldview, but he also never worries that he might really be a monster.

Of all the Twine games I've encountered so far that do not use explicit CYOA-style choice lists, Our Boys in Uniform may do the most to address the problem of the disconnect between the links and the narrative.  Although I don't think that the puzzle mechanic works, I'm glad to see a structured puzzle design within a Twine game.  There is room to be offended by the game's open cynicism and preachy purpose, but it actually comes across vastly less angsty and malevolent than it should be.  Despite the fact that I couldn't fully sympathize with the protagonist, I respect the frank portrayal of the theme.  This is an excellent example of social commentary delivered effectively through choice-based IF.

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