Aaron Reed’s “maybe make some change” is a more polished, web-accessible release of the work that premiered at the IF Demo Fair as “what if im the bad guy”. Aaron is releasing it today on the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. (Edited to add: there’s an authorial perspective on this piece here.)
When “what if im the bad guy” was presented at the IF Demo Fair, I didn’t get through it: the game play required putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier, committing violent acts and in some cases typing racial epithets. (At least, as I recall this was unavoidable, but I obviously don’t have access to that version to double check again.) This was just too uncomfortable for me to do in public, and possibly at all, so I put the game aside.
“maybe make some change” has dialed back the challenges to complicity a bit — at least, it’s now possible to get by with typing more generic insults — and as it’s presented in browser, I could try it at home. It concerns a situation that is actually much less ambiguous than I had thought from the original presentation, the unprovoked murder of a civilian by soldiers angry about the losses to their squad. The player revisits the same scene again and again from the different viewpoints of different people, and contact with different points of view equips the player with more verbs to use. It’s disturbing, as indeed it’s meant to be. “maybe make some change” plays both with complicity (the player must, for part of the time, engage in or describe activities that she might not approve of, sometimes in order to conform with the demands and expectations of other characters or institutions) and the assertion of agency (in that, to reach the end state, one must start acting in ways that break down those demands and expectations).
As a technical demonstration, “maybe make some change” is also very impressive: it combines images, sound, and type effects with a Glulx-based text parser very effectively, and presents another challenge to the idea that interactive fiction has to take a specific creakily-old-fashioned appearance. That said, it does really benefit (IMO) from being text-based. There’s something about typing out each of the commands that cements complicity more than simply clicking through hyperlinks could, and moments when it’s important not to have all the affordances strictly spelled out. This is really a must-try for anyone interested in the potential of IF as a medium, though I hesitate to say that because it sounds like I’m encouraging people to ignore the content in favor of the technical presentation. And “maybe make some change” demands engagement at the content level more than most.
Part of the message of the piece is that we need to pay more attention, collectively, to the wars we’re engaged in and their implications — with “maybe make some change” itself as a contribution to that process.
I can’t argue with that point, though underneath it are others much harder to grapple with. How do we prevent shameful and wrongful conduct by our soldiers in war? Is that even possible to do? Doesn’t war dehumanize and terrorize to such a degree as to foster sadistic impulses in at least some of the participants? Is it meaningful to talk about a just war?
“maybe make some change” doesn’t really attempt to get into this territory, which is fair enough — it’s hard to imagine how a fifteen minute web experience could answer those sorts of questions. Most of its impact comes from the focus on a specific, true situation and a named individual in that situation. There were some moments that rang more true for me than others, possibly because the mindset of military machismo is very foreign to me, but it nonetheless conveys compactly and interactively some excellent points about the different motives at work behind exposing and reshaping information, and about the difficulty of completely labeling anyone, even the most apparently bigoted or dangerous people in a situation. I miss the work’s original title, “what if im the bad guy”, because it creates problems around the label “bad guy” — and that’s still a core concern of the piece in its final form.