Once at GDC I heard someone give a talk in which the speaker said, in essence, “Don’t show your audience anything that isn’t already a common trope in a movie or another video game of the same genre.” Which is amazing if you think about it. Invent nothing. Observe nothing. Bring no original truth to your piece. Do not teach your audience anything, and do not imbue your work with anything of yourself. This is probably the worst writing advice I have ever heard. If it has any even notional justification, it’s that it gives the audience what they want, assuming they don’t want to be challenged or think new thoughts (and the marketing department has concluded that they don’t).
The opposite failing is author-service work: stuff that’s so personal to the creator that it’s inaccessible or overwhelming. To tell someone your secrets can be an intensely manipulative act. Certain emotions may be required in exchange: pity, surprise, a suitable horror. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I brace myself when I come across a piece that seems primarily designed to make me feel something about the author, or to exorcise the author’s distress.
But it’s not as though the mean is an easy space to occupy. It demands both craft and heart, and the discipline to sit with something you feel deeply and keep working on it over and over until it is also comprehensible and valuable to someone else.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III both describes and exemplifies how art drifts back and forth in that huge space between creator and audience, occupying different positions, carrying different meanings. It shows how art can become a vessel for an intimacy that hasn’t otherwise been earned.
The following discussion contains spoilers, so be warned.
It begins as a Twine rendition of the experience of playing an old shareware tycoon game, which distills many hours of repetitive and unfair gameplay into raw experience. Some of the puzzles are still there, but the Twine refers to areas and events presumably present in the imagined graphical game that we never have an opportunity to experience.
In this regard it is a little reminiscent both of Endless, Nameless and of The King of Bees in Fantasy Land: all three present a kind of nostalgic interface to an in-game world that is obviously limited and broken, but also mysterious and alluring. All three capture that sense that everything in the game world is made for a purpose, no matter how odd it might seem when you first encounter it.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III is the most satirically exaggerated of the lot. It postulates a game world in which money is score and making a million dollars is winning. Capitalist ideas are embraced and worshipped, and the game itself is unwinnable unless you have at least notionally spent money on it. One of the missions in the game involves attempting to destroy “PorpCo”, an utterly unsubtle attack on the persona of Porpentine herself. The tycoon game is a reification and exaggeration of a system that Porpentine has written against several times.
And yet our experience with the game, as mediated by the Twine reminiscence of it, is an experience of the kind of addictive pleasure these old pieces often produced. The Twine makes explicit the option to go places that the internal game notionally doesn’t want you to go — to take a coracle out to sea and brush against the boundaries of the game world, to try to see what lies beyond the edge of the screen.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III also does something curious with the old triangle of identities: it starts with one apparent configuration of narrator and protagonist and ends with a completely different one. At the beginning, the Twine game asks for your name and gender, and feeds these into the personality created for you inside the tycoon game. So it’s easy to start out with the assumption that there is no protagonist beyond one’s literal self, that one is playing the tycoon game as oneself. Gradually, however, thoughts in italics begin to filter in:
You can only see the naked feet of this statue. The rest is offscreen. You jump up and down but the screen doesn’t rise enough to show more than a few extra inches of leg (female leg?).
You feel weird doing this.
The protagonist is sketched in at first in relation to the game, and then through events that happen outside the game: a child intrigued but confused by hints of sexuality, a child who needs to walk away from the monitor sometimes to go to the bathroom, a child who lives in an abusive household and who spends all day every day in front of the computer in order to ignore what’s beyond the bedroom door. The passages in-game, initially satirical, are more and more about the unknowability of the game world, the way there are places that the player can never reach and explanations she can never learn. It makes the tycoon game an object of beauty and surprise to the protagonist.
Then we reach a point where our will and the protagonist’s will peel apart entirely. The child’s older sister comes to the door and wants to talk. She hints, heavily, that she is about to leave home permanently and that she wants a little farewell time with the protagonist, but there are no options that will allow us to say yes. The trope of helplessness and limited choices is common in Twine games and is often used to express how few possibilities are open to protagonists at the mercy of a hostile system, but here we’re bound instead by the protagonist’s focused obsession with the game world.
The player can win the game — though the win screen turns out to be an utterly mundane experience compared with the blur of psychedelic strangeness that’s come before — but the sister is lost. The game was an escapist comfort that made the protagonist’s life livable, and then it became a distraction that stood in the way of personal connection.
Then the epilogue. It is in Porpentine’s own voice, but it is also about the story we have just played: a message from the sibling who left to the one who stayed behind, and a message from her actual younger sister to her. Though brief, this passage is powerful and startling. It acts as a seal of authenticity on what’s come before — as though to say, “yes, that was real if fictionalized; I lived it.” It is also effective in a way that that same passage of text would not have been if it had been posted as, say, a stand-alone blog post.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III charts the journey from market-driven player pandering to the intensely personal freeware form, starting as (an emulation of) one and ending as the other. The protagonist begins as You the Player, and then becomes A Fictional Character, and ends as Porpentine herself (or perhaps at the same time Porpentine’s little sister).