Alethicorp is a web-based story about surveillance culture and life in a big corporation. I played to an ending.
First impressions: the blurb and the eye-based cover art suggest some kind of sinister corporate dystopia, a theme about which I guess I’m lukewarm. The blurb doesn’t give me a lot of information about what’s going to set this particular one apart, but that’s not necessarily fatal. Also, I’ve enjoyed some of Christiansen’s work in the past.
In fact, this piece belongs to a genre with a growing number of entries, but for which I still don’t have a good name. I tend to call it ARG-like, but ARG tends to suggest that there are a large number of players and timed releases of new material.
The genre I have in mind, by contrast, is a single-player game based on one or more websites and/or an email exchange, in which the player must investigate a variety of different documents or otherwise use an interface based on communication software in order to discover the story. Stories consisting of spoof Wikipedia pages or fake blog entries don’t quite fit what I have in mind because those tend to be fairly static, whereas part of the key to this is that you are in some very limited channel communicating with other characters and advancing an ongoing plot. Digital: A Love Story and Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story sort of fit into this genre. Extrasolar and The Southern Reach are maybe closer to the essential tropes, though: the website is run by an evil and/or unsafe corporation, and it’s strongly implied they don’t have your best interests at heart. Meanwhile, there are subversive elements who will reach out to you, and you can decide whether to side with the subversives.
Here’s a bit of what Alethicorp looks like:
Gameplay consists of first applying for a job at Alethicorp via an online form and then beginning work. Your job is to read through reports, phone call transcripts, email, and surveillance, and flag anything that strikes you as worthy of a followup. There’s a lot of satire of corporate culture. Some of it is a bit on the obvious side; some (like the description of Haka workflow protocols) made me flinch in instinctive recognition. (Also, I think at 95% of the stand-ups I have ever attended, everyone was sitting down.)
There’s also satire of revolutionary thinking and various types of anti-government sentiment, as one of the “subversive elements” you’re tracking seems to have written a knock-off of Atlas Shrugged while others appear to be fairly old-school communists, and none of them are precisely taken seriously by the narrative. Meanwhile, the surveillance reports make it clear that even the field agents participating in the investigation are hardly above criticism.
All this means that it feels more like a collection of stand-alone jokes than a really targeted satire with a strong thematic message. It was more “yeah, excessive surveillance and annoying corporate jobs are things in our culture. Likewise half-hearted revolutionary movements and ineffective journalism.” Check.
Technically, this game is doing some fun things. If you flag a report for followup, there is more information about that topic available the next day. You can answer email from your coworkers, though you’ll likely just get an irritable reminder not to waste their time. There are a lot of forms to fill out, many of which allow you to pick from interesting drop-down menu options or to write in your own answer. In one case, the form was asking me what I was going to bring to an occasion where I’d been advised that I needed only to bring a positive mood. Feeling like it might be a good idea to kiss up to the bosses at this point, I offered to bring cookies as well. The next day I got an email chiding me for overdoing it.
It’s clear that there are several ways this could end. The ending I got was not positive for me, but I felt like I’d at least found out as much as I wanted to know about the “subversive” activities, and I had less invested in the “me” character than in the others, so I was fine with that ending. (Tangentially: because the game invites you to log in before you really know anything about what’s going on, I found myself signing in as Emily Short, rather than creating a new character to role-play. The consequence, perhaps strangely, was that I felt more detached than usual from game-Emily’s fate, since game-Emily was just kind of a ghostly extrusion of myself into the fictional universe and couldn’t really be hurt by anything that happened there. I did make ghost-Emily 97 years old and very bad at password security, though, mostly because I didn’t feel like putting accurate data into an unknown form.)
So overall I found this enjoyable, if not very deep or emotionally affecting. I’m also really appreciating how varied the entries in this comp have been so far.
I am wondering whether it’s possible to do this general genre of thing without the evil-corporation/surveillance-state trope set. Could you have a single-player ARGlike (SPARG? that sounds terrible) based on an online auction site? Or a spoof Etsy, telling the sad tale of a woman trying to offload some depression glass and getting into sales disputes?
Yeah, maybe the stakes just aren’t high enough.