The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
Cape is a substantial piece of work; though it’s choice-based and there is little that resembles a puzzle, it still took me perhaps an hour to read through the first time. It is in a lot of ways a companion piece to Dias’ previous Undum work Mere Anarchy.
You can choose your gender, your nationality. These choices have largely cosmetic effects later, if any, but what I found most interesting was the range of options: gender is not restricted to binary choices. Your nationality can be from your choice of nations such as Kenya, Vietnam, Brazil, Pakistan: some of them more stable and healthy than others, but mostly countries that were colonized rather than colonizing. The effect of this is to make character-specification something different from what it usually is: it acknowledges the diversity of people and the existence of marginalized groups, it doesn’t default you to a white cis male, but it also doesn’t let the character selection be a wish fulfillment exercise. I played first as a Malaysian woman, then as a Kenyan trans man. No matter what you do, the protagonist is always broke, always an immigrant, always an outsider.
There’s lots of Magician’s Choice in the structure. Break into a house, choose whether to go upstairs or down, and you’ll still find the same set of objects, just in a different location. It’s such a long story that I find it hard to object too strenuously to that. Many of the other effects of interactivity are about pacing and the gradual revelation of information, rather than about branching the narrative line.
There are a couple of decisions you can make that will have continuous consequence throughout the rest of the story: most notably, you can decide which bundle of superpowers you want to take up. It’s an effect very similar to the magic style choice in Mere Anarchy. The same story events still happen in the same order, but the exact details change depending on whether you can, say, fly or spit venom.
The superheroism in Cape is the opposite of the trope-y, careless stuff I described in Isaac Newton: Badass Ninja Crimefighter. Being a superhero in Cape is isolating and potentially depressing:
You’ve become this: a person who crouches on the roof in the night, doing nothing in particular. Just listening.
It doesn’t paint vigilantism or violence as easy. In combat scenes, you easily dominate others but are bothered by the knowledge that knocking someone out (say) can cause permanent brain damage. You also have some close calls with the law, and it’s not always all that clear whether the police or the criminals are worse, in this environment.
Climate change, too, is in full swing:
You came to this city expecting to find a better life; an escape from the turmoil of the world. From a country whose forests were dying and whose cities were drowning, where the weather had become so malicious it was like living with abusive gods.
Instead, you found that the center cannot hold any better than the periphery. And with nowhere further to run, you find yourself forced to stand and, somehow, fight.
…and here we have it — along with the location named Yeats Island, “the center cannot hold” is another acknowledgement of Yeats’ “Second Coming”, from which Mere Anarchy takes its title. The problem stated in that poem is the problem addressed by both of these — and arguably by some of Dias’ other work as well. The current situation is bad and getting worse; there’s no way that the status quo can last. Meanwhile, bad people with selfish intentions are eagerly working away while good people are inactive or impotent. At times it seems as though goodness — at least if it manifests as nonviolence, concern for others, and a dislike for wanton destruction — is straightforwardly incompatible with being effective.
How do we escape the trap of this situation? Is it possible to revise our world — the abuse of natural resources and progress towards an unlivable planet, the racial injustice and bad policing, the sickness of corporate structures, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority while the lot of the masses gets worse? And is there any way to make those changes non-violently, or does morality require illegal and potentially dangerous behavior to overthrow these systems?
Mere Anarchy doesn’t give the player a choice: the protagonist is going to commit an act of terrorism, no matter what. Cape also doesn’t let the player bend the course of the story very far, but the protagonist here is more nuanced and the story longer, giving us more time to flesh out the background and understand the situation we’re facing. I think Cape makes for a stronger story, though we’re still left at the end with aporia about what’s best to do. The protagonist is trying to improve things and make a difference, but this requires going further than most of us might be comfortable with — getting into fights, sending people to the hospital — and also accomplishing less than most of us might have hoped.
A few specific thoughts about the story follow spoiler space, but this is a very solidly written piece of work. If you dislike dynfic or interactivity used for pacing effects, it may not be your cup of tea, but it is one of the stronger stories I’ve encountered so far in the competition.
Ultimately, Cape also settles on having a specific villain who is manipulating things to his own ends, a billionaire with access to supernatural powers.
This works well for the story itself: the protagonist is only a superhero because s/he’s managed to steal a little of that power, but the billionaire still understands better than we do how it works. There’s a particularly effective scene late in the game where we discover that we’ve lost access to that power, and suddenly combat, which has been effortless throughout the story, becomes genuinely hard again.
As a representation of what’s wrong with modern capitalist societies (if in fact that’s what Dias was going for), I find it less convincing. Though there are some billionaires I consider basically inimical to the rest of the planet, the problem doesn’t stop at individual super-rich people. Worse is the existence of a system that concentrates wealth and power and insulates the wealthy from the experiences common to the rest of humanity. Fixing that requires something other than head-kicking or crime-solving or the uncovering of corruption, and something other than dramatic protest. Big revolutions don’t always produce the results we might want. Supposedly transformative elections don’t always do it either.
I don’t have a solution and I certainly struggle with this a lot in my day to day experience. I actually rather enjoyed picking self-righteous fights at one point in my life: if you like to write, there’s something viciously pleasurable about writing a screed against your opponents that lavishes the maximum detail upon their failings and sins and collapses of logic. I stopped because I realized I was causing pain rather than gathering converts. So I am not so much conflict-averse as I am bad at anger, but I’ve sometimes wondered if that means I am useless in the good fight. While thinking about these things, I’ve sometimes felt convicted by this very poem.
In any case, I am glad that Dias is writing stories around this issue, and I think Cape may be his best yet.