IF Comp 2015: Switcheroo (The Marino Family)

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.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

mirror_bg532Switcheroo is the third in a series of Undum children’s stories about Mrs. Wobbles, a foster parent who lives in a big mysterious tangerine-colored house with many foster children. (Previously reviewed here: Book 1, Book 2.) It is fairly linear but has an important choice near the end, and allows for some playful interaction in the middle as well, including a couple set-piece elements that play as mini-games. Once again I fail at accurate timing, but it took me less than an hour to read.

The premise of Switcheroo is that a foster boy named Derik who uses a wheelchair wakes up to find himself transformed into a girl named Denise who does not. (This isn’t a Freaky Friday situation: there is no pre-existing Denise who gets swapped into Derik’s body.)

Denise then spends a day with some prospective adoptive parents, who like the child they’re currently presented with, but don’t really know that child fully. At the end, it’s the player’s choice whether to return to being Derik, with all that entails, or to remain permanently as Denise, with the prospect of being adopted into a forever family. The story also leaves it up to the player whether the character is more comfortable being a boy or being a girl.

So there’s a huge amount going on here, and the story — as with the previous two in the series — avoids any kind of generalization or heavy-handed discussion of the big issues it raises. In several cases, it doesn’t even give those issues a name. It just presents some things that happen, and leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots.

As with the last story, I feel like I should issue a disclaimer on my review: because this is work that touches on both trans experiences and the experiences of people who use wheelchairs, and I don’t have those experiences myself, I’m not in a great position to judge how accurately or sensitively it’s treating them.

Speaking personally, then, there was a lot about this that I liked. It comes across as more confident and more smoothly structured than the earlier books in the series; one senses that the Marino family is getting into a rhythm with writing these. This one is also pitched at a slightly older audience than the previous two books, with fewer puns and jokes, and more focus on the emotional landscape of the characters. The story implies a few things about how and why the switcheroo happened, but it doesn’t lay it out in detail, and I think that was a good choice, as well; it took the attention off the magical aspects and kept it squarely on the people in the story.

Meanwhile, I also had fun with the way the game satirizes toy and game fads for tweens, and its observations about how adults act when they’re feeling awkward around children. Partway through the story, one of the adults says something inadvertently upsetting to Derik/Denise (trying to avoid spoilers here), and this felt like a very real moment. Reading it, I felt a sort of sickened crunch myself.

Ultimately, at least for me, this felt less like a story about gender or about using a wheelchair, and more about the horrible fact that some demographics of children are more sought after for permanent adoption than others. From an adult perspective, I wouldn’t have minded digging more deeply into some of those issues, but I think the light touch here is suited to the target audience.

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