IF Comp 2012 – Body Bargain

One of the strengths of IF is that the player can make choices that would be normally be shocking or unthinkable, confront the consequences of those actions, and ponder the outcome. Sure, you could say the same thing about a video game – laying waste to a town or two with rocket propelled grenades is all in a day’s work for some shooters, but the decisions are not as real or as personal as when you literally spell them out in textual IF.

I can’t go much further without spoilerage about this work and “Test is Now Ready”, so more after the cut…

Every year, there are a couple entries in which players are either given the choice or are railroaded into commiting heinous acts. Some authors do this for shock value, not necessarily gratuitously, but for the sake of snapping the player to attention and painting a vivid picture of horror to elicit a visceral reaction. Okay, sometimes I do have the impression that the guts and gore are gratuitious, but that’s not the case in either this piece or “Test is Now Ready”, both of which use extreme situations as a moral testing ground.

Body Bargain takes place in a transhumanist future in which Frank Purdue would be at home: Parts is Parts. The PC is gradually revealed to have entered into an agreement with a cyborg surgeon to undergo body modification, and then to cover the medical costs by completing a period of indentured servitude. If I can believe that body parts can be swapped in and out like oil filters in a car, I don’t have much problem believing that indentured servitude is the next step in paying for health care.

The story’s pacing is excellent – it begins with the open ended question of who are you, and what is going on, and the player can casually put the picture together before the main plot kicks in. The exploration is constrained only by elements which are inherent to the story, so there is no sense of being led down a narrow channel of options towards the plot. I’ll also make the observation that the descriptive prose in the first few locations set the scene marvelously. In my minds eye, I had a very solid idea of where the PC was, and what was around her. The detail in those expository scenes really stood out and made it easy to get in character.

For me, the plot as such started when I made my first tentative slices on patient number one. I did this with hesitancy, for both in and out of character reasons. OOC, I had to wonder what surgeon would allow someone who has just themself recovered from major surgery and is a couple hours post-anaesthesia to perform surgery on another patient, especially when it isn’t clear if the PC has any medical knowledge or experience whatsoever. IC, I wasn’t sure if this move would fatally commit the PC to a pattern of really erratic, violent behavior, if she was so easily willing to take scalpel in hand and start whittling away at the customers.

The pacing and stakes continue to rise through the rest of the story, which tends in one direction, but is not heavy handed in forcing the plot forward. Even when the PC is told not to dally, there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for exploring around and poking her nose into matters that should be above her paygrade.

After willingly and with full knowledge helping Doctor Overclock off the second patient, my hands were so dirty that I just kept my head down and dutifully buzzsawed my way through the rest of the story. Afterwards, though, in a fit of player remorse, I undid back to a less complicitous point in the game and explored a number of other endings, which do allow varying degrees of redemption. I’d recommend playing this story and saving at a couple points to allow exploration of its branching structure.

A copy random comments:
1) What, no electronic medical records in the transhumanist future?
2) Are some items in the story red herrings, or did I just not figure out what they were used for? The metal cutting machine and the server, for example. Also, are the window and front door accessible?

Story: 8
After a number of works that were short or disjoint, I appreciated playing through a full story. I enjoyed the freedom to both explore and influence the outcome. The dramatic pacing was like a novel, with the most exciting payback happening towards the end.

Voice: 7
Doctor Overclock has a consistent voice, and as the story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear just how bizarre he is. The other NPCs, including the PC’s sister, are not deeply implemented in terms of conveying personality, and this does detract from the immersion, since the sister should have a strong tie to the PC. This is a missed opportunity to up the stakes even further through emotional attachment and empathy. The PCs voice is largely a matter of how the player plays her.

Play: 8
I found play to be smooth and intuitive. The only implementation issue I hit was trying to find the pentobarbitol. Maybe I missed it in room descriptions, but I didn’t see entrance to the room where the pentobarb was found. The direction is nw from the hall outside the ORs, and since it is not a cardinal direction, there was little chance I’d type it unless I had a clue to do so. In some cases, the programming makes fluid use of implicit actions, but the OR doors had an annoying tendency to slam in my face. I’d criticize the failure of far future sliding doors to work correctly, except we know from Star Trek that it is a fact of life.

Polish: 9
Well-edited, enjoyed the descriptive text, which manages to provide detail, but not bog down the story due to length.

Technical: 8
Everything seemed to work in this story, which is of moderate size and complexity.

Average: 8.0

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