Most twine games are text first, visual later, but playing Charlie The Robot felt at times more like watching an interactive movie than reading a CYOA book. This author clearly knows how to bend the twine platform to his will. The inclusion of blinking elements, color shifting backgrounds, animated sequences, and even embedded videos could have been a discordant train wreck, but the grab bag of visual effects serves the story well.
If I had to describe this story in terms of other familiar works, I would say that it is what you might get if you tossed The Office (British version), Steve Jackson’s Paranoia game, and the movies Brazil, and Blader Runner into a blender, and poured the results into a web browser.
[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]
The setting is dystopian future: population pressure has ruined the environment and depleted resources, including food. Robots have become commonplace, and are probably the key factor in staving off the total collapse of a civilization that has massively exceeded its environment’s carrying capacity.
A key player in all this is the Hiremy & Hirschl corporation. They seem to have their fingers into every sector of the economy, but focus on food production. I had expected some allusion to soylent green, but didn’t see one. I had to settle for cricket-based snacks. On the other hand, I do have to wonder where all the people supposedly heading to Mars actually end up.
Before getting into issues of humanity’s survival or perhaps evolution, the story begins in a more familiar setting: the office. In the far future, after the Google Wars, we will still have cubicles and office life will be just as crappy as it is today, except some of your cow-orkers will be robots. We learn that in the far future, people are still crass, mysogynist, racist (now speciesist), and get off on demeaning one another. The initial focus is on Mitch, who is the chief office lout, and his dislike of Charlie, a robot accountant. Charlie is no rose either — he is angry, surly, and as the story goes on, refreshingly vindictive.
The story unfolds in chapters that drill down on each person in the office and eventually in the company: Aiden, the office manage, Lana, the too-willing office go-fer (or is she?), Dr. Preston in R&D, and others. There is a chance to save the story after each chapter, and this is a very helpful feature as the story is relatively long.
A number of running themes are intercut into the story, including a subplot about selecting the “Elite” to be sent off to Mars. There are a few places in the story where the reader takes tests to judge their aptitude. These tests seem like some sort of personality assessment along the lines of Blade Runner’s Voight Kampff test. Often, the stimuli presented are intentionally provocative – racist, violent, disgusting.
Later chapters of the story provide some explanation of what is going on, although we never get the full picture. The story is so surreal that it is not possible for the player to really navigate an intentional, goal-oriented course through the game, so while there are many interface elements to interact with (bop it, twist it, hit it, spin it), this lack of agency could be seen as a subtext.
I’ll make a guess and say that this story is a good candidate for the Golden Banana of Discord. Some players will see the interface as a visual assault or might be turned off the prejudiced language or visceral imagery in some parts of the story. While there is a narrative, it is all over the place and must be scraped together, so those who want more to read a piece from top to bottom may also be frustrated.
Preliminary Score: 10
P.S.: The goal of the Elite Status test is 10,000 points. If you answer each question, I believe there is no way to get anywhere near that score. However, you can answer each question multiple times, and the scores add. It would take a lot of patients (or perhaps some hackery inject a higher score value), but I wonder if anyone has managed to push the score to 10,000 — is there a reward for doing so?