Nominally, this is a Sea Monkey simulator, or rather a Simulator for the Care and Maintenance of Sea Monkeys. There isn’t all that much to taking care of Sea Monkeys: Add water, feed, stir, and top off the water. That about covers it, and all these options are, of course, implemented in this Twine-based story.
The blurb makes it clear that while this may be what’s going on in the foreground and the part of the game over which the young protagonist exercises control, there is plenty going on the background: a father with an explosive temper given to verbal abuse, a guilty, skittish mother, a dysfunctional household where none of the adults take responsibility, and occasional visits from well-meaning relatives stepping into parental roles until they are driven away.
[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]
The story is told from the point of view of a school age boy who would like to have a fish tank, but who is told that he must first prove himself by taking care of sea monkeys. The rest of the story consists of short glimpses of his emotionally troubled life at home or school.
I’m sure it is intentional that the game focuses on the one aspect of life that the child can control, so let me begin there. I did may damnedest to take care of those sea monkeys using my best judgement: feed just a bit to avoid excess food that would decay and cloud the tank, occasional stirring to improve aeration (if not amusement of the sea monkeys), and periodic topping off. I wish the character had used distilled water rather than tap water, but perhaps the story takes place in a locale that doesn’t halogenate their water. I digress.
Best case, the sea monkeys died. Their descriptive text went from green to yellow to red, following a downhill course mirrored in family dynamics. I know I should be more concerned about the bigger picture, but my obsessive streak wouldn’t let the failure with the sea monkeys go. On the next play through, I tried again to keep them alive. All dead. Next, somewhat angry at the sea monkeys, I just fed the living crap out of them. No stirring, no water changes — and they did about as well. Maybe the author is trying to make some sort of statement, I thought. Maybe the best thing to do is to just leave them alone. I did nothing at all through the next game. Same result. For what it’s worth, the best outcome I managed to achieve, one where there actually were some baby sea monkeys born, involved rotating through all of the possible maintenance options cyclically. But they all still died in the end. Sic transit gloria seamonkeorum.
The child’s preoccupation with the sea monkeys may stem from desire to not see what is going on around him. The interstitial glimpses of home life are not complete pictures. I have the impression that some of the things going on just don’t register with the child, but perhaps he witnesses other things and just chooses to ignore them.
Every time I played through, I encountered fresh text – no repeats, and I played through a good number of times. Based on that, I assume that the game must be keeping track of which cut scenes have been played to avoid repeats. The fact that there are multiple endings also encourages this replay, as does the desire to not kill every single sea monkey in the course of the game.
What ever happened to that tank and those sea monkeys? This question lingers for the now grown up child. In some endings, the main character seems to question his own memories. Was this story a false narration? Did parental abuse extend to concocting some sort of guilt trip about the demise of the sea monkeys?
Story: 7. Thankfully, this was not a heavy-handed treatment of parental substance abuse. It made excellent use of the medium to present a child’s limited point of view, letting the reader fill in the missing pieces between the brief glimpses of daily life. This is a good case where plot does not equal story; this is definitely not about a child who takes care of sea monkeys.
Voice: 6. Consistent but subtle. The lack of voice may imply some dissociative state.
Play: 6. No difficulty with the mechanics of play, but they are repetitive (as would be the tasks taking care of tank of sea monkeys). I wasn’t sure if the author had intended that key presses would be read — in my browser, that didn’t work. I had to click everything.
Polish: 9. Well thought out presentation in terms of layout, colors, amount of text, options. I don’t recall any errors, so this piece must have been extensively proofed. Nice job.
Technical: 7. Sometimes the simplest looking games have the most going on under the hood. Everyone complains about a bumpy ride, but smooth ones are taken for granted. This work used the features of twine to excellent effect.
JNSQ: 1. My first time awarding a JNSQ point for this year, although I do know the quoi in this case: the nostalgic elements in the blurb and opening scene, which recall what it was like using an early (say, IBM-AT era) PC. Cyan and magenta fonts from a CGA monitor, DOS prompts, and a directory listing with COM files on a tiny drive. Attention to details like these needs to be rewarded.
Preliminary Score: 8