IF Comp 2017: The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation (B.J. Best)

The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation is a short replayable Twine game that’s maybe 20% raising sim, 80% chronicle of depressing home life. Perhaps that’s a miscategorization–the mechanics of the game are pretty much 100% raising sim, providing the player with a few options (feed, stir, add water, leave alone) when taking care of their Sea Monkeys while the story of their parents’ unhappy marriage and how it affects them plays out in bursts in between.

The prose generally looks kind of like this:

Tonight, your mother is out. You’re not quite clear where. Your father has tried to make dinner, some form of burned spaghetti. Earlier you showed him an art project you had done at school, a crazy rainbowed forest in watercolors, and you love it. But as you wince at the first bite, choke it down, then reach for your milk, he stands up. He moves to the refrigerator where you carefully hung your painting with magnets at the corners. He pulls it off so hard the magnets fly. “This? You’re proud of this?” he says, and you don’t know what’s happening but can already feel the tears welling. “This is the worst artwork I’ve ever seen,” he says, holds it by the top two corners, and slowly, slowly rips it down the middle. “It’s absolutely terrible,” he says lowly, and stares. And stares. You try to stare back, but instead run to your room, slam the door, and try to shove your dresser as much as you can in front of it. Many half-breaths and hours later, you fall asleep underneath your bed, covered entirely by blankets.

Story: The story of The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be based on the title, design, and description–which isn’t to say it’s bad, or badly done. But I can’t deny that I glanced at it and went “oh, this is going to be about the heartbreaking ephemerality of pets/trying to take illusory control over a situation a child has no control over/projecting one’s feelings onto personalityless animals/the ways we try to cope when our parents are dysfunctional and abusive.” And that’s… precisely what the game was about, for the most part. It’s possible that it owes too much to too many other Twine games–I felt heavy shades of Horse Master and my father’s long, long legs and innumerable games where the player is tasked to perform thankless, repetitive tasks that numb them and seem to have little positive effect on their environment as a metaphor for their emotional state–and it’s possible that I’m just jaded to stories about bad parenting where the characters seem like placeholders for bad parenting moreso than individual bad parents. (I will say as a disclaimer that I grew up in a household like this and also happened to keep Sea Monkeys at one point, which met a tragic end when my mom spilled them, so I don’t know if this had a positive or negative effect on the game’s emotional impact!)

The prose is all right–it’s not bad, it’s not vastly evocative, it’s all right. The characterization suffers from the everychild, everyhousehold problem that I mentioned with the parents: which might be on purpose rather than a problem, I can’t entirely tell. But it didn’t quite work for me; I felt I was told-not-shown of a lot of the protagonist’s feelings and that I was playing through a story designed for general identification and not a specific portrait of a specific person’s life. I’ve had this issue with a number of Twine games, though, so it may be a genre convention.

Design: The text effects are a simple delight–I think anything more elaborate would’ve gotten in the way, but I enjoyed the formatting and the colors a great deal, and the slight meta-humor in choices like (O)kay? really worked. I’ll reserve judgment on the way the branching works in the storytelling, since I think it hearkens back to a lot of other Twine games, like I said: but for what it’s worth, I don’t think the design gets in the way of the story at all, and the tedious and repetitive aspects of the gameplay feel entirely intentional.

Overall, a solid but typical psychological Twine piece.

About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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