Alter Ego by ??????(1983, something like that)

Review by Adam Cadre

Gail Sheehy says: This is the best game ever!

Noam Chomsky says: This is the worst game ever!

I say: It's fun to play, but oogy to think about.

The Review...

As the scanty information above attests, I don't really know much about the origins of this game. I do remember seeing it at the Wherehouse in Orange, California, when I was about eleven years old, and my mom not letting me buy it because the box said it contained adult content. I also recall that in ninth grade it was one of the hot warez (because the box said it contained adult content, no doubt), but the version going around was corrupt and apparently would only play the first segment. I say "apparently" because it wouldn't run on my machine at all. So, cut from me at age twelve putting this pirated disk in my full-height floppy drive and watching the game crash, to me at age twenty-five finding the game on an Apple ][ warez site, gleefully downloading the game and an interpreter -- and watching the game crash. The C64 version didn't work either. Then someone -- quite possibly Gunther Schmidl, though I honestly forget who at this point -- dug up an honest-to- goodness IBM version for me. So when I'd get burnt out on writing 9:05 in my hotel room in Australia, I'd bust out the Alter Ego and give it a spin.

Alter Ego is not standard IF, so I suppose I'd best describe it in some detail. First of all, there are actually two different Alter Ego games -- one for men, one for women. (As I recall, the boxes differed only in the little symbol down in the corner, meaning that it's a virtual certainty that somewhere in the world, a 13-year-old taking a break from "Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-On-One" booted up this game to be informed that he'd just gotten his period and how did that make him feel?) I downloaded both versions, natch. So, upon starting up the game, you're asked to enter your name (I used "Adam" in one version, "Sheila" in the other) and whether you'd like a computer-generated personality, or to take a short personality test. The test includes items like "I am fascinated by car accidents" and "I will cheat on this personality test." Then your new life begins.

The story begins with your birth, and proceeds along a flow chart of vignettes -- follow the tree to the next node (or several nodes along, if you'd like), and play through the little scenario. A sample scenario might go something like, "Mom is talking on the phone in the living room while you're sitting on the kitchen floor banging some pots and pans together. The cookie jar is totally unguarded!" Then you choose between "TAKE A COOKIE" and "LEAVE THE COOKIES ALONE", with TAKE A COOKIE leading to "The counter is high, but you think you can reach... oh no! CRASH! Mom rushes into the kitchen... you're in a world of trouble now!" and LEAVE THE COOKIES ALONE leading to "By dinner you're so hungry that even your brussels sprouts look pretty good to you. Mom is so happy you cleaned your plate that you get TWO cookies for dessert!" Also, behind the scenes, your personal attributes are tweaked -- the former might lead to an increase in Adventurousness and a decrease in Trustworthiness, the latter to an increase in Trustworthiness and also a jump up in Family Relationship.

There are seven phases: Infancy, Childhood, Adolescence, Young Adulthood, Adulthood, Middle Age and Old Age. As you proceed, more options open up than just following the flow chart: selecting icons along the sides of the screen allow you to try to find a lover, take out a bank loan, buy a computer (do you want a regular 32KB machine, a pricey 128KB one or a 512KB-behemoth that'll run you $10,000?), seek employment, or, in the teenage phase, Test Your Limits (little stories unfold before you, and after each cliffhanger, you can continue or back down -- adolescence as game show.) Earlier vignettes can affect later ones. If a vignette in the Childhood phase sends your Self-Confidence score plummeting, then in the Adolescence phase, sure, you can select "ASK OUT HOT CHICK", but you'll just stutter and make a fool of yourself. If you want to borrow the car as a teenager, you'll need to have spent your childhood getting your Trustworthiness level cranked up. This is really impressive on a couple of counts: for one, it's a welcome emphasis on long-term consequences to your actions, something I'd like to see more of in IF (sure, it's easy enough to have an NPC kill you if you're too much a twit, but how often can you offend the NPC just enough that it'll continue the conversation but then screw you over 300 turns later?) And then there's character formation, an even rarer phenomenon: we've seen plenty of PCs bereft of much in the way of personality at all, and an increasing number of PCs with personalities thoroughly fleshed out before the game even begins -- but PCs where the character is determined by early choices in the game? ("You haven't been a kleptomaniac up till now -- what makes you think you could work up the nerve to >TAKE HEIRLOOM all of a sudden?")

So yeah, there are some nice elements, and the vignettes themselves are sufficiently interesting that I ended up playing over and over again just to explore all the possible responses to each one. But that's me -- I find games about raising one's children and undermining one's corrupt boss and discovering one's clitoris to be infinitely more compelling than games about driving around in a tank shooting stuff, no matter how realistically the gravel is rendered. But at this point, we topple into the discussion that's been going around since the release of The Sims: why play a game about living a fairly ordinary life when one can instead go out and live a fairly ordinary life?

And this is one objection to Alter Ego: for a game that's got half of the word "alternative" in the title, the lives you live on any given playthrough are really extremely similar; you go through pretty much the same turning points in your life no matter what choices you make. No set of choices is going to turn you into the leader of a biker gang or the president of the country. When you're sixteen and a friend tells you she thinks she's a lesbian, you can choose between "ACCEPT HER" and "REJECT HER", but "TELL HER I AM ALSO A LESBIAN AND ASK HER OUT FRIDAY NIGHT" is not on the menu. It's the classic bait and switch from out of the pages of Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: you can get married or stay single, have a kid or not, lead a hedonistic or conservative lifestyle, and the game seems to offer such a panoply of choices that you might not notice what a normative experience the game really provides. Inevitably you're straight, white, thoroughly unremarkable, and generally at home in and accepting of the prevailing culture. The perfect game for the Reagan era!

But it's even more insidious than that. This isn't just the Reagan era -- it's a neverending Reagan era. You live for about 75 years in this game -- and TIME DOES NOT PASS. Technology does not advance. The culture does not change at all. It's another ideological trick: saying "our culture is the best" only prompts people to weigh it against the alternatives; sneakier and more effective is to discount the possibility of change, to not even provide any alternatives for the audience to consider. (Another Reagan era artifact, Back to the Future, did pretty much the same thing: aside from the clothing and some of the products, 1955 and 1985 are identical -- non-cosmetic societal change is not even offered as a possibility.)

Now, was this intentional? Frankly, I doubt it. Maybe this choice was made so as not to place you in a sci-fi world for large portions of the game or mark you as a member of your grandparents' generation... or maybe the game designers simply overlooked the fact that the world becomes a very different place over the course of a lifetime. But ignoring this fact was very much part and parcel of the culture at the time Alter Ego was written, and for this to be reflected to this extreme in a game like this does make one wonder about the extent to which this ideology was absorbed by the public at large.

And don't even get me started about the "Vote Reagan in 1984" messages in Flightmare. I mean, yeesh.

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