IFComp 2019 review: robotsexpartymurder

I was eager to play robotsexpartymurder because Hanon Ondricek’s IFComp entry from 2018, Cannery Vale, is easily in my top five interactive fiction of all time.

For me, robotsexpartymurder is another home run: a massive, weird, disconcerting, fun game, and one of the highlights of IFComp 2019.

Please do not read this review if you haven’t already played the game! You owe it to yourself to experience it for the first time on your own.

spoilers (and some mature content) follow!

It’s 1986, and you’re an indentured worker for Cardinal Corporation. You live in a cube on their corporate campus, you’ve got a SecureCuff(TM) monitoring your every move, and you can spend your CardinalCash at the Cardinal Cafe.

A dead body was discovered at a sex party hosted by a Republican senator’s daughter. There were plenty of humans there, of course, but also four Anatomically Correct Personal Companions–or sex robots. (You can guess where the title comes from!)

And your prosecutor is offering you a deal: interview the robots and figure out what happened, in exchange for shortening the term of your indenture.

Solving the mystery

Every night, you can invite a different robot to your cube for an interview, but interviewing the robots elucidates very little. They’re charming, randy, somewhat evasive conversationalists.

Once you gain access to the robots’ memories, you can play through the night of the party from each robot’s perspective. Or perspectives, plural, because we learn that their brains are divided into three functions (named superego, ego, and id).

The superego allows you to navigate back and forth through the memories. The ego follows the narrative. The id comments, revealing the robots’ emotional or sexual reactions.

The four narratives of the night work together to create an intricate ballet, where you’re trying to keep track of who is where when, and what people are doing, who has alibis, who might have a motive, who have you lost track of…

This part of the game was my very favorite. Running through the same night from four different points of view doesn’t get old at all. It captures the essence of a good interactive mystery; I found myself taking pages of notes to try to reconstruct the timeline of the night.

In the end, all of my elaborate notes were unnecessary! To solve the mystery, you don’t need to piece together clues from the four different perspectives. All you need is to find a way to access a certain missing log, at which point the solution to the mystery is revealed.

I think this is a good way of balancing the competing demands of an interactive mystery. On one hand, you want the player to feel like they are solving the mystery themselves (asking questions, taking notes, filling in the gaps). On the other hand, you want to make sure that the full solution is accessible and clear, that huge chunks of your audience aren’t missing the solution because the mystery asked too much of them.

Gameplay loop

robotsexpartymurder is a big game. This can be both a strength and a weakness.

There are a huge number of not-entirely-related-to-the-core-plot activities you can engage in, like singing karaoke, masturbating in the shower, or playing a fighting game:

Some of these things are perhaps mistakes for the player character; I definitely had experiences where I got high with Ivan, or tried to beat a robot at chess (bad idea), and then time got away from me and I woke up the next morning shouting, “No, I had plans!” There’s a fun sandbox feeling to messing around in this surprisingly open world, but it can also be frustrating, because reaching good endings can require some careful time management.

When you report to work, you play through sequences designed to, essentially, simulate the mind-numbing life of an office drone. It’s done as a cynical and somewhat broad satire: every day, you have to click through to uncompress five databases, and then recompress them again.

You can sing to your coworkers!

This is a game that is enormously capable of making you feel curious and eager. There are multiple mysteries and layers of mysteries to solve. There’s so much stuff that you really want to do, whether that’s interviewing killer sexbots, making out with killer sexbots, exploring your mysterious dreams, hanging out with Ivan…

But first you have to change into a robe, go shower, configure your room for dining, select a meal, and spend a full shift at work.

This content isn’t dull, and it does have textual variation. You can choose from many different dishes to eat; you hear different gossip in the showers. But what is clever and fun the first few times quickly starts to wear on you as you repeat the routine over and over, especially if you’re attempting multiple playthroughs.

I found this so irritating that I actually counted how many clicks on average it takes to get through the routine of hygiene/nutrition/work, all of which are required daily. (You start to incur penalties if you’re too stinky, hungry, tired, or workshy.) The number of clicks was 60! That’s 60 extraneous clicks per in-game day, or 300 extraneous clicks per playthrough. And there are five endings.

To me, this is one of the only weaknesses of the game, because it inhibited my desire to replay and experiment. I love the game and find it fascinating, but it takes a long time to get through it, and much of that time is spent clicking through the daily trivia.

Sex weirdness

This is a game that lays its cards on the table right away. A minute or so in, you are asked to contemplate whether or not you would like your robot companion to stimulate your anus.

Like in Cannery Vale, the author provides the option to choose between a hardcore and softcore mode. Because the story revolves around sex robots, the softcore mode still includes a fair number of references to sex, and you presumably wouldn’t let your twelve-year-old play it. It just replaces some of the anatomical detail with generic caressing.

My impression, after having played for a while in both modes, is that it’s better to play in hardcore mode if you are willing to. So much of the experience of the game comes from the rawness of the language.

This is a game full of explicit sexual language, and its purpose is not (or at least not solely) to titillate. After playing for a while, I found that one of the effects of the pervasive sexuality of the game was to unnerve me. The overload of eroticism became anti-erotic, and started to feel dull or uncomfortable or unsexy or revolting.

It took a while for me to realize that all the robot sex that’s available to the player is totally optional, and maybe even counterproductive. Time is limited, and if you spend your time and energy humping robots instead of pursuing your other goals, you may regret it.

(And what does it say about you if, presented with a sex robot, you decided to explore all of its functions? The game didn’t force you to, didn’t even imply that it was necessary. It just made it possible.)

Contrary to the tongue-in-cheek game description (“Dystopian erotic murder mystery dating sim”), this is not at all like a dating sim, by the way. You can talk to the robots, but most of your conversation options are about the mystery. You can certainly have sex with them, because they are extremely sexually permissive and also literally obligated to have sex with you. You can play blackjack and attempt to play chess with them. You can sleep next to them. But you can’t establish a deeper relationship with them, at least not in a traditional dating sim way.

The big picture

One of the things I appreciate is that the game, while maximalist and over the top in many ways, understates some things. The robots’ personhood or lack thereof, the way their agency can be stripped from them, or the way they can be abused, is rarely put into words. When it does reveal itself, then, it’s done through gameplay in ways that have serious emotional impact.

The game doesn’t directly address robot personhood or AI rights, and it doesn’t jump up and down and shout about ethical questions surrounding sexbots. You can have sex with the robots if you want to. You don’t have to. Did you? How did you feel afterwards?

robotsexpartymurder is weird, explicit, complex, difficult, ambitious, overambitious, silly, disturbing, and profound, all at once. Like Cannery Vale, it is a strange game that is 150% committed to being itself, and deserving of a reputation as a new classic of interactive fiction.

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