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Smokescreen Day#4: The Plot Thickens…

So Mission Four features another new mechanic. This one is weaker than the last mission, but I’m impressed by the sheer work that must have gone into making so many different mechanics. The narrative gets significantly deeper though, and larger questions around internet ethics come up that make this an interesting turning point in the game. Spoilers within.

The mission starts with a now-familiar chat. The participants are Melissa (largely undefined at this point), Cal (coma-boy) and Billy (everyone’s favorite redshirt).  The conversation is benign, but Cal mentions that he’s sick of talking about his coma, and Melissa recommends to him that he post a rant at the Daily Hate.  I click the link and go to a fairly stream-downed webpage that looks a bit like the Rumor Mill from the first mission. I also get a couple of choices in this conversation, but they seem meaningless in terms of affecting the flow of the story. I don’t need pseudo-choice to feel involved; I’d rather not have it if it’s meaningless.

Max joins the conversation and I’m a little surprised by how cool Cal seems with him given the last time I saw them talking. But then Max notices all of the nasty things said about him on the Hate and accuses Cal of writing them, so I clearly spoke too soon. Max won’t believe that Cal didn’t do it, so the idea comes up of checking the IPs of the posters to find out who did it. Max refuses to check thousands of IPs, so the goal is to find the first poster. At this point, the game begins.

The mechanic has two parts. In the first, you look at the list of Hates (each is about a sentence) and try to find commonalities to create filters that will reduce the set into just the rumors that are really pissing Max off. You do this by dragging three rumors into a filter list on the right; if there’s a common theme, it becomes a filter and the list of Hates is eliminated. The mechanic is okay: it’s fun to look through the list for commonalities, and there’s a little bit of a mystery to which insults are the worst. The problem is that the feedback for the search is in the IM conversation, and if you don’t click there to advance the conversation, you can get out of sync with the gameplay and have no feedback. I have a couple false starts but I get it pretty quickly. The list is of insults claiming the Max thought he saw his dead father’s ghost — that is not the rumor I expected, and that’s a really nice twist for some future narrative.

The second part involves ordering the correctly filtered list so you can figure out which is first. Unfortunately, the feedback here is pretty weak. The text isn’t that hard to order — there are some direct references between Hates that establish a timeline — but some connections are pretty random, and the only time you get feedback is when you get the whole list right. I actually missed a line in the IM intro that said to put the first post on top, and instead did it the typical internet way of the LAST post on top, and lost maybe 15 minutes not knowing what I was doing wrong. My bad there, but there still could have been some feedback. It’s also a bit cludgy to drag an item past the fold, so you have to drop the Hate, scroll, and pick it up again if you want to drag something from top to bottom. I do finally get it right, and we can track the IP at last.

Turns out the IP address goes to a anonymous referrer, but Max won’t believe it’s not Cal, because Cal’s profile is the top hit there. Cal admits he uses the referrer, but points out that anyone could use it as well, and that his content there is not evidence of anything. They take the conversation on to the phone, which narratively I have no idea why I’m in, but it’s a typical violation of realism that I can accept. They argue more, which culminates in a really interesting exchange. Max decides in anger to permanently ban Cal from WhiteSmoke, but Cal counters by revealing that he has emails in which Max has been talking to advertisers about putting ads on the site. Max (good voice acting here) gets shifty and defensive, but Cal hammers him for betraying the ideals of the site and stripping Cal of admin access only so Max could “sell out to the Man.” The conversation ends with a hang-up. I got four achievements, missing one for not posting my own Hate and one for no reason I can easily discern.

It’s interesting to hear advertising being called “selling out” as someone who worked on advertgames and online games for years. Is that how people nowadays actually feel about it? Do teens generally resent advertising? I see the “don’t sell out” appeal of the youth narrative, but I do wonder if Smokescreen is going to explore that more. And clearly that means I’m now invested in this story. I appreciate that an educational game is actually putting real energy into compelling narrative, but then again I shouldn’t be that surprised given that the chops of the designers are all ARGs.

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