AlethiCorp (IFComp 2014)

AlethiCorp is a web game: not just a game that runs in a browser, but a simulated company intranet.

This means that what would be usability issues on a website, things you might fix by adding a personal style sheet or filing a ticket with IT, are playability issues in the game. The game’s text is presented in black type on top of a blue patterned background, making it difficult to read unless it’s highlighted.

The game starts out on the public side of the site, which presents the company as a technology consultant firm, using stereotypical overblown management jargon reminiscent of Dilbert or Office Space. We fill out a job application, taking a “personality test” that asks questions like “If you were a bear, what kind of bear would you be?” and lets us select multiple contradictory check boxes.

Once accepted, it turns out we’re actually in the covert intelligence analysis business, and our job is to look into the background of a potentially subversive author. Gameplay revolves around general office tasks – checking email, taking online training, signing up for team events, clocking out at the end of each day – and analyzing intelligence data such as email and phone transcripts to flag the “suspicious” items.

Or does it? Portal-esque cracks appear in the surface, bringing some cute (but brief) gameplay changes, and as the subversive elements we’re investigating start hacking the site and speaking to us directly, it’s not clear which side we’re supposed to be on.

Wait, no! Ha! Gotcha! It turns out the bosses were testing us all along, and by playing along with the “hackers”, we’ve failed. We should’ve known that subplot was phony, they tell us, because it was so cliched.

That’s despite the fact that the whole game has been one long series of cliches: the personality test, the inverted Scrum philosophy we’re trained on, the field agents’ expense reports, the self-published Atlas Shrugged knockoff whose author we’re asked to investigate.

Our entrapment is foreshadowed by one of the surveillance transcripts we receive late in the game, which reveals that the violent radicals in a suspicious college club are actually undercover agents. We played along with the hacker because it was a fun break from the tedium of reading corporate emails and flagging items according to vague criteria to meet a quota. Are we to conclude that the agents tried to spice things up in that club because they were bored, or perhaps that they manufactured subversion because their jobs depended on its existence?

What would have happened if we hadn’t played along with the hackers? The prospect of squinting and slogging through all those emails again is uninviting enough that I’d rather not find out.

AlethiCorp is one of those games where I was very impressed with its construction on the first play-through, but on replays it became clear that the game is on rails to a much greater extent than I expected.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to use the fact that the Omega email is a sting to your advantage. Almost nobody replies meaningfully to my forwarding his emails. Even if I delete all his emails, I still get arrested for leaving incriminating evidence on my account (?) and not giving the suspects a high enough threat level. This is true even if I arrest the real Omega and assign him a threat level of 999.

Also… what’s up with the gratuitous pictures of trains in our inbox?

Is it a hint that we should check the available training, which is just the “Haka” project management system, or that we should apply the stuff we’ve been trained on, which I guess would mean having more meetings? Is it a reference to the Atlas Shrugged knockoff our target is writing? Is it a reminder that train magic is the most powerful kind? Or is it just more silliness to encourage us not to question the hacking subplot we’re roped into?

I thought it was just a parody of typical manager eccentric hobbies/communication styles. But maybe there’s deeper meaning and it just went right over my head.