Interactive fiction is a genre gamers have been playing with since “Choose Your Own Adventure” books graced elementary school library shelves. But where those books could typically branch out in many different directions (many of them resulting in some sort of gruesome death), modern interactive fiction seems to take more the route of typical, linear fiction, but it allows the player to have some input on the nuances of the experience. These kinds of “games” give the writer a ton of power over the direction and delivery of the story, potentially creating deep, thought-provoking experiences.
I think Pregnancy tries to do these things, but the writing frequently feels shallow, just scratching the surface of stereotypes about rape, abortion, and pregnancy itself. Though I admire its attempt to highlight those issues, I just don’t think it does it well enough to recommend the experience.
Much of the discussion swirling around Locomotivah’s interactive short story swirls around discussing whether or not it’s a “game,” and whether or not it merits the $1.99 price tag. Really though, I can’t help but feel both of those discussions miss the primary question: does the story do justice to the subject matter? In the story, you’re a literal voice in the head of Lilla, a 14-year old Hungarian girl who finds out she’s pregnant after being raped. You’ll follow her from the second she sees her positive pregnancy test to when she finally discloses the news to her family, making her choice about what to do with the pregnancy, all the while offering your own opinions about how to handle the situation. Conceptually, the “voice in the head” mechanic is the best part of Pregnancy; instead of forcing you in to the role of a parent/significant other/rape victim, you get to simply answer the questions as yourself, seeing how Lilla reacts and reflecting on your own thought process. Unfortunately, in execution the interaction and dialog feels scattered and hollow, making the story’s finale fall flat and discrediting the overall impact.
Pregnancy’s worst issue is not that it’s a bad “game,” but that it’s a bad story. All the dialog is brief, bite-sized for easy consumption of a topic that should entirely be difficult to swallow. Transitioning in from the prologue, the music feels lighthearted, as if I should be thinking about what dress the princess is going to wear to the ball instead or whether or not she’s suffering additional mental trauma from discovering she’s pregnant four months after her rape. Lilla’s dialog is peppered with cursing, assumedly to make her feel “natural,” but since there really aren’t any characters that feel weighty or fleshed out to compare Lilla to, the language makes the game feel childish instead of the character. But maybe that’s my issue with the story as a whole; even when taking on abortion and rape, the game feels light and airy.
The characters seem crafted to make you feel like they’re edgy and different: the aunt, a devoted Catholic who supports Lilla’s choice to abort; the cousin, the youthful pro-life input who can’t wait for a baby to join the family; the therapist, a cold, heartless figure who offers Lilla virtually no help at all. In these respects, I think Pregnancy was trying to be a “good game” by offering characters who might be unique to the typical gamer, but it missed many of the game mechanics necessary to make the playthrough compelling.
Of the “gameplay” that Pregnancy offers, it feels like getting to the ending of Mass Effect 3: a large buildup with a letdown at the conclusion. Regardless of the decisions you make, the game always funnels you back to the same train of conversation, generally just excluding a line or two of dialog that is specific to one dialog option. Then there are pieces of input that obviously show rough edges: when Lilla asks you your name, she responds to your free-text name with “That’s a weird name; are you from around here?” She’ll give that same response even if you say that your name is Lilla.
At first, when I reached the conclusion of Pregnancy, I was a little taken aback; though it seemed like I’d been steering her one direction with my input, she made the opposite choice. I reflected back on the things I’d said, wondering what pushed her that direction, or if maybe I needed to think a little more deeply about my own opinions. And then I saw the screen that came up after the story ended:
Like pulling the curtain back to see the Wizard of Oz, just like that the game undercut its own depth and questions, as if the Locomotivah was afraid to get angry letters from players after they reached the end. That screen is followed by a list of three pro-choice and three pro-life websites, two of them Wikipedia pages, all six with the look that they might have just been pulled off of the top of Google search results with little care.
I’ve written a lot in this review because, as much as I feel that Pregnancy doesn’t accomplish the goal it sets out to do, it can still offer an important discussion piece about the future of gaming and how we relate to our gaming experiences. Does the story do justice to the subject matter? No, but it does get us talking. That’s worth something in itself, but there are games out there (Coming Out Simulator 2014 is a great example) that push our envelopes and make us think right now. That said, I think Locomotivah’s heart is in the right place; though I wouldn’t recommend Pregnancy, I’d still keep an eye out for their future titles.