IFComp ’12: Body Bargain

Body Bargain is a horror game by Amanda Lange. Speaking of horror, my buddy Bryce Wilson has just published his book Son of Danse Macabre in the Kindle store. Picking up from where Steven King’s Danse Macabre left off the book explores the last thirty years of horror in film, fiction, and gaming. Horror is Bryce’s passion and he’s got encyclopedic knowledge from the big tent poles (can horror be a tent pole? I guess if it’s has paranormal activity in the title) to the little indie flicks made from love and buckets of died corn syrup. I’ve read an early draft and let me tell you it is an education. If you’ve got any interest in the genre at all you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Anyway, Body Bargain. It’s good! Spoilers follow.

The game takes place in the near future where extreme body modification is a thing. The player character is a young girl who has just undergone an expensive surgery to remake her body how she’s always wanted it. Unable to afford the modifications she must now work off her debt under the unsavory and amoral Dr. Overclock. Body Bargain is Amanda’s first game, but if hadn’t mentioned it in her author’s notes you would never have guessed. Aside from a little weirdness where Overclock insisted I get file for him even though I had already delivered it, I found nothing that would suggest this was a first time endeavorer. Amanda teaches writing and game design and it shows. The game is polished, complete, and the first game I’ve played in this year’s Comp where the theme is fully developed.

Body Bargain is structured not as puzzles to solve but as a situation to explore. Depending on your actions several different outcomes can be reached, none of them “correct.” What’s important here is that each outcome involves the PC growing in someone and making a sacrifice, whether it is of her own morality or that of her sister’s wellbeing. Unless I missed something essential there’s no way to free Savannah without causing some harm. This is excellent control of the theme. The character starts in a place of naivety (as evidenced by her desire to look more elfish, and her cutesy fantasy tattoo) but no matter what choices she makes her experience changes her. Each potential path through the game creates an arc. Good stuff. Better, the writing isn’t heavy-handed and doesn’t overtly broadcasts any of this. The theme is revealed all through choice and action.

The tone of the writing is straightforward and clinical with just enough detail to impress the grisliness of the procedures. I particularly liked “the air smells of blood and powdered bone.” And there’s plenty of nonessential cracks and crevices to poke into for background details and worldbuilding. It’s not particularly poetic but it serves the story and worked for me.

One problem I did have was freeing Savannah when I’d killed Overclock in the Machine Shop. She didn’t want to come with me and nothing I told her convinced her to help. I had to look up in the walkthrough that the correct phrase was TELL ABOUT DANGER. That’s a bit of an abstract concept and there was nothing in the text to prompt it. It’s non-intuitive and considering the range of actions possible it’s a shame the game gets bottlenecked at this point. Otherwise, Body Bargain was a joy, well crafted and fully realized. Recommended.

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