Alter Ego [1986]

By 1986, Activision had evolved from making sure Atari console game designers got paid and credited (as we saw with Pitfall [1982]) into probably the leading commercial purveyor of Art Games for computers. It made a lot of sense at the time for them to acquire fellow traveler Infocom, although by the beginning of 1987 Activision would be under new management by a serious businessman who not-so-secretly hated Infocom to the point of spitefully bringing legal action against their own subsidiary for not being profitable enough. Scattered in amongst movie tie-ins, sports games, arcade-style games, adventure games, and early LucasArts titles that actually were not adventure games were Web Dimension [1985], Little Computer People [1985], Hacker [1985] and Hacker 2 [1986], Portal [1986], and today’s subject, Alter Ego [1986].

Alter Ego is yet another birth-to-death story, by now clearly one of the most well-precedented genres of the Art Game. It differs from the likes of Lifespan [1983] and Deus Ex Machina [1984] in a couple important respects, though. Most palpably, it’s far more grounded in the quotidian and the specific, where its predecessors had run wild with the archetypical and abstract. Also, its predecessors were built on an arcadey points-scoring model leveraged as commentary on your performance as a player and thus a human being. Alter Ego is instead built on stats it uses to judge the player as a human being, which actually ends up making it even gamier a video game, since the stats are basically just more points. It’s a “role-playing game” where the point is legitimately to play a role. It’s a step from Lifespan towards Princess Maker [1991]. It also triangulates between Activision’s Little Computer People, another Life Simulator but more along the lines of Tamagotchi [1996], and Activision’s Portal, which is, like Alter Ego, a hypertext story.

That is to say, instead of having a parser and a world model, this work of Interactive Fiction has links that skip you around to different slivers of text like a computerized take on the Choose Your Own Adventure [1979-2013] books. This was an approach rarely taken a small handful of times up to this point, surprisingly. Maybe interactive fiction developers were actively trying to duck the comparison. This is the first game I’m covering to really put a premium on capital-c Choice, in the way that we usually mean that now when we say that a game offers you choice. Like, sure, Pitfall lets you choose whether to go left or right at the start, and Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] lets you choose every little action and your overall approach to collecting all the treasures, but when a game is tagged “Choices Matter” on Steam [2003-2021], what it’s saying is that the player can directly and fully-consciously warp the explicit written narrative, not the implicit narrative of their own gameplay experience. There’s a straight line from here to Mass Effect [2007]. Over and over, Alter Ego asks the player to make a choice between two or three, maybe four actions. Choosing is the central verb of the game.

You click on icons, most of which are arranged on a branched structure that implies some kind of connective relationship between them that does not actually exist, though they are placed in fuzzy chronology. These icons vaguely indicate what kind of scene they’re going to be. As the game progresses through discrete stages of life that we might as well call “levels,” it provides different trees, and you can see at a glance the leaves change color before your eyes: an infancy spent mainly with family, a teen’s life full of peer socialization, and an old age alarmingly envisioned as, once again, consisting primarily of health problems with sudden death looming around every corner. Within those levels, which are sequenced in the obvious conventional way, you can pick things off the tree in any order, such that the character can be a toddler one moment and a pre-verbal newborn the next. Scenes are isolated, they’re vignettes of notable events within a life, with fundamentally no enduring effects except those they have on your stats. Every time you enter a new scene, it’s like you’re a blank slate, except for the occasional stat check. There’s also disconnected and thus further-isolated icons on the left and right margins, representing things like romantic entanglements, careers, and college, which can then spiral out further into sets of scenes that you access linearly, though each scene is STILL entirely unrelated to the previous scene. Keeping these spheres separate makes them seem like “real life” is actually the stuff on the tree, which are reliably little incidents where something unexpected happens to you.

It keeps a very casual, matter-of-fact attitude towards its non-linear storytelling. It doesn’t foreground this rummaging-through-the-scrapbook technique as some kind of self-consciously postmodern gesture. Nor does it actively attempt to contextualize this interface in some way, like as a depiction of memory, or like life being like a box of chocolates, or with the office-flavored metaphors favored by other GUIs such as the then-new Macintosh, which Alter Ego was never on, kinda surprisingly considering its whole vibe. The purpose of splitting life up into a deck of cards that you then play 52 Pick-Up with seems to mainly be a way to keep any individual playthrough from seeing all that (Alter Ego’s simulation of) life has to offer, as the player is shuffled along to the next level when they’ve seen most of the scenes. It’s saying that you can’t see it all in life, and that you have to choose, even if your choices are all made mostly blindly.

But the game is not very invested in the idea that there are many equally-correct choices. Nope. This doesn’t really even serve to clamp down much on the amount of writing, as such an approach would do in other works of interactive fiction, because everything is already isolated, with no specific long-lasting consequences. Rather, it is the active goal of the game (we may as well say Peter J. Favaro, PhD, the author of the text,) to judge to what degree your choices are correct. Dying before old age feels like losing as much as not getting to the end in any other game, but you can get all the way to the end and, having internalized Alter Ego’s measure, justifiably think of the fictional person you’ve guided as a failure at living. This is its vision of hypertext: not a exponential explosion of liberatory possibility like you may expect, but one that constantly clamps down and leaves you with the dull ache of living with the paths not taken. On later replays, you’re able to mentally superimpose and compare the paths you could take and their according, surefire results, to get a more complete picture of Alter Ego as a text. And you learn how to “win” at life, how to crack the game over your knee and walk out with high stats.

The thing that you come to understand fairly quickly playing Alter Ego is that, unlike real life, bad behavior is almost never rewarded and good choices lead to material gain. If you’re kind to the bullied kid, friendly overtures aren’t simply their own benefit, it turns out their mom is rich and you win a cool vacation, things like that. Nice guys finish first, and lying and cheating usually backfires immediately. It’s pretty condescending. This is a sardonic game for adults, and yet it unfolds with the fantastical logic of an almost-perfectly-just world that is more appropriate to children’s fairy tales and After-School Specials. This same logic holds in terms of how it doles out its stats, which are treated mainly like points that happen to be split up into categories. You can take a peek at the source code’s stat increases and decreases in response to the choices you pick and see that, in probably its most peculiar judgements of player choice, how the character is penalized for being afraid of dogs as a small child, or rewarded most-heavily for picking the type of therapist that Peter J. Favaro, PhD is.

The normative nature of trying to tell a generic ludic “birth-to-death” story seems basically inescapable. As we saw, even something as abstract about it as Lifespan ran into this wall pretty hard. Deus Ex Machina sidestepped it, making the central character a specific though allegorically archetypical person. Alter Ego leans into it. It’s a gleefully didactic work. The game assigns moral agency to babies in the womb so that it can tell you you’re bad for deciding to be a difficult pregnancy. It always allows you to pick your mood and your actions separately, although usually it won’t let you pick something that it thinks doesn’t make sense. When it does let you mix and match, what this amounts to is a chance for Peter J. Favaro, PhD to police your very emotions: for example, the player can opt to have their child-aged character do chores instead of watching TV, but the vignette ends damply and perfunctorily… unless they also opt to have them do it not with an attitude of bored, detached resignation but outright enthusiasm like a freakish wonderchild, in which case they are rewarded with stat boosts and a narrative chunk of an entirely-unrelated parental bonding moment. You can actually wander into some multiple-choice fact-based pop quizzes, which aren’t far off at all from Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego [1985], but equally, aren’t far off from all the underlying architecture of the “what would you do if…” scenarios it tosses at you.

Not that Peter J. Favaro, PhD is always hiding his peculiar judgement in opaque math not declared to the player and squirreled away structurally in routes that the improper player will never be fully aware of. Au contrare, Alter Ego is vocally opinionated and often rubs it in when you make what it thinks is a bad choice. In fact, it’s pretty conversational, and I would say that the primary pleasure of the game is when its catty observations are witty, charming, and entertaining. Typically, it’s at its best when it’s facetiously adopting the player character’s viewpoint, which lets its commentary accumulate a little winking irony. This is pretty standard patter for interactive fiction by now, but it can feel a lot worse when the player’s errors are not slapstick failures to solve obtuse puzzles, but the player’s judgement calls about how to live their life in an everyday context that can get suddenly very serious or even awkwardly sexual. (There’s some kind of legacy of Freud evident, which means that the childhood through teenage level trees are a minefield of frank formative fumblings through sex and the sex-adjacent, and then sex comes up basically only obliquely in actual adulthood because I guess it’s just less significant then.) It opens with a personality quiz that silently inventories your answers, and it never really stops being a personality quiz, it just starts telling you how your answers makes it think of you. If you’re playing “as yourself,” you’re kind of setting yourself up to be potentially deeply insulted when Peter J. Favaro, PhD like, straight-facedly says that you’re the type of person that’s probably going to end up with a substance abuse habit as a response to a choice that didn’t even remotely involve substance abuse. Peter J. Favaro, PhD isn’t one of those psychotherapists that lets the patients think things out, they’re the type that has all the canned answers.

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985], Alter Ego takes place over an entire lifetime without ever truly leaving mid-1980s white suburbia, except much more extremely and overtly and artlessly: technology doesn’t even pretend to advance past the 512K microcomputer. To boot, it’s peppered with retrograde attitudes, from height-ism to fatphobia to casual racism. Telling your gay friend to seek professional counselling (in the 1980s!) is the unambiguously-correct choice that returns “your friend learns how to deal with [their] homosexuality,” and I guess it’s just up to the reader to decide what “deal with” means. Most infamously and egregiously, sexism is deeply baked into Alter Ego, which has both “Male” and “Female” paths, where if you superimpose them like a good hypertext reader, it’s clear how the path for lady characters is modified to diminish and pigeonhole women in ways large and small and sometimes a little confusing. Like, women get to squaredance instead of buying a motorcycle, and phone the police about a convenience store robbery instead of tackling the faux-armed man.

But for once, I actually feel somewhat off the hook in unpacking and interrogating the sociopolitical outlook here. Unlike any other game I’ve yet written about, this line of criticism is so very well-documented that these days, that it’s actually packed in with the game itself if you click the “About” link on the modern port at http://playalterego.com! This “About” section is written by Dan Fabulich who programmed the port, first in HTML and Javascript in the 2000s, then in 2015 updated it to a bespoke language he developed called Choicescript. Choicescript is what the modern Choice Of Games suite of games run on, and I think the profound influence of Alter Ego upon Choice Of Games is fairly clear, even though “CYOA with stats and a single perspective” wasn’t an idea original to Alter Ego and they’re very evidently drawing also on a long pulp tradition. But if you squint, it might be there in the very skeleton. Like, if the modern port is accurate in this specific respect (and it seems to be scrupulously faithful,) then Alter Ego had a specific formula to regulate stat gains that Choicescript inherited wholesale and then embraced. A lot of it is negative influence, correcting for Alter Ego’s flaws: for instance, Choice Of Games offers trivial genderswaps of the player characters and those they romance that don’t effect game experience or narrative, not only as a matter of house style but of programmatic affordance.

And while I’m flashing forward… I don’t believe we’re actually going to see Activision again on this blog until the 2000s, and when it returns it will be, truly and literally, an entirely different company that happens to have the same name and none of its artsy intentions: Zombie Activision.

7 thoughts on “Alter Ego [1986]

  1. Another good one. It’s both surprising and not surprising that someone would gamify a common source of western anxiety: that one is always performing before an evaluative, supervising authority.

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    1. In a way, isn’t that most games with any metric of success? Especially points. It seems like it can equally be a source of anxiety or of strange comfort, being able to see the boundaries of what qualifies as winning. It’s kinda what it means in most contexts to “gamify” anything — the concept eventually spreading out from mere life sims into actual real life.

      Also, really looking forward to your just-started Deadline series! That game was like, so fun to write about. Alas, I think I’ve probably used up my own Infocom “budget” for this general-games-canon blog at this point…

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      1. You’re right, it’s satisfying to succeed through high score or outright winning. I think that I was first drawn to adventure games by the prospect of having clear ideas of what success was–unlike life.

        Alter Ego is a little different because there’s a difference between “you’re bad at missile command” and “you’re a drug addict and you’ve brought this on yourself.” What I meant to say (having failed) was to say that gamifying existential dread over everyday decisions is both natural and surprising. I think contemporary IF can do that sort of thing well, but maybe it was more novel back then.

        All your Infocom stuff turned out really well, but I (and others, I’m sure) have enjoyed the breadth of your chosen topics–keep doing your thing.

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    2. It is EXTREMELY that. When I watched Art play this, one thing that really struck me was how like, in the infancy stage it’s kind of charming how the game judges and psychoanalyses your Alter Ego for everything– it’s honestly really funny assigning intent and success or failure to the actions of a toddler…

      But then as you progress in the game it gets more like. “Wow, this guy’s an asshole.” Especially if you create a female character. It moves almost from a colour-commentary to straight judgement in a way that is, while still witty and conversational, is unintentionally kind of scary? It begs the question of what Peter J. Favaro, PhD would think of my life. What commentary would he have on me… Knowing that the strange philosophy of the game believes very much in an almost karmic idea of the “right and wrong” way to live.

      I’d actually say that this game is almost like a manifesto. It never says so directly, but it didactically creates a narrative about a right and wrong way to act, and constructs an argument for WHY. It almost reminds me of my admittantly lacking understanding of Jordan Peterson’s shitty ethics- poverty is a choice, you are responsible for fixing your life rather than any outside factors, you shouldn’t try to change the world unless you’re a perfect person.

      Not that I think Peter J. Favaro, PhD is petersonian. I’d never compare someone to that fascist (unless they, themselves were a fascist), but the morality in the game reminds me of that.

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    3. It is EXTREMELY that. When I watched Art play this, one thing that really struck me was how like, in the infancy stage it’s kind of charming how the game judges and psychoanalyses your Alter Ego for everything– it’s honestly really funny assigning intent and success or failure to the actions of a toddler…

      But then as you progress in the game it gets more like. “Wow, this guy’s an asshole.” Especially if you create a female character. It moves almost from a colour-commentary to straight judgement in a way that is, while still witty and conversational, is unintentionally kind of scary? It begs the question of what Peter J. Favaro, PhD would think of my life. What commentary would he have on me… Knowing that the strange philosophy of the game believes very much in an almost karmic idea of the “right and wrong” way to live.

      I’d actually say that this game is almost like a manifesto. It never says so directly, but it didactically creates a narrative about a right and wrong way to act, and constructs an argument for WHY. It almost reminds me of my admittantly lacking understanding of Jordan Peterson’s shitty ethics- poverty is a choice, you are responsible for fixing your life rather than any outside factors, you shouldn’t try to change the world unless you’re a perfect person.

      Not that I think Peter J. Favaro, PhD is petersonian. I’d never compare someone to that fascist (unless they, themselves were a fascist), but the morality in the game reminds me of that.

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      1. There is definitely something dangerous about the idea that people are at least partially responsible for choosing their identity, life circumstances, etc. I’ll have to play this at some point because I’ve seen so many smart people talk about it, but it sounds pretty obnoxious.

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