Simon is a nerd. There’s no question about it. From his pink-rimmed glasses — pink, Simon? Really? — to his natty sweater-vest, he’s a nerd.
And I’m going to make him a hero.
Prom Week was created by a team from UC Santa Cruz, and it was entered into this year’s Independent Games Festival. It simulates the staggeringly complex web of relationships between a small group of high school students, each of whom has a set of goals, friends, enemies, idols and true loves. The player guides these hapless, helpless teenagers toward the mythical prom, helping — or in some cases, hindering — them at every turn.
“Will Simon find love, friendship, respect… or just pity? It’s up to you.”
Pity? Bah. Simon, under my expert tutelage, will clamber to the top of the slippery social slope with Machiavellian guile. That little Linux-using bastard Zack will be the first to fall — oh, wait. What is it that Simon actually wants?
The game takes a deceptively simple form: select one of the kids, select the object of their intentions, and then define what those intentions are. Want to flirt? Go ahead. Bully? Sure, if you think that’s best. Brag? Share a confidence? Bicker? The entire panoply of human interaction is yours to command. All you need to do is engineer the right sequence of actions to meet your chosen champion’s goals.
Did I say “all”?
Simon’s first goal is called “Totally Popular”, and requires him to be friends with five of the other kids. Alright, we already have two friends, and although I don’t trust Zack as far as Simon could throw him, that’s a problem for another time. Next, “LOV3 Is In The Air”, which requires Simon to be dating someone when the prom rolls around. No problem. “Caught Cheating”, though, requires him to be simultaneously dating two girls — let’s skip that one for now, Simon, shall we? Walk before you can run, and all that. “An Ideal Rival” sounds interesting: Simon must be friends with someone and enemies with someone, and those two someones must be, in fact, the same someone. Hm. And, lest we forget, “Pitiful Me” requires two negative things to happen to Simon in the course of the story. Well, we all love an underdog, right?
The depth of the social interactions are immediately striking. Your friend has a crush on someone; if you flirt with that person, your friend will hate you. You are troubled that the spiky-haired kid hates you, so you impress him with some gnarly skateboard move — now, he still hates you, but concedes that you are cool. The variables which define these relationships aren’t entirely transparent, which helps to build the sense that things are fragile and complicated.
Just like a real high school.
There are two eligible young ladies in whom Simon is interested. Jordan has an awesome hat, Lil has a troubling T-shirt. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess who will be the lucky girl —
Oh, so that’s how it is. Fine. Jordan it is. You’ll rue the day, Lil…
While Prom Week could be played as a puzzle game, the narrative takes over almost immediately. It isn’t enough to compromise with the other characters, to meet the bare-minimum requirements — your protagonist must be victorious. I don’t just want Simon to have a date for the prom, I want him to go with Jordan, the girl of his dreams, the girl with the eccentric hat. I want the story to work.
Meanwhile, Jordan confesses to Simon that she doesn’t like his name. Wow, Jordan. Way to be sensitive. Luckily…
That’s right, Simon. Take the high road.
The social interactions you choose aren’t shots in the dark, however. Before you commit to an action, you can choose to see whether or not you will be successful. If things aren’t going the way you want them to go, you can spend social currency to change the outcome, although your resources are limited, and the larger the change you want to make, the more it will cost you.
Alright, things are looking promising with Jordan. Let’s give her some space to think about how awesome Simon is, and turn our attention to Zack. I’m still not sure about him, but riding the euphoria of a successful boy/girl interaction, I decide to confide in him about Lil.
Aw, I’m getting a little choked up here. This is Simon’s moment, man.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Twitter-like stream of updates and comments which pop up in the bottom-right corner of the screen. Whereas the central game mechanic defines these relationships precisely, the comments are where they come to life. More than any other part of the game, those comments made me laugh out loud, and feel a genuine affection for these little pixel-art punks.
And so, back to Jordan. Everything is going well, so let’s seal this deal. Let me see… I could confide in her about Simon’s love of calculus books, but there’s no social glue stronger than mutual hatred of a peer. In this case, Simon criticizes the absent Buzz.
Well, alright. This is all going swimmingly.
When enough time has passed, the scene moves on. If you are confident in your social puppetry, you can choose to skip straight to the prom. In this case, I felt that Simon needed some more time to make friends and influence people. We move to the corner store, and Simon is surrounded by a clique of popular girls. Only Naomi is familiar, while the other two are plucked from the wider cast. Each character maintains relationships with all the others, whether they are present or not, and as you play through the individual stories, you begin to develop genuine affection for some of them.
Oh God. Girls. Wait — Naomi is here, and she and Simon bonded over their shared love of calculus books. Perhaps he can turn that into a real friendship, and thus win over the others. He needs five friends, after all, and it’s too late to call in back-up from the chess club — hey, if this goes well, we might even try for the “Caught Cheating” goal. You the man, Simon. You the —
Thanks to the complex network of relationships and influence, one action can have a myriad of consequences. These digital high-schoolers are every bit as merciless as the real thing: one mistake, and there’s blood in the water — and this, to me, is the most interesting part of the game.
It’s okay, all is not lost. Simon, stop sobbing. I’ve got this. All we have to do is win over Naomi’s friends, and she’ll see the error of your ways. She’ll think you’re cool. Just say the right thing…
And it’s the narrative, of course, that carries you away. Everything is under control, everything is cool — and then one tiny thing goes wrong. You try to fix it, but you make a fool of yourself, and two other things fall away. You over-reach, thinking that if you can just manipulate these kids efficiently enough, you can turn everything around, save the day, become the hero. But you can’t — the emergent narrative carries you away, a tidal force that takes you by surprise and carries you into unexpected places.
Alright, we don’t need friends. Skip ahead to the prom. Romance is the thing — let’s build Simon’s confidence with some smoochy times, and everything will be okay.
Uh oh. Jordan isn’t wearing her hat. Is this a bad sign? Wait, Naomi liked it when you talked about calculus. That’s solid gold, dude. Go for it!
Don’t panic. Don’t you dare panic. We can still fix this, Simon. Humiliate one of the other kids, and join the others in their scathing laughter. Ridicule one of the girls — wait, where’s Lil? She deserves…
… Oh, God. What have I become?
The genius of Prom Week isn’t that it stitches a myriad of disparate stories together seamlessly — that’s an admirable technical achievement, certainly, but it’s less immediately important than you might think. Rather, the triumph here is the evocation of the heroism and heartache of a high-school prom. The complexity of these relationships is absolutely, intricately mechanical — but like all successful stories, it swiftly moves beyond the mechanical, beyond the ludic, to the personal and emotional. The temptation to manipulate these characters is enormous, but crossing that line feels… wrong. It’s all to easy to stop guiding, to stop storytelling, and to being puppeteering. In the end, I stopped playing Prom Week because I didn’t like the person I felt like when I played it, and I can think of no greater compliment than that.
But I’ll be back tomorrow, Simon. You and me, buddy. You and me.
Prom Week is free to play, and can be found on Facebook. It was created by a group of students at UC Santa Cruz, under the guidance of Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas, and you can vote for it in the Independent Game Festival Audience Award by clicking here. Thanks to the wonderful JK Mahal for the tip!