In the Friend Zone, by Brandan Vance, is a hyperlink story/game. It is online here.
A horror-parody in the tradition of Franz Kafka. Many regard ‘the friend zone’ as a metaphorical penal colony in which well-intentioned Nice Guys™ frequently find themselves trapped. But what if it were a physical penal colony?
And what if you became stuck in there with the Nice Guys™?
Review, with spoilers, after the cut.
I will admit I was a bit wary of this game before playing. I figured it could go one of two ways: a sledgehammer metaphor of how Nice Guys are actually often manipulative and lack self awareness, or a sincere defense of nice guys and attack on the women who treat them so badly. It sounded more like the first of the two, but I figured the latter was always possible.
It went to a much weirder place than either of those.
Merriam-Webster defines kafkaesque as
having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality
and I guess that’s true. This bore less resemblance to the overly-logical-non-logic of the Kafka I’ve read, though, and more resemblance to dreams I’ve had when running a fever. Not fully nightmares, but disjointed and without a cohesive plot, with disturbing images popping up here and there.
The story had roughly two parts. In the first part, the player has very little choice. Most pages end with either only one hypertext link to click, or a choice between moving forward and moving backward. The player character, desperate in love/lust with an object of desire, wanders a bizarre landscape scattered with run-down buildings and monuments. Throughout this strange setting, countless others also wander, similarly obsessed with the same object of desire – the Nice Guys.
After fully exploring this hellscape, the PC reaches a kind of gate and is turned away for having no Questions. Exploring the landscape a second time and yielded additional options in some locations, and I was able to gather a few Questions. However, when I returned to the gate, I apparently didn’t have enough Questions because the game ended in failure. I don’t know if I had managed to find more Questions if I would have won the object of my affection. I sure hope not, but I don’t care to play again to find out.
I’m really not sure what the author was going for in this piece. I’m unclear what the underlying message was, aside from “being obsessed with someone is not good.” I’m unclear about whether all the strange images were specific metaphors, or if many of them were just in there to be generally strange.
I don’t want to go on and on, so I’ll just talk about one relatively minor issue. Early in the game, the player is given the opportunity to choose a name for him/herself, to name the object of desire, and to specify pronouns for the object of desire. This allows, theoretically, for players to put whatever genders they wish onto these characters. However, in practice, this doesn’t work out so well. For one thing, the player is joining the throng of Nice Guys, and is implied to be a Guy as well. While “guys” can sometimes be a gender neutral term, especially when addressing a group, “guy” still has strongly masculine connotations. Equally odd to me was that the other Nice Guys were always referred to in the singular as “they,” as if the author were trying to keep them gender-neutral, but other things signaled them as generally male – for example, that their god is Priapus, the most male-sexuality-focused god of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Similarly, I named my object of desire after the boy I crushed hard on in eighth grade, and gave him traditionally male pronouns, but other parts of the story imposed female characteristics, up to and including a giant sculpture of female genitalia as the shrine of the Nice Guys.
I am all for representing a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities in games, as life has people with a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities. However, in this case, the “nice guy” and “friend zone” tropes are overwhelmingly about straight men and their feelings for women. It’s silly to pretend that that’s not the case, and it weakens the possibility of making a statement about these tropes.
I don’t want to write purely negative reviews about games; I know it takes time and effort to make a game, and that it’s a brave act to put what you’ve created out there for the public to view and judge. But, ultimately, I’m just confused by In the Friend Zone.