IFComp 2008: Channel Surfing

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

You can guess what Channel Surfing is about from the title. Spoilers past the link.

I spent half an hour on Channel Surfing. (Yes, I’m a fast reader. But a very slow writer, which is why I’m still working on these reviews.) A full third of that time was spent trying to work out how to surf channels. Channel Surfing puts the PC in a room, with a remote control, testing a 3D virtual-reality television. Switching channels is the central mechanic of the game… and I simply could not figure out how to phrase the command. I had to get the right wording from the walkthrough. I am not the only person who had this problem.

Here, then, is another game that was not tested… or so I assumed. Then I noticed beta-testers in the credits, albeit testers with names like “npc” and “yourself2d.” Maybe the author didn’t listen to them. Channel Surfing has problems even an inexperienced tester would have found, from the usual lack of detail:

\>x table
A small, expensive looking wooden table. The top is round and about a foot in diameter, and the edges are rounded. The top surface is polished smooth, and the legs of the table have intricate shapes carefully carved into them.

\>x shapes
You can’t see any such thing.

to more problems with surfing channels (again, the most important action in the game): switching to any channel other than the one prescribed by the game produces a blank line; so does trying to switch channels within a program.

Hidden behind the implementation problems is smugly crappy satire. Game shows and reality television are easy targets which have been parodied to death. Hell, people have been satrizing reality television since before it was invented. Channel Surfing doesn’t say anything new. That’s an accomplishment in its own way. The game show segment has hooks that might have allowed a better writer to work up something biting: The audience’s blithe acceptance of the “Cat or Dead Cat” scenario, the big prize that turns out to be a fashion-accessory taser. Channel Surfing invites players to concern themselves with getting a too-astute fellow contestant to take a bathroom break. As for the reality TV segment, I can’t improve on Stephen Bond’s comments.

In the end Channel Surfing puts the player in the role of a media-constructed President (You say moneyed interests have taken control of our political discourse? Wow, dude! I had not previously noticed!) and introduces us to a future of passive blobs in comfortable chairs, mesmerized by fifty-inch HDTVs. What’s interesting is that the ending is the same no matter what you do. As President, you can stick to your script or rebel; play to the audience’s prejudices or tell them the truth or just blurt out whatever craziness rises from your id. Beyond the fluctuations of your approval rating none of it has any affect on the outcome.

The message of Channel Surfing is that the fix is in. It doesn’t matter whether the guy in the White House tells us the truth, because we’re all sheep—all except the author of Channel Surfing, who is hip to the ways of the world. Ignore the politicians! Sit back, relax, and concern yourself with Survivor. Whatever you choose to do, it’ll all come out the same.

For the powerful money-laden media owners Channel Surfing wants to take the piss out of, this is an awfully convenient message. This game isn’t on the side it thinks it’s on.