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Analysis: Narrative Versus Simulation In MolleIndustria's Oiligarchy

In her latest Gamasutra analysis, designer Emily Short looks at MolleIndustria's satirical web game Oiligarchy -- in which you are an oil tycoon "pillaging the planet to the point of apocalypse" -- and how, despite propaganda, it works as a "dark,

Emily Short, Blogger

December 31, 2008

6 Min Read

[In her latest analysis, originally part of her 'Homer in Silicon' GameSetWatch column, designer Emily Short looks at MolleIndustria's satirical web game Oiligarchy -- in which you are an oil tycoon "pillaging the planet to the point of apocalypse" -- and how, despite propaganda, it works as a "dark, angsty fan fiction of reality".] Oiligarchy might (at first glance) seem like an odd game to mine for narrative content. It is a game written for political persuasion by Molleindustria, whose previous works include a ruthless dark satire on McDonalds, and a disturbing game about concealing pederasty within the Catholic Church. Oiligarchy sets up a scenario in which, as oil tycoon, you can only perpetuate your play by buying politicians, pushing for wars, and pillaging the planet to the point of apocalypse. The goals of the game are simply incompatible with a sane environmental policy or a legal relationship to elected officials. Is this a fair piece of propaganda? Not really, and I say this as someone who strongly supports a more environmentally responsible agenda and a reduced dependence on non-renewable energy. There's no doubt that big oil has caused serious problems, but I don't hold oil corporations solely and uniquely to blame for our problems in the Middle East, nor do I imagine that no one in the oil industry has a conscience. But Oiligarchy doesn't have time for such caveats. It works, essentially, by saying -- as the McDonalds game did as well -- "Look, people in this position have every self-interested reason to behave like villains; thus we may conclude that, in fact, they do." For added impact, Oiligarchy juices up your interactions with hilariously cruel pictures and sounds. When you build a new oil pump, it clangs and drums like an instrument from hell's orchestra. Put a new building in the wilderness, and you get to watch trees fall, caribou disperse, tiny birds scatter into the sky. In third world countries, the inhabitants peacefully enjoy life around a campfire, until you build over their village and hire their own government to oppress them. There is even a happy whale swimming in Alaska's waters -- until you come along and set up your offshore rigs. It's basically the same message as the one implicit in the interface of Electrocity, only amped to be considerably more extreme: nature is good because it is pretty. Industrial development is bad because it is not pretty. Never mind that nature sometimes produces things like forest fires and volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis, all on her own, that turn the landscape into a twisted smoking wreck. But Electrocity is responsible enough to offer some perspective on the gains and costs of different kinds of infrastructure. Oiligarchy doesn't bother with any balancing points. Oiligarchy has a beautifully smooth, responsive design, too. Naming no names, I've played several persuasive games whose authors were banking so heavily on the value of their content that they didn't bother to make the gameplay smooth, fast, or comprehensible. The slickness of Molleindustria's work adds substantially to its appeal, and to my willingness to replay. But all these trappings, on top of the already biased model, make Oiligarchy feel so extreme that even people who sympathize with some of its message are likely to find themselves muttering "oh really" from time to time. So it's a little hard to take the game seriously as a piece of persuasion. It's outright impossible to take it seriously as education, because it doesn't even pretend to deal in real numbers and facts, or the real trade-offs at work. Oil2.pngBut in another way, I found Oiligarchy compelling, and that has to do with how it works as a story -- a dark, angsty fan fiction of reality. In fiction, there are always some characters who are on the sidelines, unexplored or simply not understood by the viewpoint character. Fan fiction goes back in and explores the motivations of those people; it stitches together the pieces we know about (from the canonical work from which the fan fiction is derived) with the pieces that we can only imagine. In its black-hearted way, Oiligarchy is doing that with recent history. As you explore and drill, corrupt politicians and start wars, the game throws up headline after headline that suit the situation but which are... disturbingly familiar. The old same narrative spools out from a new point of view. Greenhouse effect? It's the oil industry's fault, of course. Invasion of Kuwait? Oil. 9/11, Iraq, Hugo Chavez, instability in Africa and Iran? All oil. Anthrax scare? Oil industry messing with our minds. Homeland Security's stupid color codes? That was Oil too. And then it goes over the top. What's next? Widespread civil unrest. Cannibalism "in some southern states". Population control. Eventually, nuclear holocaust. On the flip side, if you just stop meddling, the politicians and the people of the US will Do The Right Thing, embrace train travel and sustainable living, pass virtuous laws, and clean the planet! Peace and prosperity will prevail! It's funny, in a horrible way -- just as The McDonalds Video Game is funny. But it goes way further than the McDonalds game away from the realm of simulation (where you can bring about diverse results by manipulating the world model) into the territory of story-telling (where you encounter just the results that the author wants you to, though they're presented as the consequence of your acts). Game play is simple, which appears at first to be due to admirable design, but on replay proves to be a clever constraint that prevents the player from going too far off the storyline. It's possible to wind up with a couple of different outcomes, depending on how ruthlessly and for how long you practice your Oiled ways -- but not the wealth of nuanced end-states that one gets out of a well-honed simulation. I don't know that that's a flaw. Campaigns are all about "establishing a narrative" these days. What may confuse people is that Oiligarchy has some of the trappings of procedural persuasion -- getting the player to accept a world model, then demonstrating via that world model that certain principles hold true. What it's really doing is persuasion-by-narrative, which is much more about personalities and trends and motives. Persuasion by narrative can get away more easily with blatant bias. Satire does not, as a rule, pretend to be fair. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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