As a kid I think the thing I typed into search engines most was “Free Games”. Eventually after countless sites that loaded my computer with enough Malware for a “Firefly” MMO, I stumbled across HOTU.ORG, or The Home Of The Underdogs.
This place was loaded with the games I never thought existed. If you’ve never played “Starflight” or “Colonization” or any of the games from the early days of PC gaming, boy you are missing out. it was on Home Of The Underdogs that I stumbled across probably my favorite non-game game of all time, 1986’s Alter Ego.
For the uninformed, Alter Ego is a text based life simulator that’s based on actual psychological concepts coded and designed by an actual doctor, namely Peter J. Favaro. As a result it’s sort of a ‘choose your own adventure’ with a heart and some science behind it. It’s written deliciously, too, with a charm and wit that reminds me of the Harry Potter series.
In fact I think it’s the only text based adventure game where a baby’s first words are spelled phonetically over the course of 4 screens.
Alter Ego starts out by having you select male or female. Not quite ready to cross *that* final frontier yet, I selected male and answered a series of about 30 true or false questions pertaining to my personality. “Do you get the urge to touch signs that say wet paint” “I typically do as my parents say” and other questions you’d probably get if you were under psychiatric evaluation at a local prison.
By this point in the game you’re either bored off your ass or thoroughly intrigued. If you’re a gamer who wants more “game” in their games, you’ll probably take one look at the white on black type, notice the lack of guns, military personnel, and online multiplayer, and hightail it for the closest FPS you can get your little hands on. This is not a game for the impatient, or even the logical.
Instead, what Alter Ego offers is a series of loosely connected vignettes, which all add to your alter ego’s score and spheres. As you age, you gain points in various attributes: physical, social, aggressiveness, and a couple of more all go a long way to informing the way your character will act in a given situation. If you have a low social sphere and try out for a school play, the odds are you’ll be booed off the stage and whisked back to the chess club where you probably belong, dork. Similarly if you have a habit of disagreeing with your parents throughout your youth, and suddenly decide to empathize with them, they will be suspicious of your motives.
Part of the problem with life simulators like ‘The Sims” is if you play those games as they’re meant to be played, they pretty accurately reflect the utter monotony and quiet desperation that is day-to-day life. Barely enough time in the day to eat, bathe, clean and work, let alone throw a party, learn to play guitar, buy a chemistry set or socially interact.
And if we’re being honest, in that game after I spent 45 minutes creating a character I wanted to look and act just like me, my first social interactions were met with the encouraging messages “Sue-Ann thinks Paul is being awkward” and “Sue-Ann is uncomfortable”. Depressing…but true.
Of course, I’m probably one of three people who attempted playing ‘The Sims” game for keeps. Practically everyone else cheats at it, gives themselves the most money, the biggest house, maxes out their happiness, and generally scams the system to the point where really the game ought to be called “White Trash Wish Fulfillment: The Game”.
Not that I’m any less guilty. I still remember the password for 50k simoleans. (It’s Rosebud.)
‘Alter Ego’ avoids this by boiling life down to its essence: Social interactions, romantic interactions, and the various moments of truth that really define all our lives. It becomes an eye opening experience. Many a time I have played Alter Ego “as myself” answering questions honestly, only to find the moment when I acted against the type of person I am, blow up in my face. Especially since certain events can be fatal (for example in one game I stupidly approached a car offering free candy and was promptly raped and murdered), the effort required to play the game and succeed becomes its own reward.
And, then, well, I was humming along in my little Alter Ego life, toiling away in school for Social Services because it was always an interest of mine, dating some chick named Cathy I didn’t really care too much about, when BAM, I won 500 thousand dollars in-game and instantly stopped caring about the choices I would make, or the game in general. I had “Rosebuded” without meaning too!
Up until this point I was invested, eagerly pondering every possible outcome, attempting to be the best me I could be in the terms of the game. And at that point, I was pretty much me: Creative, a touch anti-social but overly sympathetic towards everyone, a “real character” as the game said. And now it didn’t matter anymore.
But “Alter Ego” *does* matter. It’s enriching and poignant and funny and gentle. A game that’s more intriguing than exciting. It’s the ‘Boyhood’ of gaming. As for how your ‘Alter Ego’ would fare, there’s only one way to find out. Play the game!