Ultra-Ego: Agency in "Alter Ego" By Gin Jackson

In Alter Ego, a work of e-literature created by Dr. Peter J. Favaro, the player sets out to create a persona/character that they will then control throughout the character’s life until the persona passes away in the game. This piece of e-literature is aptly named as it implies the player can do whatever they wish with how this character acts; make choices as the player normally would, do the opposite of what they would do themselves, but for all the freedom of choice that Alter Ego offers, its choices become much more restrictive as it ages. As our society becomes more inclusive and accepting of ideals and lifestyles that don't reflect the "traditional American family" narrative popularized in the 1950s, the agency reflected in these pieces declines for modern players as choices offered to them in their current society weren't previously available.

Software Specifications

This iteration of Alter Ego is coded in and runs on Javascript, which is a relatively easy programming language to learn and has advantages for its speed as Javascript runs on the client end and does not need to wait for the server (Iadt.edu). This can cause some issues though as it can cause inconsistencies with the page if the code hadn’t been tested on that particular browser by the programmer ahead of time (Mediacollege.com). The result of this means that the game is easily accessible and runs smoothly on most major browsers (I tested this game on Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer). Additionally, the game doesn’t need to execute very complex commands as most of it is done through reading and clicking radio buttons to make your choices, because of the speed offered with Javascript, this means the simple commands are executed and the next part of the script loads almost seamlessly.

Game Mechanics and Background

The first choice to make in Alter Ego is which type of character you'd like to create.

The game begins by asking the player if they’d like to play the game as a boy, or as a girl, and then launches into a personality test that is completely optional. Taking the test, however, is a way to shape the base stats of the character if there’s a particular personality build that the player is looking to achieve, otherwise the statistics for the persona are created at random; although they can slowly change throughout the life stages as humans tend to do in real life.

Statistics are the building blocks of character

The statistics don’t matter as much in the first two stages of the game (Infancy and Childhood), but can deeply affect the way the rest of the game will turn out as it’s set up like real life in the way that the choices you make in your younger years builds foundational characteristics. The way the player chooses what the persona will do in certain situations is based off of the statistics one has acquired, but in turn the actions they take can affect the statistics as well. For example, if your persona is a trustworthy child, their parents will perhaps believe a few lies that are told later on in adolescence. The game will allow a player to attempt something even if they don't have the required stat for a good outcome (such is life), but will prevent the player from making a combination of choices it sees as illogical. The player can't choose to coo angrily as a baby, or happily throw a tantrum as a child.

Become an athlete, or a nerd, but it forces you through high school (again) all the same.
The main screen with additional icons that will direct the player to specific sub-menus.

The five scenario types that can play out are: Physical (green with an x-ray of the lungs), Emotional (pink with a heart), Family (purple with a family photo), Social (orange with grey faces), and Work (yellow with a person shoveling). These are the five typical spheres that anyone living in a society can expect to encounter and use to shape their worldview. While the main screen does make a point to connect all of these interactions with each other, there is no order in which scenarios need to be played. If a player doesn’t want to ever choose a work tile, they don’t have to, although some scenario tiles are restricted if the player doesn’t meet certain criteria. For instance, some emotional panels in the Adolescence and Young Adult stages are inaccessible if the persona is not dating anyone, and there are work panels that will not be playable if your persona is not working a full time job.

The options for the Job sub-menu

The sub-menus help the player meet the needed criteria for these situations. From the top left hand side, going down, are Statistics, Education, Relationships, and Major Purchases. Starting from the top of the right hand side, going down, are Age, Job, Children, and Marriage. Only Statistics and Age are available from the get go, everything else appears as you advance through stages in life. Education, Relationships, and Job become available in Adolescence, while Major Purchases, Marriage, and Children are unlocked once the persona reaches Young Adult.

Lack of Agency in Cultural Relevancy

While the game lets the player create and live a different life through the persona, the type of life the player is allowed to live is increasingly narrow and this is where it misses its mark due to cultural aspects. Alter Ego is set in the societal era of the mid 1980s, and the world of the game is increasingly static. Even though the persona can assumedly live up to the average life expectancy which would place their death roughly in the mid 2040s to mid 2050s, there are no advancements in technology within this world. The political climate is never expanded upon and race is very rarely, if ever, commented on within the setting. These sorts of issues result in a very restrictive experience for the player and who they’d like to play as, especially in terms of gender and orientation.

Take the first choice the game offers; Do you want to be a male, or a female? Alter Ego only allows for personas to be cisgender as that was the mainstream expectation of the mid 1980s. This limits the agency of the player to have the experience of a transgendered persona, representation that a transgendered player might need. In fact, most issues dealing with those who identify as belonging in the LGBTQ+ community are passed over in the gameplay. Along with being cisgender, the persona can only be heterosexual and are given no other option for what gender they can date and marry.

As a girl, there are only lists of boys you can choose from, even if the player wants their character to be a lesbian, or bisexual.

The game briefly mentions the possibility of characters around the persona being LGBTQ+, but it’s only for one short scenario where a female persona’s friend admits to the persona that they like girls rather than boys and the only “accepting” choices are to refer the friend to a therapist, or suffer becoming her confidant until the friendship slowly dies out since the persona can’t handle being the only person they can talk to about it.

Even if the persona is straight, there are still choices and experiences that the game blocks the player off from. While it’s a difficult topic to sometime engage in, becoming a teen mom is much more accepted than it was twenty, or thirty years ago and is a valid experience that some people go through. Alter Ego, however, doesn’t allow for the option to have kids until the persona is an adult. Even then, the persona can’t have a biological child as if the persona is on their own and does not want a partner, but still wants a biological child through means like artificial insemination, they're blocked from that choice. Their only option is to adopt a child. There is no scenario in which the persona can become pregnant from a one-night stand either. It’s an extremely limited and narrow view of what’s acceptable in modern society and the game hasn’t aged well in that regard.

The current copyright holders and distributors of the game, a company called Choose Multiple LLC, have maintained and preserved the original version created by Dr. Favaro as an important part of electronic literature, but they admit that the story of Alter Ego is inherently one of a cisgender, heterosexual, non-minority persona; though that’s not entirely the same feelings that we as a society hold today. What Alter Ego lacks in this type of agency is vast, but Choose Multiple LLC also encourage those disappointed by the gaps in Alter Ego to write their own version of the game and create the experience that this one doesn’t allow. Even though it wouldn’t actually be Alter Ego and it is extremely presumptuous that the consumer should have to create what the game doesn’t allow, it does show a unique opportunity of agency to restyle the structure of Alter Ego into a more modern and updated version of the game that brings better representation and a more dynamic experience for both the persona and the player.

Although the game lacks any choices to create a narrative that goes against the stereotypical life of an American in the mid 1980s, it does make a lot of the right moves to mimic the choices that we find ourselves making in life which fulfills its duty in allowing us to create an alter ego of our own to see what our lives in a different time could have been. Alter Ego doesn’t tell a story like my own, but it does give me the ability to find pieces of myself in it, and that relatability makes all the difference.

It's interesting that we're able to enjoy something that seems culturally similar, but distinctively from its own time in comparison to ours. The progress we've made in thirty plus years makes playing this a little jarring as you're suddenly stripped of choices our current society sees as typical. While it's important to preserve these for future use, we shouldn't hold them as an industry standard and need to continue innovating the choices in development until our current era of games give others the same feeling of being displaced as Alter Ego gives those in our current society.

They are filled with excitement to see you, though you soon realize they are not communicating their joy in words. It's almost as if... this will go on forever...

Works Cited and Consulted

Favaro, Peter J. Alter Ego. 1986. Choose Multiple LLC. 18 09 2017. <https://www.playalterego.com/>.

International Academy of Design and Technology. "The Pros and Cons of JavaScript: Is it Still Necessary?" 21 12 2013. 10 10 2017. <http://www.iadt.edu/student-life/iadt-buzz/december-2013/the-pros-and-cons-of-javascript-is-it-still-necessary>.

Ganz, Steve. "Percentages" 22 10 2008. 10 10 2017. Digital. <https://flic.kr/p/5w5VFy>

Jackson, Gin. Screenshots of Alter Ego. 10 2017. Digital.

MediaCollege. "Advantages & Disadvantages of JavaScript". n.d. 13 10 2017. <http://www.mediacollege.com/internet/javascript/pros-cons.html>.


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