I just got Chloe a date with Doug, and now I’m manipulating the emotions of a high-school Prom judge. This is sick. Prom Week’s plots are raging, emotional torrents of cruelty, humiliation and, if you’re inclined, affection. If you’re old enough to look back on youth as a learning experience, making a teenager insult someone so their enemy becomes your friend has that horrible air of familiarity to it, but one that you can eventually (hopefully) look back on as an ugly fact of life. I like Prom Week, but there are times when its social strategy just made me feel bad about myself.
The dynamic little stories that play out, according to a complex web of 5000 social interactions that underpin the simulation, are hyper soap-operas: I’ve been sat here in front of Facebook for the past half-hour, pondering how these five little avatars need to be treated to get Zack his heart’s desire of popularity and fame. It’s worse than head-shotting someone, harder than breaking a Little Sister’s neck. Read Alec’s excellent chat with the UC Santa Cruz students developer: it’s social physics, giving you intimate control over a teenager’s emotions, the sort of control you never had or have at that age.
The tools at hand let you see who likes who and how much, showing the direction of the flow of relationship electrons: it’s a worryingly dynamic stat. You’re here to cajole those around you into a social Zerg rush, to niggle at neuroses, to praise or demean. Zack’s goal, to be King of all Proms, after the guided tutorial stage meant wooing Lil, who was really easy as she already liked me, and crushing Buzz, who is a prom king rival. As far as I could tell the only way to do that was to make Buzz’s friends abandon him. He has a girlfriend, and one of his friends, a preppy jerk called Nicholas, was at the prom.
Buzz is boyfriend of Naomi, and the game informed me she wanted to split up with him. You can actually take control of any character in order to advance your goals: select whomever you choose and a target player and you’re given a list of actions, emotive ammo, that you can target someone with. There are subtleties, and you’re able to change someone’s mind, but essentially you’re hitting them with your best emotional headshots. At first I sent Naomi to “brutal split up” with Buzz: I clicked on her and Buzz and selected it from the wheel of interactions that surround the character. He took an arrow to the knee of his confidence and she strode off, happily Buzzless. He looked sad and I started to feel uneasy: the conversation was funny, she basically analogised her way out her relationship using Star Wars, but I’d been responsible for Buzz’s sad eyes and slumped shoulders.
While playing a little with the conversational skills, I accidentally made Zack brag at Naomi. It didn’t lead to anything, as I was already dating Lil, but it improved our relationship a little. I got lucky there, as Lil was so into me that giving her the worry that Zack might be into someone else, would have stressed me out. That and the win state said I needed a Queen to go with my King, and I couldn’t guarantee Naomi would have been that into me. Still, a happy Naomi was an amazing turn-around from earlier in the game: the tutorial has you flirt with her and her response was to turn me down AND phone a friend about how awkward it made her feel. Right in front of me. That accidental flirtation turned out to be the key, though I didn’t know it then.
So next came an assault on Buzz. Poor Buzz, standing all alone at the school disco. I used Nicholas and attempted to engineer a falling out by having him brag to Buzz. I’d hoped he’d be so obnoxious that it would offend Buzz. The menu of emotional turmoil wouldn’t allow many negative interactions with him, though, and the two bonded over what I’d hoped was a brag that would drive a wedge between them. Next up I took Zack directly to Buzz and tried to weird him out. By now I didn’t want to hurt him, and controlling someone as vaguely unlikeable as Zack was starting to grate a little.
But Zack’s lame attempt at talking about haircuts didn’t work, and seemed to galvanize Buzz a little. During the game, you have a countdown to the eventual resolution, and I started to doubt my abilities to get this done in time. I pondered: According to the rules, I had four more turns to devolve this little twerp, but everything I tried failed. I looked at the social interactions wheel – I couldn’t see any connections that I could manipulate. I was looking for anything to exploit: a rumour I could spread, more friendship bonds to break. But then I genuinely started to worry about what I was thinking about. After the grim social strategies I’d been considering, did I deserve to be Prom King? Think back to how you acted as a teenager? Every devastating thing you said to a friend, just to cause trouble. I never liked the me that grew up in Glasgow. I wanted to get away from my teenage years, from those cruel, unnecessary barbs I slung. Yet I was here, hovering a mouse over a teenage girl, looking to see how I could bend her emotions to my will. I decided to make no more moves and skipped to the story resolution. I’d take a lose over actively attacking any more of Zack’s confidence.
Then Naomi announced Zack and Lil were Prom King and Queen. I’d won.
The reason why had nothing to do with the theatre of cruelty that I’d just directed: over the course of the night, I’d made friends with Naomi, and she was looking out for me when the votes were in: everyone had voted for themselves, and because we were nice (to her) and she knew how much it meant to Zack, she’d given me the crown. I didn’t need to be cruel, which made me feel even worse. I just saw horror and cruelty when the opportunity arose. I presumed I’d need to be nasty, but that route got me nowhere. Not that it wouldn’t have worked, and horribly it makes me want to see if I could destroy Buzz, but I won the game by accidentally being nice and friendly.
So now I feel bad and impressed, and want to play it all over again. There’s a lot more to it than Zack’s story, which is actually part of the tutorial, and there’s obviously a lot more to Zack’s story itself, but beyond that there’s more characters with goals, and there’s a sandbox mode to just play around with the interactions. Next time I’ll be looking at more upbeat solutions, because the alternative, frankly, is hating myself.