From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This week, he reminds you life is worth living, and there's always someone worse off. If not, you can create one of them to torture into an early grave in this life simulator from Hell.
Life is pain. Anyone who tells you different never played Alter Ego. You know how most games are built around fantasy, high-adventure, and living the life you wish you had? Alter Ego will drive you to suicide, take you to the nearest cliff, and then, just when you're about to leap into the embrace of the jagged rocks below, call over: "Wait! Have you thought what this will do to your parents?
"Actually, never mind," Alter Ego adds. "You were an accidental ejaculation anyway."
Alter Ego was released in two versions, Male and Female, both with the same premise: To let you live a complete virtual life from birth to death, with each stage represented by a tree of multiple choice situations, and the option to pursue more general goals, such as asking people out, getting a job, or buying a house. As with life, the odds are stacked against you from the outset, and while it's possible to make good decisions and end up happy, it's far more likely your alternate personality will end up poor, psychologically destroyed, and buried under poor life choices.
So at least it's realistic.
It's also probably the only game where you can be asked how you want to deal with menstrual blood, win a date with a beautiful model only to end up with a lifetime supply of wheat snacks, chase after a driver in a bout of road rage only to be knocked off the road and die in a fire, and be told that Emily Post would approve of your etiquette before you even get out of nappies. And much, much more!
Kinky! But I digress. Alter Ego is also utterly, utterly insane—a pompous, uppity, self-righteous game that nevertheless loves trying to turn you to the Dark Side so it can scold, punish, and humiliate you for your failings.
It was designed by a therapist, so it knows exactly when to put the boot in, and in a smug, condescending way that will make you curl your toes up into a Möbius strip. One minute it complains that you don't understand the psychology of children at play. The next... well... you catch it channelling Mr. Spock rather than Dr. Spock. Just savour the romance of this choice:
As a game Alter Ego is primitive, but much like the original Civilization, ambitious enough in its scope to get past that. It does a surprisingly good job simulating a whole life, complete with ups, downs, moral dilemmas, and situations where there aren't any easy answers. Your decisions mix with your stats to decide how well you succeed in the different areas of life, while the game does its best to sabotage you with a wagging finger and an evil smirk. As just one random example, take the blood drive event. You can simply volunteer your precious bodily fluids, but say you can't be bothered...
Sexy nurses? Why didn't you say so before?
There are plenty of 'positive' results in Alter Ego to go along with the humiliating miseries of existence, but even if you play as a goodie-two-shoes the whole time, it's happy to stick it to you on a pretty regular basis. Obediently eat some brussell sprouts? It'll tell you off for not seizing the opportunity to refuse. Tell a friend to quit shoplifting? Guaranteed, they'll stick something in your backpack.
It'll tick you off for having sociopathic thoughts. It'll tick you off for not having naughty ones, with lines like "You don't have much of an imagination, do you? You could be locked up for imagining these things later, so live a little!" All this keeps things interesting. After all, life can be random, and often feels unfair. So does Alter Ego.
You might not want to take its advice on imagination though. Alter Ego has... issues.
Unfair or not, life does have one advantage over Alter Ego—it's not, for the most part, out to get you. Really, if Alter Ego is anything, it's The Sims in reverse. Work with me here. In The Sims, you play a cruel, omnipotent god, torturing poor helpless creatures with your every sadistic whim. In Alter Ego, a little virtual therapist gets to do the same thing right back—constantly deleting the metaphorical pool ladder just to see you squirm.
If you go for the funny options, it delights in throwing them back in your face, trying to make you feel guilty, or having your victims constantly get the upper hand. Try to be nice, and you'll discover that not everyone is going for the karma bonus. In short, this time, the psychotic jokes are on you.
The only difference is that you, unlike a Sim, can switch the PC off at any time, but probably won't, because it's hilarious. Right until it turns round and bites you...
Actually play the game 'properly' and you quickly hit Alter Ego's major failing—it's incredibly confused about whether it's a game, a simulation, or a glorified morality counsellor. It seems to think that you're picking the funny responses because you believe they're in some way the right thing to do, no matter how obviously evil or unpleasant they are.
Unfortunately, it combines that preachiness with a willingness to mock you for being naive, guilt-trip you over decisions, lecture you for being thoughtless and pointedly ask just what the hell you're doing when you offend its sensibilities, making it almost impossible to resist the urge to just keep annoying it.
Even so, its moral compass can be pretty damn shaky at times. For instance, this is one response when you tell a lover in Adulthood (who you may just have met) that you're not ready to pop the question. Sound reasonable? Not to Alter Ego!
Hmm. Now who's thinking like a sociopath, Dr. Game?
None of this matters when you're just playing for fun, making stuff up as you go along. Play as yourself though, making the decisions you think are right, and hoo-boy—that's when you're really giving Alter Ego license to start cracking its knuckles with sadistic glee. It's probably the only game ever made that needed a sticker warning people to stay away if they're prone to bouts of depression. Luckily, I don't fear it. I survived Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust. I can handle anything and—
Oh. You mean my Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island review doesn't count? I'm not even allowed to see what I'm missing out on? You've just decided... like that... that all my achievements mean nothing?
But... but with no professional success and no sign of love, what's left for—
Sniff. Stop! Why must you say these things?!
Oh, what's the use? You win, Alter Ego! You win...