Back in the day, a few friends of mine kept banging on about what they did in The Sims. While it was often humorous, I didn't have a PC good enough, nor an interest strong enough in playing it to see what the fuss what about.
Fast forward ten or so years, and I'm travelling back thirty years to play Alter Ego, a life simulation text adventure hybrid that allows you to live out an alternative life, just like The Sims, only without the graphics and the mods and the ability to choose anything more than a few options.
It even came in two versions, Male and Female, just like life itself - the black and white binary world in which we live, with its clearly delineate-oh who am I kidding, having only two versions was acceptable in the 80s.
I know nothing of this game, and a little more than nothing about life, so it's about time to dive right in.
From almost the very start, there's something unusual about Alter Ego. It begins with a questionnaire giving you some kind of psychology test, before asking which stage of life you want to begin the game from. There is only one correct answer, and that is to kick and scream your way into the bright lights of the delivery ward as a new born baby.
The game stems from a tree of 'episodes' about various situations in your life. They're perhaps predictable choices, but then they are life changing situations for a great many people, if not all of us. As a baby, these episodes will concern how you react to seeing your mother compared to the neighbour, how your first words come about, whether you are inquisitive or cautious and so on. The writing in each is a joy. A furry man is licking your face! No, it's not a man, it's the family dog, and he's kissing you. D'aww. There's a baby behind this shiny piece of metal. No, it's not just any baby, it's me!
Your life pans out bit by bit as you experience more and more of the world, as a baby, a toddler, in your youth and teenage years. Are you honest? Mischievous? A drunk waste of space? Desperate for some kind of sexual encounter?
Through selecting a mood and an action to a given scenario (and if needed, additional answers to clarify your decisions or to find out what question you ask someone, or what response you give and so on), you find out all about how each decision you make has consequences. Maybe they're immediate and affect your current standing, maybe they'll put you in good stead later on in life.
Alter Ego doesn't hold back or pull its punches. I was put into situations where my friends had chosen me to buy condoms, peer-pressured into a night drinking, had to decide between all kinds of romantic interests, each with their own problems (one girl only likes guys she can't have, another tries cheating on her boyfriend - your friend - in an effort to get you, others just look down on you) and much more.
A friend was feeling depressed. Concerned, I asked why. He thought he was a homosexual. Of course he did, so did I say I'm here to help, or did I tell him that there is professional help out there if he needs it? I chose the latter, and was rewarded - if that's the right word - by the knowledge that if I had chosen the former, I may have lost friends and ruined relationships should this guy have come to me with all his problems, seeing me as the one and only source of support.
It's deep, this game. My fish died - my first Alter Ego experience of death. My mother and I flushed it, as you do. The second brush with death is pictured above, but the third and latest experience of death in Alter Ego? Oh, just my friend John thinking of committing suicide, pleading with me to pretend I didn't see him standing on the edge of the roof, slipping, grabbing a flagpole on the way down, looking terrified about his decision and then losing his grip and falling to his death as I grabbed someone for some help.
Cheery stuff, this. At least I think it was John. What kind of friend am I, huh?
Unfortunately, Alter Ego can't do everything. If you select a mood that contradicts with an action, you'll be told you can't, resulting in episodes being more black and white on an issue. In life, you can see the greys. In Alter Ego, the heavier you are in one direction or another, the better.
Each action you complete will alter your stats and, presumably how people within the game see you. It's hard to tell when I couldn't find a way to see my stats. The end of each chapter of your life gives you an overview of what you did and how you're seen because of your choices though.
My teenage years were ended not by a ridiculous death (which I imagine there are a few of, and should probably try going for on my next time through), but by not having a job and not being old enough to view an episode. That's not in terms of me not being old enough to view any content - I'm plenty old, thanks - but that my alter ego wasn't old enough. How old was I even? No idea. Not old enough, apparently. By not being able to view any of the remaining episodes, I wasn't able to progress out of being a teenager. Bit of a bummer, as it was certainly an interesting game until that point. User error? Flawed game design? No idea.
Sound is non existent, imagery is used only for the interface, so if you want to live out some of your alter ego fantasies, you'll have to come equipped with good imagination or go looking elsewhere, probably to The Sims.
I wasn't expecting any of what I got from Alter Ego, either in terms of how you play it or how it's presented. I didn't think I'd manage to fit this review into my schedule today, until that unfortunate problem as a teenager. Being able to start life at any stage will probably be the easiest way around that problem, and I look forward to seeing how crazier life gets.
You can play the Male version online at the Internet Archive, as well as other ports and remakes across a number of devices, and you should. It's a smart game. There is even a kind of content warning on some episodes, asking you whether you want to see them or not. I say see them, it's text based, but they are descriptive paragraphs, short though they may be.
You don't have full control and are sometimes funnelled into some answers, but it's still fun to see what comes out of it. I never knew what was coming next. I played a prank of my dad only to see him outsmart me with a prank of his own right after. I invited a fat kid to a party despite my friends making fun of him and threatening to not show up if he comes. Turns out his parents are wealthy. Of course they are. Always make friends with people you least expect to be friends with.
It's full of life lessons and advice. Not much game play, but still, more enjoyable than some games these days. See for yourself some time.
Supposedly advertised as being based on psychological knowledge and experience, some critics noted it as having a tendency to be 'preachy'. Consider that I citation needed, there weren't many facts to go on.
Alter Ego, developed by Activision, first released in 1986.
Version played: DOS, 1986, via emulation.