Alter Ego is a 1986 life simulation game by Activison, designed by psychology Ph.D. Peter Favaro. The game gives you the opportunity to play your (or your alter ego’s) life from being born to dying, making decisions along the way that might or might not have impact on your subsequent life. It’s a bit comparable to the Sims, really, but stripped of the emergent behavior and boiled down to resolving interesting situations. It’s all text-based, too, so expect to read a lot.
The game start off with a bit of set up. First, you enter your name and you have the opportunity to set up character by answering a few psychology profiling questions, or by letting the computer generate a character for you. Obviously, since I want to create a maximal evil character here, I take the questions.
The next option is to select the phase of life at which you want to start the game. I start at “birth & infancy”, because it immediately starts off with the best question ever:
After that, the structure of the game is very simple. You see a network of events. There is no clear reason why these events are in a network, but it makes the presentation less dry. Each event is marked with a symbol, to signify roughly in what area of life it is situated: social, emotional, health, …
Select one, and you’ll get a little text box explaining what is going on. You can then respond to the action by selecting both a mood and an action. Some combinations are obviously not possible (be unconcerned and cry), but sometimes the moods are interesting twists on the actions (do you curiously or aggressively approach a stranger?) and the combination of choices you make affect the outcome of the event. Most of the time it’s clear what is going on and what the “good” or “bad” outcome is, though the game is surprising some of the time. Sometimes, you are prevented from doing certain things because your character doesn’t have the necessary skills or a matching personality type. When you have finished an encounter, there might be changes in your personality: you might get smarter or less sociable, or an accident might leave you horribly disfigured.
The character is tracked through a whole lot of numbers and percentages, showing for example your skills in the familial, intellectual or physical areas of life, or how gentle or trustworthy you are. The game also keeps track of your money and any possessions you might have bought or gathered along your life.
All this might sounds a bit boring, but the joy is in the descriptions of the event and how they play out. The game is often very funny and will sometimes try to mess with you. As a child, you might be noticing things you can’t label, so the game gives you vague descriptions (like a “hairy person with a cold nose” for a dog) and tries to let you figure out what is going on. Usually, if you figure it out, you might even be rewarded with increased intelligence.
It might even randomly start questioning you on trivia you will probably not know the answer to. Act like your character would and look it up if you want to score intelligence points! On another note, the game might also do things you don’t really expect it to do but that might have interesting conclusions.
Other situations are just plain funny. One situation had me read a piece of really bad poetry to a girl. At least at one point I could get out of a situation by declaring that it was “too ridiculous”, after which the game said that it was sorry they weren’t all gems of insight and wisdom. I once had the game trying to convince me a toad monster, hiding under the beds of children, is something really scary. It kept asking me whether I was scared already at each more gruesome description it gave. In the end, it went “Oooh, you’re so brave. BOO! Did I scare you now?” and if you answer “No” it’ll respond with “Did so, too.” And at one time a chain letter showed up, asking me to send the letter to ten people. Doing it would give me fortune, not complying would give me misfortune. The letter tried to convince me with the example of a non-complier’s dog being struck with a rare and dangerous disease. I obviously didn’t pass on the letter, but a week later my goldfish died of constipation. Awesome.
As for my little evil character… He couldn’t get a job during adolescence because he “lacked required qualifications”. I wonder what experience is needed to work at a fast-food restaurant. The same problem persisted during adultness. I couldn’t even get a job in sales, despite my confidence of 95% and trustworthiness of 2%! I couldn’t get to college to study because I lacked the money (no idea where it went). I couldn’t get money because I didn’t have a job, and the bank wouldn’t loan me any because I was not trustworthy. And it’s apparently not possible to lead a life of crime. Well. This sucks. But I guess I can just finish this game with $5 in my pocket… Then a random event goes “You have just won $250 in a fishing tournament”.
Eh. Okay. But then the following event happens:
That was random. Not that the money lasts for a long time. But it’s not over. I then meet a girl who on the first date wants to get married. I say I’m not ready for that (while thinking “shut up psycho bitch”) but then this shows up:
I’m like WHOAH okay I’ll take you. And then
Awww. 😦 I eventually die at the age of 60 of a stroke caused by bad health, never having worked a day in my life and never having been in a steady relationship. I was 97% happy when I died and I had $5 in my possession.
All in all, I’m not sure how much of this game is “real” and how much is make-believe in a sort of ELIZA effect. It definitely looks like many of the situations and choices you find yourself in are not really realistic. As an example, the game makes you meet and fall in love with many, many girls, even when you are dating someone. It’s also jarring when the game sometimes doesn’t take into account your past or your personality scores, like having your mother call you to tell your father is depressed, while you were practically kicked out of the house earlier, never having had a pleasant experience at home. Still, the game mostly works great. Massively entertaining, not in the least because of the humor. 9/10
Also interesting to know: there is an online version of Alter Ego which you can play for free: www.playalterego.com. Enjoy! Share your stories in the comments!