IFComp 2020: Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits)

IFComp 2020: Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits)

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Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) is a parser game by ruqiyah.

The player is taken into her new office, where she is tasked with unpacking her belongings. Gameplay involves deciding where each object goes — on the shelf, in the drawers, etc. — and as there is a limited amount of space, some objects inevitably end up in the bin. Objects can be examined and considered, and putting the same object in different positions generates even more responses that give clues about the protagonist’s history.

The key to this history is the book, from which we learn that the protagonist is a vampire who wants revenge on the book’s author, the Professor, who makes the claim that the murders committed by the protagonist were actually due to vampire bats. This clashes with the protagonist’s vanity, but it also has a more direct implication: by offering rational explanations about the deaths occurring there, the Professor de-mystifies the castle where the protagonist lives and weakens its attraction on tourists, thereby disrupting the protagonist’s food source. The protagonist therefore plans to beat the Professor at her own game, publishing papers attacking the Professor’s academic findings and destroying her reputation as a credible author. With her credibility undermined, her book about the castle would likewise be viewed with suspicion, restoring its mystique and its attraction to tourists.

Yet the Professor is also the protagonist’s lover; indeed, their very enmity is sexually arousing. The Professor visits, or used to visit, the protagonist regularly. The protagonist once took her cardigan, commenting that it “still smells like her, a bit”, and that “sometimes you want to remember what she smells like”. Their sexual relationship, accentuated by their physical scuffles, is made explicit in one of the endings: “Your old battlefield was losing its edge—stuck at home, day in, day out, abiding by your arrangement, until she turned up again at the front door to take another shot at you, and then back to fighting tooth and nail ’til you both limped to the bedroom.” They are even implied to have procreated, as a response from a photo of children suggests: “You haven’t seen the kids’ faces in a while.”

And yet, according to the protagonist, the Professor took a number of measures to vanquish the very person she loved. Before publishing the book, the Professor replaced the blackout curtains in her room with lacy curtains in an attempt to expose her to harmful sunlight. The book itself is said to have been published as an act of resignation, something the Professor used as a last resort after realising she would never be able to kill the protagonist directly.

The protagonist is very much aware of this tension; she is herself ambivalent about the Professor. On one hand, she derives pleasure from knowing that the Professor will see the headshot of herself on the shelf and “know that you still like looking at her face”. The capitalisation of each word in the game’s title, “Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits)”, comes across as matter-of-fact, as though the protagonist were trying to cover up the fact that she is pursuing the Professor not for academic reasons (i.e. archaeology) but for personal ones — for revenge, yes, but also for love. On the other hand, the protagonist has been plotting her revenge on the Professor for eight years, earning a PhD for the sole purpose of getting into the same university as the Professor and destroying her reputation. There is an almost monomaniacal tone in the statements “Took you eight years to get the PhD, but you’ve spent longer on less. You’re here now and this is going to be worth it.” In addition, the protagonist constantly reminds herself not to think of the Professor as “the stakeholder”, but as “the Professor”. This reveals the inner conflict of the protagonist: she struggles to dehumanise the person whose reputation she is about to ruin, even as she subconciously feels an attachment to her. (“Stakeholder” could also be a pun — stakes are needed to kill vampires, which the Professor has been trying to do.)

This ambivalence is addressed in one of the endings, when the protagonist decides to “tell her that you are done with the backs and forths, the ups and downswings. If she is going to continue to pursue you, she must decide where she stands: by your side or over your corpse.” I find it interesting that the dichotomy presented by the protagonist is as such, as opposed to something along the lines of “by your side or in the ground” — to the protagonist, it’s not within the realm of possibility for her to win, or even begin, a duel with the Professor, should the latter turn against her. She would rather surrender than kill her lover. This is technically congruous with her plan, which is not to kill the Professor but to defame her.

Something I’m confused about, however, is the letter of acceptance received by the protagonist, displayed in the game’s blurb. The expression “sink your teeth” seems much too loaded to be incidental, suggesting that her employers know she is a vampire. But if that is the case, why is there a need to be discreet about her identity (as seen when she chooses to hide certain belongings in the drawers)? I’m also confused about the use of black spaces in place of the protagonist’s name. Why is this so? Is her name significant somehow? Is it related to the fact that her arrival is not publicly announced?

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Champagne grape. The immediate appeal of the grape flavour is laced with the poison of alcohol, making it sweet and deadly.

 

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