Virtual Stepfather

Virtual Stepfather, by Tyler Lolong and David Schultz (2010)

Hey there, champ. How is it going?

This is a special kind of role-playing game. It imagines you in the role of a child, and you imagine exactly when this conversation takes place. Is your stepfather just home from work and you’re trying to do your homework? Is he interrupting your cartoons? Did he just pick you up from school? Those specifics don’t matter so much as the palpable tension, frustration, and impatience that builds from the stiltedness of the conversation’s progression.

The virtual stepfather in question is represented in minimalist, blocky, two-color pixel art, a 13×10 representation of a head with just enough definition to suggest middle-aged man with male-pattern baldness.

The game’s sole mechanic is choosing between two dialogue options. As the short game continues, the mechanic changes to progressively subvert player agency. This subversion brilliantly captures a set of emotions.

The game’s tone is decidedly comic and it makes me laugh every time. It’s cringe comedy. A scene loaded with pathos that is achingly real and familiar, if no from our own lives, then from stories, relatives, or friends (mind that for a lot of player it’s just as easy to imagine being the step-parent trying to make with a child you’re forced to bond with). The witty score is all chamber clavichord, a baroque, melodramatic excess that produces a lovely ironic contrast with the extremely low-fidelity monochrome pixel presentation. The digital (or digitally modulated?) voice of the stepfather has impeccable comic timing. I laugh every time I play it.

And it stings just a little, too.

Virtual Stepfather is free to download at Glorious Trainwrecks (Windows).