The choices you made when you had no choice at all.
American Election is an interactive piece of fiction that draws you into the bleak and lonely world of Abigail Thoreau, campaign advisor to Truman Glass, a man who is very almost Donald Trump, but not quite. It is also a fairly grim snapshot of what it has felt like watching the current political reality click into place. Playing it as I did (to a backdrop of absolute parliamentary chaos), the theme of helplessness running through American Election seems depressingly apt. This a tense and isolating experience, and these are tense and isolating times. American Election captures certain elements of the current moment in ways only interactive fiction can.
American Election is not a ‘choose your own adventure’ type experience with dozens of permutations and unique endings to discover. Rather, the narrative funnels you towards certain trauma points, diminishing your agency while heightening your desperation to make choices with meaningful outcomes. The game wants you to to feel like an insect scratching at the walls of a pitcher plant, and it succeeds.
Despite spending the majority of our time looking through the eyes of Abigail Thoreau, despite witnessing (and indeed influencing) a number of formative moments in her personal and professional life, she nevertheless remains an enigmatic character right to the end. In this way, she reminded me of Brittany Kaiser, the Cambridge Anayltica business director-turned-whistleblower at the heart of the recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack. She (Thoreau/Kaiser) seems to end up on the right side of the fence, but I’m not completely sure we can forgive her for being so firmly on the wrong side to begin with. This lack of psychological closure could be seen as a shortcoming of American Election, but I think it could also be the secret ingredient keeping the tension locked in: it is natural to want our POV character of any story to succeed, so there is something inherently uncomfortable about viewing the world through the eyes of a campaign advisor for a man like Truman Glass.
As mentioned above, Glass is not quite Donald Trump, but very nearly. Many details (such as his humiliation by Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner) suggest that Glass and Trump occupy the same seat in history. They are nonetheless very different characters, Glass being an altogether more coherent politician than Trump. Glass is the ‘Bioshock edition’ of Trump, a political idea made flesh. As in Bioshock, the portrait is close enough to draw parallels to the real world and read into the fiction’s implicit criticism, yet far enough to take us off autopilot and make us pay attention. American Election wants you to look again at Trump’s ascendency, but this time without the memes.
In addition to its anxiety-inducing choices and morally ambiguous characters, American Election gets great mileage out of its minimalist design. The images that accompany each chapter range from the cinematic (framing the chapter’s moment of highest conflict) to the abstract, setting the mood tonally. The sound design is similarly minimal and effective, often deploying unobtrusive, ethereal sounds that modulate in response to the story. At particularly tense moments of the story, the text itself begins to react, vibrating in a way that instinctively reads as danger. Taken together, the visual and sound design work in tandem to underscore the text without ever distracting from it.
The highlight of the story for me was a chapter called ‘Rabbit Hole’, the contents of which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say the chapter takes a detour from the central plot and gives us a short, punch-in-the-gut portrait of something else that has been happening while all the politicians were at play. It has shades of Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina, which is to say it deals with the disturbing consequences of internet-fueled anxiety and algorithmic distortions of reality. It’s a footnote that manages to cast a shadow over the entirety of the text.
At the heart of American Election is a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma. Whether or not the choices it gives you tangibly affect the outcome is beside the point- each choice makes you complicit in its unfolding and the inevitableness of it all creates a sense of helplessness entirely in keeping with the story. If a generation from now someone asks me what it was like watching the rise of Trump’s America, I might just show them this.
American Election was written and directed by Greg Buchanan and is available to play here: https://gregbuchanan.itch.io/american-election