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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

Comments on A Boring Friday by CJ Q. '23

lItErArY aNaLySiS

Spoilers for A Boring Friday, you should check that first.

Walkthrough. If you haven’t played the game enough, here’s three paths that let you read most of the text. Choices that aren’t listed don’t matter.

  • Work on the project more → Keep working on your project → Work on your project some more → Go on a voice call → Play a video game → Get breakfast first → “Oof, I don’t think I can come” → Do some TA work
  • Go to sleep → Go back to sleep → and dream → Get up and get breakfast → “Oh yeah, text me where” → Go to recitation → Start a new blog post
  • Go on a voice call → Do the Spelling Bee with Galactic → Go to sleep → Go to the booth early → “Oh yeah, text me where” → Skip recitation → Play a board game

Structure. This is a choose your own adventure, where you play as me, running through the events of a Friday. The game starts at midnight and continues until dinner. The events in the game are pretty faithful to what I did on Friday, September 30, but I had to invent what happened in the branches I did not pick myself.

Most of the story proceeds through a linear path: do some activities, go to sleep, go to Lobby 10, eat lunch, do something in the afternoon, eat dinner, then the ending. If it’s a linear path, then what use is there making choices? The answer is delayed branching, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Classic CYOA books have a branching structure: each choice brings you down different paths that seldom merge again. Each choice is of equal significance, and there are many possible endings. The problem with this structure is that the choices tend to be ungrounded. You’ll see several “turn left or turn right?” choices, where the options are meaningless but lead to different realities.

The delayed branching structure is more linear. It’s governed by the passage of time. In A Boring Friday you’re reminded of this by having the time repeated often: “it’s a little past Thursday midnight”, “it’s 10 AM.” It’s so linear that there’s only one ending, where after dinner, you reflect on how the day went. But there are variations on the ending sequence that depend on earlier choices. Your choices do matter, but their effects aren’t visible until the end.

Endings. The ending sequence depends on three factors. The first is the number of times the game has been played, which affects the response to the “is this the good ending?” question:

Is this the end? Did you make the most out of today? Is this the “good ending”, or is there a better one?

One play: You’re not sure. You don’t think you’ll ever find out.

Two plays: You don’t think that there is. If there was, you would’ve seen it by now.

Three plays: Maybe that’s how life is. There isn’t* a good ending. Only different ones.

More plays: Your head hurts. You feel like you’ve asked this question before.

The second is the number of times you looped through the afternoon activity. There’s three possible afternoon activities: writing a blog post, doing TA work, and playing a board game. Each has a similar structure, where there’s an option that repeats the passage, and an option that moves on:

  • In the blog post choice, clicking “and wonder if it’s true” loops the passage. This changes the response to the question of whether time you enjoy wasting is wasted time. The response becomes more negative, starting from “it has to be true” and ending with “it’s not true.”
  • In the TA work choice, clicking “feel like your work won’t matter” loops the passage. This changes the response to the question of whether your work matters. The response becomes more negative, starting from “maybe it will matter” and ending with “maybe it doesn’t matter.”
  • In the board game choice, clicking any of the “Time passes?” choices loops the passage. This changes the description of how time passes, from “the seconds slip by” to “the day disappears.”

The number of times you loop the afternoon activity is recorded, and affects how you respond to Lumia when she asks you about how you’re feeling. The more times you loop, the more explicit the reference to your life feeling like it’s stuck in a loop.

The third, and most impactful, is the number of social activities you do. There’s five choices that lead to social activities: going on a voice call, playing the Spelling Bee, going to the booth early, eating lunch with others, and playing a board game. Doing all five activities changes the response to the “is this the good ending?” question:

Is this the end? Did you make the most out of today? Is this the “good ending”, or is there a better one?

You spent today being around friends: on voice calls, sitting next to each other, eating lunch, playing board games. Maybe there’s not a good ending, but this is as good as it gets.

And that’s fine.

I’ll refer to this as the “alternate ending”, later on, even though it’s not much different from the other ways the ending could go.

Afternoon choices. Each afternoon activity touches on one of the game’s themes. First, let’s consider the blog post option. It poses the question of whether time you enjoy wasting is wasted time. Let’s consider two of the dinner branch exchanges. First is about YouTube:

“Honestly, too much time on YouTube,” you say.

“Well,” she says, “it’s not like you spent a whole day on it.”

“Jeez, it might as well could’ve been. I feel pretty bad procrastinating.”

The second is about Slay the Spire:

“I’ve been playing a lot of Slay the Spire recently,” you say.

“Oh,” she says. “I’ve been playing lots of Minecraft.”

“Yeah, but you play Minecraft and enjoy it. I honestly don’t know why I play Slay the Spire.”

In the first quote, the character feels bad about wasting time. It’s time enjoyed wasting, but they feel guilty about it all the same. In the second quote, the character also wasted time playing a video game. This time they reveal that they didn’t enjoy it. It doesn’t follow the premise: if it’s not time enjoyed wasting, then the saying shouldn’t apply.

My intent was that the character enjoyed neither YouTube nor the video games. This reflects my own experience. While I enjoy consuming media, I tend to fall into the trap of doing it when I have “nothing better to do”, even if I don’t enjoy it. My interpretation is that this is what wasted time is. Not watching YouTube or playing video games, but doing these things to distract myself from boredom, rather than because I genuinely enjoy them.

The second option, the TA work, poses the question of whether any of your work matters. Right before this passage, the narrator asks a similar question, this time about whether any of your choices matter:

You wonder what to do next. Do any of these choices matter? Thinking about this makes you existential, so you distract yourself by doing something else.

I’ve talked a lot about the nature of choice in my posts. I think the structure of the game itself shows some of my thoughts about this. Your choices affect things, but no matter what, things will be okay.

The third option, the board game, talks about time passing. “Time passes” is a motif in the game. It serves as the standard “continue” text on the bottom of passages without choices. Because it’s so standard, then, it almost turns invisible—up to the point where this option draws attention to it again. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for how you don’t notice time passing until it’s gone.

Another thing about time passing is how the afternoon loops affect the text. Looping is supposed to represent dwelling on something. By clicking the same option over and over, it shows how the dwelling turns thinking to worrying, making the text more negative. This feels kinda hypocritical as someone who thinks a lot about these existential kinds of things, but it reflects my own experience too—I can’t spend too long thinking about something, else I end up nowhere.

As an aside, the way we describe time as something that passes is an example of a conceptual metaphor. While time is money is more common, I think time is something moving toward you is my preferred metaphor. The future is ahead of you, the past is behind you.

Relationships. A big theme of the game is how important relationships are to the character. There’s narration that explicitly clues which kinds of things the character likes:

You don’t hang out with [your friends] enough. You could be spending time with them right now, but you’re not. You wonder if you made the right decision.

The meals you enjoy the most are the ones you share with friends.

You wish you’d gone to lunch with Justin and Antonio and Sameer.

These were all meant to nudge the player to choosing more social options, which is kind of the point, as that’s what leads to the biggest change to the ending. Like the character, I value being around my friends. That can be seeing them in person or not, but either way, I like being around them.

There’s also a lot of musing about friendships. I think they’re all about the character trying to understand what having friends means, as an adult who won’t be in school any more. Here’s some text from a detail about Justin:

Like many summer camp friendships, though, you haven’t talked as much after that summer ended. You both go to MIT now, but this is the first time you’re talking to him in what must be months.

Is this what adult friendships are like? Months between without talking?

It’s less direct, but the character wonders the same things about their friend groups, like the Discord server of friends or Galactic Trendsetters. How did they end up in these groups in the first place? Will they continue being in these groups after they graduate? And if so, does that mean they need to keep building their relationship with them?

It’s funny how this online community developed. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be studying here today. And on some days you remember that you owe your life to them, these twenty or so people.

You’re grateful that you’re a part, but sometimes you wonder how things would’ve gone if you didn’t end up being friends with them.

That’s the reason you chose New York, after all: you wanted to live near your friends. Not that you don’t have friends in the Bay Area, but they’ll be far away. You can’t bear living far from your friends.

Being “yourself”. One of the character’s doubts is about whether they’re “normal”.

Part of you wonders if it’s bad that you have fun doing homework. Normal people don’t have fun doing work, right? Right?

Too much [work], maybe? You don’t know. What do normal people do? You wouldn’t know.

I included these thoughts because I thought players would relate to doubting whether they’re normal. This was something I wanted to give more resolution to, but kinda forgot, oops. I wanted to go for a “maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re normal or not”, but that didn’t get pursued further because I’d already crammed a lot of themes.

Then there’s the kinda forced theme about feeling in control of your life. The dinner speech is taken almost verbatim from Final Deployment 4: Queen Battle Walkthrough. It’s a good video, and I’d recommend watching it. It’s is about a person playing a video game as a character who, eventually, also plays a video game. These characters play these games to escape their life, culminating in a monologue:

Sometimes, I do things I don’t wanna do, like I’m being controlled. I feel like, if life was a video game, maybe I don’t have a good player controlling me. I feel like a loser, but other times, I don’t know what to do. I wish I had someone controlling me, so I wouldn’t feel so lost. I don’t know what I want. All I know is, when I play video games, I feel like I have a purpose. Why can’t life have that?

I chose to include it because I think more people should watch this video, but I was also surprised how suitable it was in this context. Here, the character isn’t in control of their choices; that’s the player’s job. Yet in a sense, these games are usually presented as if the player is the character, and so the character is making their own choices.

It’s neat because I’m violating the implicit expectation that the player doesn’t exist, by making the character doubt whether their choices are theirs. This is what TV Tropes would call Leaning on the Fourth Wall. There’s some modifications to the speech that I made because I relate to it more, though, like “I feel like I’m running through each day on autopilot.”

Fictionality. I want to end with some narrative theory. I’m taking 21W.765 Interactive Narrative, which is part of what inspired me to make this in the first place (and what’s inspiring me to write this analysis). Here, I think it’s important to distinguish between four different people:

  • the author, or me, the person who wrote the work;
  • the player, or you, the person who interacts with the work;
  • the character, the person acting inside the work;
  • and the narrator, the voice describing what the character does.

Here, it’s almost like these four identities are the same, but they aren’t. As the author, I’m not exactly the character. The character represents me, but they might’ve done different things on that Friday than I did. Indeed, in the alternate ending, which is perhaps the most “canonical” one, the character went to the booth early, but I did not.

The character also isn’t the narrator. The narrator refers to the character as “you”, for one. The narrator isn’t me either, but a character I wrote. And the player isn’t the character, even though it may seem that way at first. The use of “you” through the story makes it seem like it is, up until the end where it’s revealed that the character’s choices and the player’s choices are related, but different. I dunno, I find this fun to think about.