2020: The Game
2020 — what a year, amirite? Lockdowns, protests, and a ton of crazy shit just upending everyone’s lives for the dramatic. Although I’m sure many of us would rather just move on from such a terrible time period, from a historical preservation standpoint it’s worth it to at least capture the sentiments of the era — the zeitgeist, if you will. As for what format it’s captured in, well, why not in a video game? And who better to do it then a theatre company who was forced to shutdown during the pandemic, inviting an online audience as collaborators along the way?
Such is the premise of How to Win: Season One, a game developed and self-published by UK-theatre company Hidden Track and solo indie developer Cael O’Sullivan. Originally released as an episodic experience through Manchester’s arts center HOME, all five episodes of How to Win: Season One have made their way to Steam for the inexpensive price of $8.99. Featuring player-suggested scenarios (and even a character drawn by a five year old artist), How to Win: Season One feels participatory even past its original airtime, giving the feel of a theatre experience from the comfort of home.
The goal of How to Win: Season One is simple — the dev team asked the audience how to win, which begs the question “how to play.” A game designed by the players as much as the developers, the rules fluctuate and change depending on the option most voted on by audience members. Players will take on the role of themselves with other characters constantly talking to them and referencing the audience. The fourth wall a mere line in the dirt, characters constantly involve the player and audience in every decision, with multiple branching paths an opportunity for replayability. A visual novel with occasional gaming mechanics in the form of a clicker, a Whac-A-Mole, and a news-casting simulator, How to Win: Season One focuses primarily on the collaborative narrative being spun over said mechanics, a design choice that will delight visual novel fans with its novelty.
As for the story itself, How to Win: Season One incorporates player suggestions into the overarching story seamlessly. As much fun as a random suggestion can be, such as throwing a character into a volcano or joining a potato-powered pyramid scheme, none of it could be truly cohesive unless the developers had a sense of where they wanted the narrative to go. Despite its light-hearted facade, How to Win: Season One tackles some incredibly complex issues and presents its side in a mature, slow-burn fashion. I found myself playing through each chapter and realizing about halfway or near the end what the “moral” was supposed to be, such as wealth inequality or media manipulation. For a game with a child’s drawing and a talking elephant, it’s surprisingly deep.
Although each chapter is delightfully clever and the writing truly exceptional, there’s a point in the game where the mechanics come to a head and How to Win: Season One almost becomes too smart for its own good. I say that not as a negative, but more that I’m still trying to wrap my head around how a game that looks so cute and innocuous plays pranks on the players and succinctly wraps up the shitshow that was 2020. In learning how we can win each chapter, we also learn how nefarious ill-doers can manipulate the rules to make it so that they win instead, a slow realization dawning over players how the game connects back to the real world with each sentence. From a theatre-perspective, this is a revolutionary, one-of-a-kind digital experience…
…but from a gaming perspective, I do question whether or not this will work for players generally disinterested in novelty at face value. Without the underlying understanding of all that went on in 2020 and without knowing How to Win: Season One came from a theatre company, I can see this game coming off as a heavy-handed political barrage instead of the interactive stage experience that it truly is. Instead of a game in the traditional sense, this feels more like a joke the developers are telling with the audience, uniting against one of the more villainous characters presented, and if you don’t feel in on that joke, you may not feel How to Win: Season One as a whole. With that being said, it’s a joke worth telling, a joke worth sharing, and a joke worth playing. Because 2020 was an absolute joke, and darkly celebrating the year’s end and the beginning of class consciousness with other survivors is but one way of coping.
How to Win: Season One is extremely special. An episodic experience made throughout 2020 with the help of audience members, How to Win: Season One picks apart the confluence of events that were responsible for its very existence. It has the ability to hit all players differently, serving as a few hours of entertainment through dark humor or as a wake-up call for those wondering where to start effecting change; with that being said, all players will be able to come away feeling like they participated in a theatre experience in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, which really makes this game one of a kind. If you want some sort of gaming testament to the weird times we’re clawing our way out of or just want something seriously unique, don’t sleep on How to Win: Season One.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Hidden Track; Developer: Hidden Track; Players: 1; Released: March 30, 2021
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of How to Win: Season One provided by the developer.