We’re a few days away from a rather terrifying election that has given voice to some of the most starkly authoritarian language and ideas in recent American history. If you’re looking for a bit of escapism to run out the clock before Tuesday, playing video games is one obvious option. Just make sure the game in question isn’t “Paper Drumpf,” because it will drag you right back into Trumpsville.
Released about a month ago by Greg Buchanan, the namesake of Buchanan Productions, and downloadable for free or a donation at gregbuchanan.itch.io/paper-drumpf, “Paper Drumpf” casts you as “Abigail Thoreau, a manager working for Daffy Drumpf in the final week of his Presidential campaign.” Drumpf is wrapping up a bruising, ultra-heated campaign against his opponent, whose first name happens to be Killary.
No, this game isn’t subtle. The basic layout of the fictional campaign aligns closely to the real one, and as a Drumpf manager, a lot of your time is spent trying to rein in the candidate and channel his energy toward politically profitable ends. But Thoreau is not your typical Drumpf supporter, for reasons having to do with her past, and so the game also involves a moral reckoning — you’ve hitched your wagon to Drumpf, career-wise, but do you really want to be complicit in the reality of a President Drumpf? What would that mean about who you really are, deep down? For much of the game your actions don’t perfectly line up with your innermost thoughts, but at what point does what you do dictate who you are?
“Paper Drumpf” unspools itself over the course of 11 chapters, with a branching narrative, meaning many of the choices you make affect how plot elements resolve themselves. It’s basically a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. The interface is a lot of text, usually set next to some crisp artwork. The music is pretty, in a discomfiting way. To be clear, this is much more an “interactive story” than a game, and anyone expecting gameplay elements other than choosing one option over another will be disappointed.
A big theme of “Paper Drumpf” is the connection between the personal and the political. There are multiple flashbacks in which you learn about your past, and various connections are implied between major events in your life and the choices you are forced into vis-a-vis your support (or lack thereof) for Trump — I mean Drumpf.
There were sequences where I felt nauseous about what I was helping to make happen, at what was happening to the country. And some of the plot elements, particularly those dealing with Thoreau’s relationship with her father, worked nicely to help build up a sense of who she was.
Other parts didn’t do it for me. Some of the dialogue and writing felt a bit overwrought, and the game sometimes dipped too deeply into the territory of “These economically depressed, put-upon former workers see no choice but to support Drumpf.” That’s part of Trump’s support, yes, but it’s also more complicated than that. I wanted a better, inside-the-Drumpf-campaign look at how he had become such a powerful figure. Even as I approached the game’s ending, I was making very fundamental choices about who Thoreau was and what she believed — choices that, if the arc had been better structured, I would have made earlier on.
But still, “Paper Drumpf” is worthwhile. The process by which this sort of interactive storytelling is going to get better is iterative — every new noteworthy title brings something that developers will be able to borrow and improve upon. “Paper Drumpf” does advance the genre in various interesting ways. Since a modest indie game requires much less lead time than even the most bare-bones TV show or movie, we’ll likely see more of these projects in the future: that is, games that are about big current events, but which are released as those events are still unfolding. That’s a good trend.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.