August 21, 2012, 9:24 AM — Between a man-sized mouse, two foul-tempered ducks, and a cross-dressing rabbit, animated comedies have long aimed to strike a balance between innocence and irreverence. At its best, The Act, a self-described interactive comedy, straddles that line expertly. In the span of a few short scenes, your hapless hero goes from dealing with a puking infant to sabotaging a brain transplanta story communicated entirely through beautifully animated physical comedy and wacky music. Its not exactly a good sign, however, that at its best, the iPhone and iPad offering from Chillingo is merely showing you these things. Playing through a game on your iOS device is another matter.
By swiping across your screen, you navigate an awkward window washer through a minefield of social interactions. While your boss is chewing you out, youve got to alternate between swiping left to placate him, and swiping right to get your doofus brother to work. When youre trying to blend in with a group of doctors, swiping left will make you act serious, while swiping right will make you burst out laughing. And when you need to lift someone heavy off the floor, pick him back up after you drop him, steady your grip on him, and finally deliver the Heimlich Maneuver before he chokes to deathwell, good luck figuring that one out. It took me over a dozen tries before I finally got it, and Im still not sure how I did it.
Thanks to an unclear interface and unpredictable controls, the real act here feels less like a humble window washer trying to act like a doctor, and more like someone trying to act appropriately in the face of unfairly vague social cues. Will this person like me more if I shift slightly more to the right? What about the left? Shes walking away. Did I go too far left? Theres frustratingly little in the way of feedback letting you know whether youre doing something right, or even whether the game is registering your touch at all. (Its an issue that also crops up in the Mac version of The Act.)
Leaving the screen clear of elements like an empathy meter arguably helps The Act look more like of a movie, but any sense of immersion is obliterated when you have to replay the same scene 15 times. The game even shows a rewinding effect whenever you screw up, making the entire ordeal feel like trying to edit video on a VHS for a director who communicates only through passive-aggressive notes.
Whats more, The Act retains some unnecessary traces of its former life as an arcade game. Theres no reason for it to give players three lives and a continue screen, for instance, when its not trying to squeeze one more quarter out of us. And since players were originally expected to be able to complete The Act in a single sitting at an arcade machine, its much shorter than you might expect to pay for a mobile game with so little replay value. To its credit, The Act is exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story its trying to tell. Its short and sweetbut itd be even sweeter if some scenes werent so painful to play.
Jason Tocci is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass.