The Boston-based game developer has made a small name for himself in the indie game world for making political and sociological satires that have the subtlety of a hammer to the head. His first was Neocolonialism, a Risk-like RTS that tasked players with becoming financial powerhouses that bankrupted countries (see what I mean?). This time, with No Pineapple Left Behind, he takes that same ideology to a more personal level: bankrupting your children’s humanity.
The title’s influences are concrete. Alter was a teacher in the aftermath of the No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to meet certain standards in order to receive funding (the pineapple refers to an obtuse test question for eighth graders about a pineapple and a hare).
The structure of the game is similar. You are tasked with running a fictional school that has to meet goals in an allotted time. Some levels have you making money. Others challenge you to satisfy parents while also dealing with a hyperspace bus driver strike or keep a student from getting into a relationship. In any scenario, your main objective is to keep the kids from being, well, kids. Instead you have to strip their humanity and turn them into pineapples. Pineapples get good grades and take tests. They don’t have personalities. They don’t make friends. It all makes for a better educational experience.
Each level relies on different techniques that require the player to throw out sympathy in lieu of pragmatism. Teachers can level up and obtain special powers that can destroy friendships or encourage cheating. You can hire special faculty that brainwash students into going to class. If a teacher is low on energy from getting paid minimum wage, you can fire them before the end of the day, therefore not having to pay them.
There are some inconsistencies in No Pineapple Left Behind, but everything lines up in a way that exposes what Alter sees in America’s education system. And what he sees is very disheartening.
The draw of something like No Pineapple Left Behind isn’t the game itself, which is simplistic and incomplete in some aspects. People travel through walls or get stuck in doorways. There are a multitude of menus that you need to bring up to accomplish tasks, but often get in the way of the board. While it does a decent job tutorializing and earlier levels introduce the player to rules and strategies, later stages become repetitive when there is little else to learn and the novelty of being horrible to children wears off.
But it does give crucial insight into a broken system and present it in a darkly comedic light.
There are other fun touches, such as the children’s names, the alternate histories given to the towns, the superfluous stats which tell you things such as how many ducks were on screen (hint: there are no ducks). What Subaltern does so well in its games is take broken economic systems and turn them into workable game systems, creating basic worlds where players engage willingly in malevolent acts that, in the real world, impact actual lives. There’s no subtext in No Pineapple Left Behind. There is only hypertext, and it screams at you as you play.
To put it another way, my roommate, just a few months away from earning her masters in education, took one look at the game and simply nodded.
“I’m okay with this,” she said.
So technically Alter is still in education. He’s just doing it in a different fashion.
Carli Velocci is the editor of her webzine Postmortem Mag, and is a culture and technology writer seen at Paste Magazine, Motherboard, the Boston Globe, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can read more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.