Vigilante superhero tales tend to revolve around seeking justice outside of a failed system, and the idea that one man or woman can cause real change within that system by punching people. In short, they are fantasies, and popular in part because they suggest impossibly simple solutions to complex problems. In Cape, an interactive fiction story created by Bruno Dias for the ongoing Interactive Fiction Competition, you become one of those shadowy figures trying right wrongs in a crime-ridden city. But since wealth inequality lies at the heart of all the problems you encounter, well… let's just say that it's an uphill battle.
You can choose your gender and your nationality, though your options for the latter are limited: Whether you're Kenyan, Vietnamese, Slovenian or Mexican, you're going to be an immigrant, you're going to be poor, and life is going to be hard. You begin your story in a moment of desperation, about to break into a townhouse in a recently gentrified neighborhood to find whatever valuables you can and survive another day.
The story opens with a newspaper clipping that signals the precise flavor of dystopia that awaits. The article details a "passing tax" that will be levied on buildings based on their number of entrances and exits; apparently, suspects trying to evade police drones have been ducking into "passing houses" to escape surveillance, and they'd like to discourage that.
Yes, the watchful digital eyes of a corrupt police state are all around you, co-mingling with the more traditional violence of thieves and gangsters. Tremendous suffering is fueled by the stark divide between the rich and the poor, and the absence of health insurance is a constant concern, especially since being poor is a great way to get mugged, robbed, or otherwise assaulted.
Although you eventually acquire the ability to fly, you're far more of a street-level hero (or anti-hero), in the spirit of grim, ledge-sitting vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil. While there's nothing truly new here, particularly for people well-versed in superhero noir like Sin City or Gotham Central, it's the sharp, confidently hardboiled prose that makes Cape sparkle even in its quiet moments:
The rooftops are covered by a light dusting of dirty, crunching snow: halfway thawed, then mixed with smog, and then frozen again…. You perch on the edge of the roof, and leap. Streaks of LED garland the streets. In the far distance, though the bridge itself is hardly visible, neon stars glare atop it. Christmas, timid and fearful though it may be, has arrived along with the deluge of filthy snow.
If you'd like to try it for yourself, you can play Cape online, or download it at the Interactive Fiction Competition site.