Individual Work
"The Breakup Conversation" by Robert Zubeck

The Breakup Conversation is an interactive simulation game created by computer scientist and Northwestern University professor Robert Zubeck in 2004. The game follows two characters, the sample ones being Bob and Alice (though you can change the name and gender of each character), who are navigating their tumultuous relationship over an internet messenger chatroom. The player acts as the emotionally distanced character looking to break up with their partner, while the game simulates the other partner who appears to try and guilt-trip the player into staying with them. The player is free to type whatever messages they like, so long as it follows the specific criteria the game provides in the “How to Play” section on the title screen.

For those well-versed in the E-Lit community or even old-school gamers, the game's setup may remind players of a particularly significant contribution to the online community almost five decades ago: Zork. While the premise of Zubeck’s work and Zork’s are vastly different, the mechanics of both games operate very similarly: the player enters keywords or sentences into the chat function, and the game will attempt to recognize the command. Much like an actual Internet chatroom, The Breakup Conversation's visuals mimic an Internet messenger. While there is little to no use of sound or motion, the game keeps its players curious by keeping the conversation between the fictionalized partners exciting and emotionally charged.

Robert Zubeck, on his official webpage dedicated to the game, states, “It's not a ‘game’ in the traditional sense, since it's not designed to be strategic - rather, it's like the Sims, in being more of an open-ended toy.” What’s interesting about the game is how its “open-ended” functionality encourages users to try a variety of prompts and keywords, mixing and matching the inputs to the chat box to see how the game will respond to the queries. Zubeck’s non-traditional approach to the game’s design allows users to freely explore the mechanics without the pressure of achieving a specific goal.

When considering what sort of message Zubeck’s game is trying to convey, the most relevant message seems to be the impact of technology on relationships. Despite being made in the early 2000s, the interactions between the player and the game show eerie similarities to the toxicity that often arises through smartphone messaging. Intending one character to be the manipulator while the other is emotionally distant reinforces the barrier that technology places between people. The lack of physical connection between people, especially when portrayed through texting, enables this sense of lessened respect or the opportunity to take advantage of someone. Considering it was released in 2004, before the dawn of smartphones consuming our everyday life, The Breakup Conversation stands as a precursor to the conflicts technology creates within interpersonal relationships.

This entry was created as part of a research project for Melinda White's "Electronic Literature" course at the University of New Hampshire.