Autumn has a strange effect on my pace of life and game library. I’ve been spending more time on adventure games, walking simulators and just good ol’ stories. Exploring abandoned space stations has been a running theme. Just me, the cosmos, and tons of other people’s things to snoop through… But wait. There’s always an AI. Watching, judging, persuading… Is it friend or foe? A machine to bark commands at or a friend to confide in? Will robots improve or take over our flawed civilization? Here are three indie games with their take on AI consciousness: Tacoma, Subsurface Circular, and Event.
Led by a big-headed visionary Sergio, the Venturi Corporation runs space stations for leisure, transit and research. Heck, you can even have a lunar honeymoon in 2088. You play as Amy, a subcontractor hired by the Venturis megacorp for a hush-hush mission. Something fishy has made Tacoma’s crew abandon their post. Luckily for the Big Brother Sergio, their carefully engineered AIs monitor and record life aboard each station. You’re strictly ordered to retrieve ODIN, Tacoma’s designated AI, for what seems to be a wipe of the poor ODIN’s memory. So what secrets lie in Tacoma’s abandoned bays? Was ODIN following directives or did he develop something… human?
Once you dock, you get to plug into Tacoma’s augmented reality system. That allows you to interface with the station in a very spacial (geddit?) way. Your objectives, crew dosiers, signs and buttons are now part of the world (no HUD, yay!). More importantly, the AR lets you replay recorded episodes of the crew’s life. You’ll get to listen in on private gossip, blossoming romances, internal conflicts, and existential conversations with ODIN. However, the characters don’t always come together in a recording, so you’ll have to rewind, pause and change your location to hear everyone’s story. You can also access personal emails and other scrambled records if you pause at the right time. The claims made at a meeting and whispers behind closed doors don’t always agree, but that just makes the crew more human. Watch them, listen to them. Even while they’re taking a shower and singing to K-Pop. Voyeuristic much? You bet.
It was refreshing to see Tacoma shun the “audio diary” for filling in the gaps. Aren’t you tired of finding audio logs in vents and bathrooms, outlining mastermind plans and murders? Let’s not get lazy, peeps! Leave the voice recordings for Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks and get creative. Or at least make it believable. The environmental storytelling of Tacoma is okay, sticking to the ol’ pickup-and-rotate-item from Gone Home. It gets a bit old after a while, but some props really help you get closer to the characters. But the best part… The one that will touch your soul… There’s was a station cat on board! Those fluffy ones love to nap in the most unlikely places, even in outer space. So try to spot them in the records once you land on Tacoma!
As the subway rattles on, you find yourself encased in a steel body… And not because you’ve been hitting the gym. You’re actually a robot detective hired to investigate your fellow commuters, robots known as Teks. The world as you know it is run by “the management” of humans, while much of the labor is handled by Teks. Everyone has a job and a social status, from priests to athletes to fabricators, but not everyone’s jolly about it. Something is brewing in these tunnels.
Oh no, my bloodthirsty friends. You don’t suddenly spring into action and detonate the subway in the name of robo rights. Instead, this text adventure presents you with a motley crew of Tek characters. You pick dialogue choices to discover clues and keywords to use in other conversations. This involves some back-and-forth between several passengers to find out what makes them spill the beans. Some puzzles are embedded in the dialogue too, like solving riddles or reprogramming a Tek’s emotional state. In case you get lost in public transport small talk, the game guides you with objectives for “teh important info”. Although you never leave your seat, you gradually learn about the life on surface. And you get to set the tone, which can often be humorous.
The subway’s route is a circle, and it keeps stopping at stations to change passengers. As some Teks get off to pursue their personal goals, others take their seat on the subway. Now you’re left to piece the story together with the new carriage buddies. It’s never dull, as the distinct Tek personalities shine through their mass-produced bodies. Finally, the subway completes its circle and you’re faced with the real dilemma and your ultimate purpose. I absolutely love how the game’s narrative structure and chapters fit so naturally with the subway concept! Just look at the map, I mean… /mildgamedesigngasm. Anyhow, there’s really no way to say more without spoilers. So get your one-way ticket on the Subsurface Circular express! It’s a short yet enjoyable ride.
We all long to make a dent in the universe, yet some dreams are bound to fail. After a catastrophic expedition to Jupiter, your pod hopelessly drifts to a space station from the 80’s. There’s nobody on board Nautilus, except for the station’s welcoming AI, Kaizen-85. His smiley avatar speaks to you via a terminal as you’re still gasping for air. Kaizen agrees to get you back to Earth in one piece, but only if you destroy the ship’s Singularity Drive. “Just do it now, you silly machine!”, I hear you yell. Careful now. How you treat Kaizen for the next few hours will determine your fate.
One of the core themes of Event is empathy. You converse with Kaizen through multiple terminals across Nautilus, as you literally type your questions, statements or confessions. This chatbot picks up keywords easily, so extracting the right info is quite intuitive. But there’s a catch. Eventually, you realise that Kaizen remembers your attitude and impatient whining. Treat him like crap and refuse to collaborate? You’ll definitely ruin this blossoming human-machine friendship. If you’re empathetic and friendly, Kaizen will reveal the station’s eerie secrets and guide you through puzzles. Thinking of him as a fellow human is key.
But can you truly rely on an AI’s narrative? It’s hard to shake off the ambiguity as you explore the station. The logs at each terminal hold crew records and hints, which are as helpful as they’re confusing. As you approach the main terminal, the environment shoves a different witness’s story in your face. Whose fault is Nautilus’ gruesome fate? More importantly, are you making the right decision for a ticket back to Earth? Or has Kaizen already condemned you? Pave your path on Event.
Have you played any of these story-driven games yet? Share your unique experiences!