You wake up naked in a hotel room and have no memory of who you are.
I should provide some context first.
Lethe is an Ink game based on a 1986 parser game called Amnesia by Thomas M. Disch. I had never heard of it prior to playing Lethe. Perhaps it crossed my vision once or twice while skimming IFDB, but nothing I could remember (that’s absolutely not a joke. I’m just telling you how it is). Lethe has its own page on IFDB. If it were not for its description, or the credits in the game, I would not have made the connection.
I am going to cut this excessively long review into two large sections. The first is my review for Lethe. The second half is about how playing it introduced me to another side of interactive fiction. I’ll stick most of that part under a spoiler tag.
Part I: Game review
Lethe. The game made with Ink. That’s what this review is about. In fact, it is one of the most exciting Ink games I’ve played so far.
Lethe stays true its theme of amnesia. In fact, the title, though different, hints at the subject. It stems from a piece of Greek mythology about a river of the same name that, when drunk, causes forgetfulness. There is also a second clever meaning to the title that is revealed near the end of the game, but that would be a major spoiler. Just know that it’s worth a shot even if you are not a huge fan of the amnesia trope.
GAMEPLAY: As I said, you wake up naked in a hotel room with total amnesia. The game takes place in New York, and you play as a male protagonist. Your only real lead at the moment is to find any clues that will hint at your identity. Slowly this will expand into a broader story.
I feel that your first playthrough is by far the best one because you are just as clueless as the protagonist. Unless you’ve played Amnesia, I suppose. Oh well. Let’s just assume you were like me. Everything intrigues you and oozes potential.
Whose knocking at the door?
What’s in this closet?
Does this window open?
WHO AM I? (And why am I naked?)
Endless questions, but the game merely provides you with a list of things you can do. The player is left to launch themselves into the unknown to find the answers. Through trial and error, you can find the optimal route to move into new areas with more clues.
For me, the main event of your clueless first playthrough is the branching gameplay structure. I always like seeing that in choice-based games. In Lethe, it creates the perception of an expanding world that just grows. First time around, it feels huge. The novelty of it all contributes to the sense of scale as you leave the hotel to explore more locations. It takes the shape of a mystery game.
While Lethe does feel a bit smaller once you’ve played it, there is plenty of incentive for replays. It is a chance to experiment with different paths or switching up the order of tasks. Try making challenges. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) play without ever getting arrested and/or killed.
Lethe is easy to play in sense that you are just clicking through links. But it is also designed well, too. Its strength is its mechanism for failure. Dead is NOT the end. It can if you want it to be, but there is no “messing” up in Lethe. The sequence also happens to be my favorite part. (Spoiler - click to show) You end up in a surreal and somewhat humorous afterlife.
You and a few thousand other naked anxious souls are standing on the bank of a misty black river, being stung by mosquitoes and bitten by large centipedes.
Charon, a character from Greek mythology who ferries deceased souls across rivers in the underworld, swings by to offer you a choice. You can stay in the afterlife or go back in time before your previous decision. Done. That’s it. Right back where you were. Even better, your environment adjusts to keep you from making the same error.
Your hotel room seems subtly different.
This was fantastic. It makes the gameplay more forgiving for when the player makes a mistake. You never need to restart. If anything, it also encourages dumb decisions such as leaving your hotel room naked, “just to see what happens.” Or (Spoiler - click to show) getting married.
STORY: Given what I’ve said, the last thing I want to do is tarnish your first playthrough with spoilers. It is better if you let the story unfold on its own. But if you insist, I will give you a rundown of what’s going on. I would consider these as mild/moderate spoilers since they can be discovered early on, I’d caution you against reading them at all until you play Lethe. (Spoiler - click to show)
Everyone at the hotel calls you John Cameron, but if you get arrested it is revealed that you are Xavier Hollings, a criminal who killed a guard and escaped a Texas prison. You go back to court and lose. Even Denise, your own wife (to which you ask yourself, “I had a wife?”), testifies against you. After you arrive at death row, she comes to visit merely to say how happy she is to be inheriting everything because apparently you are super wealthy. Hm.
As you eat your last meal, you have a moment of insight. Tidbits of info about Denise, prison, some guy named Zane, and a recalled soap product appear in your mind. Just enough to realize that you are innocent. Ultimately, the meaning is lost, and you are executed. Fortunately, this is not the end.
Once more, you are by the infernal river Styx. After a few years, Charon's boat emerges from the mist. He looks disappointed to see you.
Charon has got your back. He won’t think highly of you about it, of course.
What I just told you is only the first layer to the story. No moment in the game beat the suspense and surprise of seeing this reveal for the first time. Woah. That was my reaction. The protagonist clearly has a lot going on. The bits of info from this fiasco only serve to direct the gameplay after (Spoiler - click to show) Charon zaps you back to existence. I’ll stop the spoilers there. I’ve already told you too much.
As for my general thoughts about the story, the narrative itself was not particularly moving. Certainty, creative. It’s just that I was not drawn in by the characters or their motives. The drama was more like watching a film rather than feeling like you are the protagonist of the story.
Also, the ultimate cause of the amnesia was a bit underwhelming. I’m sorry. But at least the sprinkling of clues throughout the gameplay is combined with a dramatic reveal near the end that makes up for the lackluster parts. I cannot express this enough: The witty writing and gameplay implementation is what makes Lethe work. Otherwise, I would not award it five stars.
I think a lot of people can appreciate the writing. A favorite of mine was, “So far you're scoring zero on the Know Thyself Questionnaire.” The (Spoiler - click to show) H&R 207-7655 pay phone reference was especially clever.
CRITIQUES: Lethe is excellent, but it is not flawless, either. I had two cases where the game reached a dead end where no links appeared on the screen. In other playthroughs they were not an issue. I do not know what caused the issues, only that I was experimenting with the gameplay at the time. Your chances of seeing this is low. Be assured, that once you’ve played the game, you can cruise through it quite quickly.
There are also some minor spelling mistakes, including with character names that can be noticeable. The longer changes of dialog occasionally abandon the use of quotation marks. Finally, location descriptions are shown at the top of the screen, whether it is “Hotel Room” or “Oblivion.” However, sometimes they fail to change with new locations.
PART II: Broader context (time to go on a tangent)
(Spoiler - click to show)
You can play Amnesia through a digital archive.
At least that is what it says on IFDB (that’s how unsophisticated I am). But the content written about Amnesia explained that playing it was more than just clunking yourself in front of a computer. The part of my title that says, “30+ year old parser game,” should give you a sense of where I am. As someone who rarely crawls off IFDB, a lot of this is new terrain.
Apparently, when the game was published, playing it required buying a physical copy (which is so alien to me) of the game. From my perspective, it sounds like an artifact. However, reviews expressed a different angle. People have shared fond memories of playing Amnesia. Or at least of trying play it. While I have not, it was cool learning about its origins. Hopefully I’m not awkwardly trampling over everything.
I did attempt another existing remake called Amnesia: Restored after playing Lethe. For the record, I accessed Amnesia: Restored through the entry for Amnesia on IFDB. I used the link to the game’s own website and went to the section called “PLAY GAME.” I have a reason for going on this tangent. Just hear me out.
I don’t want to dismiss the immense collaborative effort- as showcased on its website- that was put into Amnesia: Restored, but the gameplay was a rocky experience for me. It seems the objective was to replicate the parser of Amnesia into the gameplay. If that’s the case, the gameplay Amnesia must have been wild… and frustrating to play. That could also be my inexperience talking.
Thing is, you must know the specific command the game wants at a given moment, almost like I was having a conversation with someone via a script. If you use the right command, great. Otherwise, the game lets you fall on your face without any direction. It was incredibly difficult to know what command or action was required. Play it and see for yourself. (Aside from my whining, I really do think there are parts of the game that are not functioning as intended.)
This is where Lethe comes in. Turns out it can function as a rough “tutorial” (my words) for Amnesia: Restored because Lethe also stays faithful to original writing. Seriously, the choices you make in Lethe can be punched into the parser. Not precise word-by-word, but close enough. Suddenly, everything fell into place. The parser responded smoothly. I was making progress and keeping up with the metaphorical conversation. Even better, it gave me a chance to explore Amnesia: Restored and appreciate what it had to offer. And it offers a lot.
The makeshift Lethe tutorial will end once you leave the hotel because Amnesia: Restored recreates the complex city navigation puzzle in Amnesia while Lethe does not. A few city locations will still apply although Lethe cuts back on nearly all simulated New York content. To be honest, if I did not have Lethe as a reference, I would still be stumbling around in the hotel room. But I managed to get the hang of it enough to brave the city puzzle on my own.
I must hand it to Amnesia: Restored. It goes the extra mile in incorporating built-in guides and visual elements in the game’s interface that were based on original feelies and physical materials. I was really impressed by that. I did not continue playing after I passed out on the street from exhaustion and was carted away (and the save function failed on me), but I can tell you it is worth a look. While I preferred Lethe, I sincerely suggest trying Amnesia: Restored too.
There you have it. The extent of my encounters with Amnesia.
I apologize that this review was so long.
Lethe is faithful to the Amnesia storyline, but its choice-based format still offers a different experience. It eliminates parser related technicalities such as guess-the-verb by replacing everything with links. It bypasses puzzles for (Spoiler - click to show) navigating the city streets and solving riddles at gunpoint.
The trade-off is a simplified version of a vibrant world. It can’t even touch the complexity in Amnesia. But I think it does a decent job in capturing the general concept. I would love to hear second opinions from anyone who has played both.
I completely recommend Lethe as a thrilling Ink game with lots of surprises. Even more so if you are curious about a parser classic (correct?) turned into a choice-based piece of interactive fiction.
Lord Cephyis Alikarn is hosting a party at his opulent private estate on the Alikarn family's planet. It's kind of a big deal. This will not be a run of the mill party. Manners, etiquette, and protocol are critical because a slip-up can result in death or scandal. Maybe, just maybe, you will get to see the Emprex.
The nuts and bolts of the gameplay is where the game presents you an etiquette-based situation and you then must choose the right way of proceeding to avoid death or scandal. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) you are served a delicacy of a crab-like creature renowned for its meat. However, to preserve the flavor it must be alive when served and killed right before it is eaten. You must kill it yourself. The catch is that its pinchers are highly poisonous. The PC clearly has no experience with this, so the player takes a guess on how to kill it without being killed themselves. This takes table manners to another level.
I like how the game puts you on the spot to capture how the protagonist is not in familiar territory. It leaves the player thinking, "oh no, oh no, what do I do? Don't mess up."
This selection of choices should make you nervous.
I would have loved to see more of these challenges in the game. Hopefully, you will stick it out long enough to reach the end. Total gameplay is short but there is a lot of content to absorb.
It is a potent story of grandeur on a galactic scale. We see things that would not be possible or practical in real life but are commonplace in the story's world of raw decadence and political power spanning a galaxy. Along the way we hear information about other planets and societies. This is not a humans-only universe. There are also alien races, some of which are guests. But any world-building is typically limited to discussion of Emprex Hasina Alikarn’s role as galactic leader as the honored guest at a party hosted by her brother, Lord Cephyis Alikarn.
The big pivotal scene is when you (Spoiler - click to show) notice that the Emprex's drink has been tampered with, a sign that she is about to be poisoned. You have three options: Ignore it, turn her glass to the left, or turn her glass to the right. This is based on a tidbit of knowledge you can learn from one of the guests.
At a past formal event, poison was added to guests’ drinks and the cups turned a certain way so that the conspirators knew which ones were safe to drink. The Emprex was about to drink a poisoned glass when her brother intervened, saving her life. In return she granted him considerable power. Since then, turning glasses at parties has almost become a symbolic tradition.
When you turn her glass to the left to indicate poison she picks up on the cue and requests a different glass. She realizes you saved her and asks for the person behind the assassination attempt. It’s not hard to figure out, but I don’t want to spoil everything. I thought this was a clever way of incorporating information gleamed from the gameplay into a final decision that determines the ending.
The ending where (Spoiler - click to show) she is poisoned and dies ends on a cliffhanger. She tries to speak, but then the poison overtakes her and she goes limp. And? It felt incomplete to leave it like this. The winning ending leaves some unanswered questions but otherwise wraps up the story and gives the player a few choices on how to use the Emprex’s favor. I was surprised that (Spoiler - click to show) she allows you to suddenly be promoted to such high-level positions without any formal experience but if the protagonist managed to survive an Alikarn dinner party than perhaps they have more going for them than what meets the eye.
Ah yes, the protagonist. The intro in A Tragedy of Manners stresses how seeing the Emprex face-to-face is an extremely rare privilege reserved for the most elite. It builds rumor and secrecy about the odds of someone being allowed to visit the Alikarn family’s planet let alone be invited to a family party.
You have heard rumours that the Emprex herself might be present, but such a thing is impossible. Someone of your lowly status would never be allowed in her exalted presence.
The whole point of the game is that you are in over your head. The protagonist comes strolling in late to what the game calls “the most dangerous dinner party in the galaxy.” But the gameplay can undermine the societal exposition provided at the start of the game. (Spoiler - click to show) You pretty much walk in and bam, Emprex sitting at the table. For the player’s meager standing I figured that there would be more ceremony involved before they could meet her.
Some additional background on the protagonist would have helped. There are some mixed messages and I feel like I am overlooking something. The beginning suggests that the protagonist is a nobody who somehow managed to snag an invitation. They lack social standing and knowledge on formal protocol, admitting that the Emprex would have no reason to grant them an audience. And yet, (Spoiler - click to show) the Emprex vaguely mentions the protagonist in her toast, acknowledging that they are an invited guest before making an announcement. She wants decision making in the empire to be witnessed by individuals other than nobles. Excellent. By why was the protagonist invited? Why them? Seriously, who is the protagonist? I would like some clarification, that’s all.
You do not interact with NPCs as much as you see them and that is just fine with me because appearances and fashion come first. The Emprex’s dress was cool. This game takes the idea of a formal wear sci-fi dinner party and multiplies it by ten. One memorable NPC interaction was with a Legacy staff member. Legacy is where (Spoiler - click to show) entire families serve as staff from generation to generation. Each new generation has a cybernetic implant containing the knowledge and experience of past family members so they can perform their job with the equivalence of centuries worth of expertise. A creative character concept with unsettling undertones.
This is an Ink game. Visually, it sticks to a standard appearance of a white screen, grey text, and orange links. Simple and easy to read. Nothing notable to share.
I love the idea of a space opera etiquette game, and I would be eager to play it more if it were longer (I wish it were longer). The ambiguity of the protagonist’s social standing caused confusion and occasionally backtracked from the exposition but there is still something rewarding about a low-key PC succeeding while totally out of their element.
You lean back, basking in the glow of conversational victory.
Especially when that element is a dramatic futuristic dinner party with (Spoiler - click to show) cybernetically enhanced staff and (Spoiler - click to show) deadly main courses. I had a lot of fun at seeing the outlandish and imaginative world of Sanctum, the ruling planet of the Luminous Empyrean!!!!
You are a zombie reviewing a meal.
I was not anticipating an undead connoisseur penning comprehensive reviews after sampling a smorgasbord of brains. Based on the words “Yelp Reviewer” I figured that the game would put the player in the role of someone who wants to write an earnest review about their dining experience, the catch being that they are a zombie eating brains. But above all I was expecting the game to take things a little more seriously.
Instead, the game opts for an ALL-CAPS approach to everything. Zombies are not going to be the most eloquent of review writers (although the PC is obviously tech-savvy enough to use a smartphone and an app) but having, "SO ME STUMBLE AROUND LOOKING FOR BRAINS" the entire time felt like it was trying to get the player to laugh.
Nor does it really “review” brains. It barely feels like a Yelp review. My guess is that the author wanted to include some backstory, which is great, but ends up cramming it into the zombie’s review to the point where it becomes a ramble of how the man was slaughtered. Critiquing the quality of the brains occurs in the last choice in the gameplay. It reminds me of Yelp reviews of restaurants that focus on how they found the place rather than their experience inside of it.
I must say, the title of the game is pretty cool. Yelp reviewing + Zombie is a creative idea that drew me in. The final product, however, did not sell. Geoffrey Golden is a talented author. If you have played Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, you can see his knack for humor and novel ideas, and I encourage you to do so. But You Are a Zombie Yelp Reviewer is a clever concept that needs more development for it to be palatable.
It is a casual day at home. You are lounging around and suddenly find yourself in the mood for a cold drink. But when you stand to leave, a vortex opens in the living room and deposits a small creature that starts wrecking everything in sight. You flee to the kitchen which is now your sanctuary. Using resources from your surroundings, you need to find a way to defend yourself.
While hiding in the kitchen you have access to the fridge, counter, and cupboards that have spices and other substances for cooking. Inventory items are listed on the screen. It would have been nice if you could examine things to learn more about them rather than automatically picking them up for the sack of hoarding them in your inventory.
The player can call the protagonist's mom or Alex, an acquaintance. Neither character picks up. The only option is the hotline. Its number is written on a label in the fridge. The player calls the number to ask for help on dealing with the creature. The operator however wants to engage you in random conversation before providing help. There is a phone puzzle where the player answers questions that increase the operator’s willingness to help.
These questions range from whether you any kids or if you play chess. The objective is to respond in a way that makes the operator pleased and entertained. For each response you get right the more helpful the operator begins. The game keeps track of this by adding notes such as "The playful operator is now a little helpful." The challenging part is that a question may have multiple right answers, but the answer that is correct at the moment is difficult to determine since there seems to be not structure to the questions. I think that the game is trying to be humorous with its dialog, but it needs polish. I like the concept of strategically using conversation through trial and error to persuade an NPC, but the phone puzzle is frustrating and lukewarm.
Once the player (Spoiler - click to show) satisfies the operator’s desire for conversation, they are asked to provide three details: the creatures colour, its physique, and its behavior. Using these details, the operator explains a basic recipe for banishing the creature. You can also just (Spoiler - click to show) guess by throwing ingredients into the bowl and flinging them at the creature. When I first played, I brewed and threw a scalding mix of random ingredients and it worked. Probably chance. Still, at least it gives you a chance to test out the kitchen.
There is no explanation behind the creature and the portal, nor is there any discussion about the hotline except that it was found in the fridge. I feel like this left some loose ends. Here you have a normal house setting and suddenly a creature appears out of nowhere. I do not think that this game necessarily needs a broader story, but it could have integrated things a little more. The game is solely focused on the puzzle of finding a concoction that will eradicate the creature. This some potential story about Alex but they never answer when you call their number.
1-555-trouble has some spectacular graphics for an Ink game. The backdrop is of different areas in a house, about six total. Not grainy or awkwardly scaled ones but showroom quality. The text space is set against a white semi-transparent background with orange boxes and links. The text is light grey, and the title of the room is shown in a black rectangle that reminds me of those slender sticky notes that you use to mark a page in a book. Everything looks crisp and modern. I encourage Ink authors (or anyone, really) to give this game a look if you are looking for some visual inspiration.
It is a short, interesting diversion. The game has some interesting ideas, but its presentation is lacking. The phone puzzle could have been smoothed out, for example. Then again there are some polished features. There are no bugs as far as I can tell, and its strongest point is the graphics. It may not be the best of quality, but it is a completed piece.
It is the near future. Earth’s population is nearly 10 billion and the old days of flying in gifts via reindeer have become obsolete. Instead, Santa has installed 3D printers in every household. At precisely Christmas Day the printers print gifts appropriate of each child's behavior with machine-learning software that determines if they were naughty or nice. But when the Neural Network malfunctions, Santa may have to reevaluate the way gift-giving is managed.
In this game, the traditional take on Santa Claus has turned cyberpunk. Instead of snowmen and polar bears the North Pole is now biometric scanners, DNA analyzers, and computer labs. And of course, the Neural Network. These themes are heavily portrayed the game. One of my favorite moments is (Spoiler - click to show) trying to bypass a door’s verification steps to enter the Ratings Department:
> PLEASE COMPLETE THIS CAPTCHA
"What. Ugh. Of all the times."
The display shows a grid of 4 kids in naughty or nice acts.
> SELECT THE NICE KIDS
(What follows is then a list of kids doing nice or naughty behavior)
You play as Santa watching as the first presents are being printed on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the nice kids are receiving coal while the naughty kids are getting the good presents. You soon realize that the Ratings Department has a faulty “Naughty or Nice Rater,” causing kids for getting the wrong presents. Fixing the faulty Network is only one step. You must figure out who is responsible for the error.
Previously, elves would train the Neural Network by taking logged examples of kids’ behavior and assigning a rating, giving the Network an understanding of how a rating coincides with a behavior. But it is (Spoiler - click to show) soon revealed that raters were training the Network with intentionally false ratings to give it a skewed perspective. Few elves who trained the Network remain employed at the North Pole. One elf, Popeep O. Werbles, is summoned into your office for questioning.
Popeep explains that these raters were protesting the loss of elf worker jobs due to the installment of the Neural Network. Once it was trained and implemented, millions of elves were laid off. The player can then decide on how to (Spoiler - click to show) punish (if at all) the raters responsible for sabotaging the system. My only criticism is that the game (Spoiler - click to show) ends abruptly. Once Popeep leaves after your decision, that is it. It feels like there should be some implementation of your final choice or something other than just sitting in your office staring at screens.
Nonetheless, this is a humorous and festive Ink game with a unique twist on the holiday season. It is about ten minutes long and is worth playing if you are looking for a Christmas game or a game that uses the concept of machine-learning in a creative way.
This game is about the feasibility of forging human connection during extreme and anonymity-strict reality with special attention on how connection can in fact bloom in unexpected ways.
Earth has been taken advantage of by an alien hive mind that makes life on the surface hostile for humans. A xeno-intellect, known as the Hive. No one knows its reasons, but the Hive detests human interaction. It does not want to see people gathered in groups socializing and forming connections. To protect themselves, people now spend their time in bunkers, hardly daring to leave at the risk of being killed by the Hive. People are scared to question it. But does that deter them from seeking connections anyway? No, it does not. Without any opportunities to meet with people face to face, interactions are now done through anonymous digital avenues.
But first, a quick note on content: The gameplay consists of (Spoiler - click to show) two characters engaging in roleplaying with kissing and similar activities. I would not call this a graphic game. Some of the content just starts to cross the threshold before the game reels it all in. There is language but it is often blotted out with the * symbol. While the game is more focused on the (Spoiler - click to show) Hive's control of interactions than of sexual content it would be safe to approach it with an 18+ rating.
The player first chooses from a list of callsigns is that is used to interact with users and assures anonymity. I experimented with all of them, and they did not have a noticeable effect on the gameplay. The conversation is always with Topaz, a user who has been having chats with the protagonist for some time.
The player usually has two to three dialog options for each turn, some of which upset the Hive. Your dialog options are shown in green text except for a few that are green and red. These (Spoiler - click to show) end the encounter with Topaz either because they terminate it, or you do. When this happens the Hive intervenes, its text appearing in red. It seems dismayed by the outcome of the conversation and inflects its will on it to reverse the player’s previous choice. Here is an example of a response that occurred when I clicked on one of those links (The player callsign I used in this playthrough is ICEBERG):
(Spoiler - click to show)
HIVE> WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND
HIVE> THIS WAS NOT THE DEMONSTRATION WE WERE PROMISED
HIVE> ICEBERG ABORTED THE ATTEMPT TO INTERFACE WITH TOPAZ
HIVE> DELIBERATE SABOTAGE POSSIBLE
HIVE> TEMPORAL REWIND...
Immediately afterwards (Spoiler - click to show) Topaz returns online and resumes as if the exchange never happened. The only thing Topaz says is, "sorry, connection dropped" or they blame it on a glitch. When I first played this game, I wondered if Topaz was a simulation or maybe even the player. But now after playing the game a few times (Spoiler - click to show) I think that these two characters are real and that the Hive simply possesses some serious capabilities that allow it to discretely influence human interaction, such as the ability to adjust time, further hinting at its omnipresence over Earth.
I still have questions about the (Spoiler - click to show) meaning behind the Hive’s response. The Hive seems to be analyzing the conversation with an expected outcome. The discontinuation of the conversation clearly goes against these expectations, prompting the Hive to intervene. But if the Hive is so against human interaction, why is it angry that such an interaction ended? It is almost as if the Hive makes a breakthrough on the nature of human connection without fully realizing it. My only complaint is that the game could have explored this development in greater detail.
One reoccurring concept is what the game calls “digital hygiene,” which involves painstakingly avoiding sharing any sort of defining information about yourself, especially location. Your name, age, gender, religious beliefs, and even hobbies are all considered to be poor digital hygiene because it could catch the Hive’s attention. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) when Topaz shares that they found a bottle of whiskey outside of an empty 7/11 the player can choose to remind them that even mentioning a 7/11 was risky because the Hive could choose to search every 7/11 in an area to narrow down Topaz’s location. This uncertainty is a reminder of the Hive’s ever-present influence on daily life. The practice of digital hygiene is a concept that we see throughout the game.
Near the end of the game Topaz asks the question of what is required to make a meaningful human connection and what happens when anonymity strips it away. It seems like the protagonist has successfully built a connection with Topaz and yet it manages to be both genuine and flimsy. Genuine because they enjoy engaging with each other. Flimsy because digital hygiene ensures that you never really get to know them. What surprises me is (Spoiler - click to show) that the game lists itself as a romance piece. While the game features romance-like activities, such as kissing, the gameplay did not give the impression of being about romance. I think that some of that is up to the player to interpret, especially since the game is not long enough to really dive into these ideas.
As the game ends the conversation draws to a close and both characters log off. Afterward (Spoiler - click to show) the Hive is stumped about the interaction that took place. It views the two characters as being small and insignificant and yet it is baffled that they are willing to spend time and energy into seeking a connection, even if that connection is only a shadow of what human interaction once looked like. This is followed by an archivist's note that adds an unexpected twist to the story. The end of the game portrays the characters’ dialog as an archived sample from the past by leaving an archivist’s note. The player realizes that the gameplay was a glimpse of a past conversation. It then raises the question of the fate of the characters and their society.
The archivist explains that “It is unlikely the events recorded contributed to the xeno-intellect's decision to withdraw their consciousness from this universe, but the possibility cannot be entirely discounted." What does one make of this? Were the contents of the conversation enough to sway the Hive’s decision to execute Topaz and the protagonist? Is withdrawing consciousness the same as execution? There is also the suggestion that the Hive was eradicated when the note says, “a dormant processing node retrieved from the husk of the xeno-intellect.” The word “husk” forms the image of it being a dead carcass rather than the beast that hear about in the gameplay. There are no clear answers but is interesting to contemplate.
We learn little about Topaz and the protagonist which falls in line with the themes of anonymity. The Hive, on the other hand, is the overshadowing antagonist, but we never learn much about it. The gist is that (Spoiler - click to show) it is an alien lifeform that supposedly invaded Earth and took up residence in the atmosphere. If someone decides to risk their life and explore the Earth’s surface they know better to glance up at the sky. Its history with humanity is not explained in detail, just that it has an iron grip on humanity and is responsible for many deaths. There are some suggestions on why it is opposed to the gathering of people. Topaz and the protagonist ponder if the Hive understands the notion of individuality and how unique connections can be formed between individuals that is not shared with the broader population. The game only brushes the ethical implications of such a being and does not elaborate on its physical and mental composition that causes these qualities.
This is one of the most visually stylized Ink game I have played. It uses a black screen with mostly green and red text. It creates a “digital” look that adds atmosphere. The Hive’s text even trembles slightly to convey a charged and angry energy.
This game uses a lot of fade-in text effects but implements them well. Choice-based games sometimes fall into a trap with fade-ins, often when it is portraying chatrooms or similar forms of communication. Text fade-ins and pauses may be small, but they can slow the gameplay if it takes a full second and a half for the text to appear. That may not sound like much, but it adds up, especially with replays. This game manages to avoid that, using appropriate pauses to simulate conversation while also keeping a steady pace.
The game is linear and takes about 15 minutes to play. Even though (Spoiler - click to show) it wraps up the same way the gameplay has enough variation to encourage multiple playthroughs. It is a fantastic use of Ink both visually and in gameplay quality. If you like chat interfaces in choice-based interactive fiction games or dystopian sci-fi settings than you might enjoy this game.