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03 03 03 03 03, March 26, 2023
When I first sat down to play A1RL0CK, I made a prediction based on the opening scene: The protagonist is a girl whose parents work in an ocean lab. After an accident damaging the base, her parents managed to leave a recording that tells her to seek safety with the hope to reunite with them. After playing the game straight through, I am amazed at how naïve I was.
Sure, I was in the ballpark for a few parts. But most of it? Not at all.
We do play as a young girl named Chloe. It’s clear that we are in a research base- Oceanus Prime- at the bottom of some unknown ocean. It is also clear that damage to the base has occurred… and that no one else is around. What really baffles us, however, is the sporadic intercom announcement system shouting instructions in ALL CAPS at random intervals. Something seems off. These messages are chaotic and keep telling us to listen to waterfalls, odd instructions for the situation. We do not understand the meaning of this until later.
At first, I felt like I was playing Chlorophyll where you are a humanoid plant girl exploring an unpopulated research station to save your mom after a vehicle accident. Due to these reasons, the protagonist justifies breaking station rules to enter areas that would otherwise be "adults only" out of necessity and/or just because she wants to. When she does something bad, the station's computer responds by informing her IN ALL CAPITALS THAT SHE IS MISBEHAVING. It is considerably more light-hearted than A1RL0CK but there is a similar sense of endangerment and freedom to break the rules.
The gameplay feels like it is split into two parts. The part when you are on the north side of the door, and the part when you reach the south side. If you have tried the game already, you probably know what I mean by “the door.” And I needed hints, available outside the game, for the first half.
This was a game where when I looked at the hints, I saw that I was on the right track most of the time but failed to make the key connections that would translate into progress. Sure, I may have gotten close to opening the door, but ultimately, I never did. That was the general sentiment if you look at my performance in the first half of my first playthrough.
The two bits that I figured out on my own was that the (Spoiler - click to show) disc was magnetic (after I tried to reattach the disc to the value), and that I (Spoiler - click to show) needed some kind of force to fix the dumbwaiter (after shooting it with the stapler). I also had a bunch of half-ideas (shaking the can to build pressure?) that failed to be productive.
Similarly, the game did not let me put the (Spoiler - click to show) meat in the water since that would be feeding the monster. Best save it for when you need to lure out some other creature later in the game. That last part was me overthinking things. I do that a lot. The real answer was much simpler. As nice as these partial insights were, I was stuck.
Everything about the puzzles seems so obvious now, but it felt more confusing than it should have been the first time through. I could be flimsy at solving puzzles, and I recognize that as a factor. Still, I think that the puzzle mechanics could be more polished for clarity and context. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) the meat in the kitchen seems a little too perfectly placed. As if it were left there solely for the player rather than as a component of the game’s world.
But once I reached the second half of the gameplay, everything was smooth sailing. I did not need hints afterward.
I want to make a note on setting. In this game, we orbit Saturn on Titan, one of its moons. I get excited about these things, so please excuse this tangent.
Titan is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, one that is so thick that we did not have a visual of what existed underneath until we clunked a probe, called Huygens, down onto its surface. It does in fact have oceans. Oceans of liquid methane. Well, lakes of liquid methane that you would see if you were standing on the surface.
That said, Cassini, Huygens’ spacecraft counterpart, did scans that suggested the presence of large bodies of liquid- oceans- under the icier parts of the moon. Could it be water? If so, the probability of life flourishes. As the sentiment typically goes: Where there is water, there is life. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is a similar candidate for finding life-sustaining environments. Neat stuff if you like astronomy.
Anyway, I’m assuming that the Titan in A1RL0CK is an alternative or at least speculative version of the moon since it features deep and seemingly Earth-like oceans with whales. Now, that would be wild. Complex life in our own solar system. And I thoroughly love the author’s depiction of Titan. Usually when solar system planets get recognized in interactive fiction, Mars gets all the attention. I like how A1RL0CK expands to the other planets, or in this case, a moon.
Who knows, maybe there is life that can be sustained on liquid methane instead of water.
To clarify, Chloe (Spoiler - click to show) is a test subject. Oceanus Prime is a research facility built for the experimentation of (Spoiler - click to show) splicing human biology with aquatic alien DNA. The project is managed by an entity called BioFarm, which seems to be a corporation. It certainly follows the corporate-unethical-research-at-all-costs trope.
BioFarm is messing with serious stuff. Apparently, the result of this research is (Spoiler - click to show) telekinesis: the ability to move objects with your mind. Chloe hardly realizes the extent of her abilities. She’s just tired of the tests and being knocked out when some scientist gets too nervous. Fortunately, she has the added benefit of a (Spoiler - click to show) close psychic connection to the ocean’s whales who sing to her from a distance. Which is a good thing since this (Spoiler - click to show) reckless research on whale-human hybrids is also what dooms Oceanus Prime.
There is talk about proteins. I am not entirely sure of its significance, but it gets a mention in the game’s description, so it must be important. We do get some protein action in the form of computer screens and paperwork.
Something to do with... protein? And other: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone appear often in lists and comparisons.
I do wonder: Are they (Spoiler - click to show) testing proteins on Chloe, or are they seeking to extract them from her body? Or something different altogether?
The story brings up an interesting point: do ethical standards for research on Earth apply to when conducting science on a non-Earth world? You can’t even see the Earth from the moon you are on. Suddenly, Earth protocols seem distant. I thought this was interesting.
This theme is found in (I know it’s a cliché reference, don’t roll your eyes at me) Babel. One of the defining qualities of the research base in Babel is its isolation in the Arctic and how it allows ethical standards to peel away. The base is staffed by a select few, has virtually no contact with the outside world, and was constructed with the unspoken sentiment that any science prohibited elsewhere due to ethical reasons is perfectly fine here.
No rules, regulations, or legal tape. The characters do not even try to dance around that fact. If you’ve reached the point to where you were assigned to this work, you've already learned to not ask questions.
All of this came to mind when the (Spoiler - click to show) “OOJ, A” abbreviation cropped up in A1RL0CK. It stands for (Spoiler - click to show) OUT OF JURISDTICTION, ALLOW. That is, allow for these insane experiments to occur since this place is halfway across the solar system, not on Earth. As Chloe is starting to realize. If being in the Arctic is isolating, imagine what it would be like as a researcher and/or (Spoiler - click to show) test subject on Titan.
You can find this theme across the sci-fi genre, and yet the type of research that occurs can be quite different between games. It always leaves room for interesting discussions.
There is no denying that the game has atmosphere. It has some seriously creepy moments. The big one for me is when you (Spoiler - click to show) make it into the southern complex and go east into the eerie interrogation room (from Chloe’s perspective, “interrogation” would be the right word). The room description reads:
The condensation makes it inscrutable but, through it, it's easy to guess the shape of a human figure. It appears to be levitating, its long arms holding it in mid-air.
I just stopped for a moment. Many things went through my mind. So far, I knew that the base was messing around with life forms, including human life. Clearly this was one of them. Some sort of human hybrid who was probably watching us through the glass.
On the other side of it thick condensation prevents you from seeing through. But the figure that stands out behind it, albeit out of focus, is clear and monstrous: a being of the wrong proportions, with long flaccid arms that whirls sinisterly.
Yeah. I was genuinely afraid to (Spoiler - click to show) cut the glass and see what was on the other side. Would this person attack me? So many unknowns. Turns out, the truth was much different, and sadder: (Spoiler - click to show) Nurse Nelly.
Chloe is the star of the game, but I want to discuss this NPC first. One tidbit I liked in the first half of the gameplay is the foreshadowing of a person named Nelly.
> break mirror
Nelly told you what happens when a mirror breaks.
> drink water
It's salty. Nelly told you what happens if you drink salt water.
> spray can
Nelly has always been clear about what happens to little ones who waste food. Especially cream.
If you found these descriptions like I did, the name “Nelly” circulates through your mind as you play. We sense that she may have a closer, and perhaps positive, relationship to Chloe, but all we have is a name and a few shreds of memory. Sadly, the extent of that memory is revealed when we (Spoiler - click to show) see her strung up by her own life support cables (how did that happen?) on the other side of the glass.
The memories we get are a mix of different things. (Spoiler - click to show) We see the happier- or at least happier given Chloe’s circumstances- moments of Nelly comforting her and treating her like a real human being, but these memories soon tilt to being experimented on by the other scientists and being contained for “safety” reasons. We also learn about Nelly’s death, but I’m not going to spoil everything.
I am at least grateful that the author gives us this:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Doing your best to ignore the massive gash that bisects her face, you give Nelly one last kiss.
It’s a bittersweet outcome.
And on that note, is there a consensus about the (Spoiler - click to show) SUPPOSED INTERCOM ALL CAPS ANOUNCEMENTS that we hear throughout the gameplay? Is that… Nelly’s voice? I would assume the dialog is in Chloe’s head, but given everything that has gone on so far, perhaps the voices are an external extension of her mind. Almost like how we can sense states of existence/awareness in Coloratura that are invisible to the human characters. That’s just me speculating, of course.
When it comes to child protagonists in interactive fiction- and I don’t mean teens- the genre tends to be slice-of-life, sometimes with a mix of fantasy or other genres. But predominantly sci-fi paired with horror undertones? Less common. For me, at least. If anything, the more you play A1RL0CK, the more it slides towards a horror piece. Especially after you (Spoiler - click to show) break the glass wall in the strange room or visit the quarantine area.
One of the strongest aspects of A1RL0CK is that Chloe still feels like Chloe at any part of the gameplay. While we learn some startling things about her, you still feel like you are playing the same character. In other games, you can feel detached from the protagonist after a big reveal, but that was never the case here. What we learn about her feels like a leap in insight rather than a shift in identity. Not Chl03. Chloe.
Even though Chloe’s (Spoiler - click to show) connection with the whales has proven to be dangerous, or at least to Oceanus Prime, she still views all the invasive research and lab coated scientists through a childlike perspective. Of course, it is also refreshing to see her take survival into her own hands.
(Spoiler - click to show) At the same instant you aim the stapler at her. "O-O-J-A, Miss Celyne," you grin, and shoot.
Yep. Chloe is still Chloe.
Also: When you (Spoiler - click to show) win, there's a strong sense of victory that your biology is what saves you in the end. Perhaps a little bit of "I could breathe underwater this entire time?" but you feel thankful for that.
I came extremely close to giving this game five stars. A huge fact is that the game kept urging me to play it again and again. I was not expecting to feel that way, but several times I would be combing through IFDB and suddenly have the urge to revisit A1RL0CK for its atmosphere and unique protagonist.
Still, it has some parts that are not as streamlined as the rest of the game. Particularly the earlier puzzles. Hence the four stars, but it easily has the potential to be worth five. It is a great game with a strong emotional impact. For me, that was its main strength.
Chloe’s predicament as a (Spoiler - click to show) test subject combined with her relatable mannerisms (like goofing around with items clearly not meant for play) make her character one with a distinct sense of identity even as her memory remains murky.
The setting was also memorable. Oceanic research bases are a familiar concept, but A1RL0CK distinguishes Oceanus Prime by placing it on Titan. It does an effective job in increasing the isolation that is already present when the game begins.
I would totally play more games featuring Chloe. She is quite an individual.
(In case anyone wants to humor me: I do have two random questions out of sheer curiosity. (Spoiler - click to show) First, is Chloe really wearing a clothing garment or is the suit fused onto her body? Or is it her skin, skin as part of her genetic cross with the whales? Second, when Celyne stabs you with the needle, the game gives you the *** You have died *** ending. Did that needle kill you right away, or is the game suggesting that in the end, you find death later as a captive?)
Oh, how embarrassing: You're carrying a suit (worn). That answers my question.