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Science Fiction, Espionage

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An espionage game about sabotaging an AI's film, December 16, 2022

It is the year (I assume) 2073. The most recent technological advancements of the ages have taken a disturbing turn, and you and your tech-savvy friends want to disrupt it. Your target: A film premiere with an audience of six thousand people. The film, GONCHAROV, is the first of its kind, directed and produced by an artificial intelligence called MATTEO JWHJ-0715.

What is up with Goncharov?
I did not know anything about "Goncharov" until I saw the posting of the Goncharov Game Jam on IFDB and decided to do some online searching for background context. The competition posting also has information.

Goncharov (if you already know this, just skip ahead) is a recent meme about the promotion of a gangster film called Goncharov. The film was released in 1973- wait a minute. That's not quite right. Sorry, Goncharov is a nonexistent film said to have been produced 1973. An alternate timeline version of 1973. If you see the "poster" for the film, it's extremely polished and convincing. Martin Scorsese is listed as the director while (someone?) Matteo JWHJ0715 is the film’s writer. It even drops actors’ names. Even though people knew this was fake, they still had fun formulating a fandom/following for it. You can almost convince yourself that you have, in fact, seen the film before…

Also, (yeah, I used Wikipedia) I saw THIS: On November 25, 2022, a game jam of Goncharov was run by Autumn Chen on itch.io.[14] There’s an article attached to it. Pretty cool!

Gameplay is not particularly interactive. Instead, it relies on the story, dialog, and visual presentation to carry itself through. This can be a risky gamble, but I think it succeeds. In fact, the only player choice opportunity is to (Spoiler - click to show) decide whether to show a warning, promise, or memory scene during the team’s sabotage of the film. The espionage undertones keep a steady pace, and the gameplay is short enough to maintain the player’s attention as the story unfolds.

The entire gameplay occurs over communication lines with your teammates. The plan is that Varda, your teammate/friend goes to the theater for the premiere while the rest of the group works remotely. The protagonist's picture is always at the upper right corner of the screen while NPCs are shown near the lower left corner, both of which have dialog boxes. The black box at the center of the screen is not dialog, rather it is the game's narration.

There is scrolling text, but it did not bring the scrolling text fatigue that I sometimes experience with games. When you read text like a laser beam, any scrolling effects can feel sluggish. In this game, however, the effect is minimal. Once the text appears you tap the screen to move to the next sequence. The game does not rush you. This translated into a stable gameplay experience (this was my first encounter with the tape window development system).

The game contemplates the real-life neck and neck competitive nature of film production companies as they strive for innovation and to be the first product on the shelf, especially with premieres. A premiere is critical because that first audience glimpse is the big money maker. Now, in the game, Perennial Pictures tries to take it to the next level. The AI’s film is described as the company’s “most prized weapon in the war for attention.”

Regarding this “weapon,” GONCHAROV 2073 considers the wild possibilities of technology available during 2073. Here, corporations have adopted the practice of “artificial resuscitation” where a subject’s digital footprint is used to capture their voice, mannerisms, and other defining details to create an eerily life like simulation. People must give permission for this, but the system is opt-out. This means that everyone is automatically said to have given permission unless they opt-out to do so, raising potential ethical concerns.

Perennial Pictures is one such corporation that seeks to embrace this new technology. Artificial resuscitation is still a controversial matter, and GONCHAROV is meant to earn favor with the public. Its film features the same actors included in the meme inspired movie poster that I discussed at the start of this review. But the twist is that artificial resuscitation is used on the long-dead actors to create “actors” in this AI’s film. The human element has been removed in the film’s production, and yet it can leave the illusion of a human impact on the audience.

One of the more unsettling scenes in this game is when (Spoiler - click to show) the Perennial Pictures personnel are trying to stop the sabotage and alter their Martin Scorsese simulation to soothe the audience with familiar visual cues: They've hastily programmed a new expression onto his face: an apologetic smile. That apologetic smile can do so much damage. If we really did have this technology, could we make Goncharov a real non-nonexistent film with all the actors and intended details? Wow.

The big tragedy (spoiler time) of GONCHAROV 2073 is when (Spoiler - click to show) Varda totally betrays everyone. The game evokes a gradual yet increasingly rapid downward slide of emotions in this final scene. It starts with confusion, then unease, then shock, and finally panic. This avalanche kicks off when you hear Varda talking to someone over her comm line about submitting a report and receiving payment. Then, when you talk to her, she goes on a tangent on how the mission was a mistake and starts dropping some concerning implications about her behavior. Suddenly:

Behind you, down the narrow hall - the sound of heavy footsteps at your front door.

Really, Varda? Or should I say Leica since you don’t care about code names anymore? The betrayal is strong. Here, the game gleefully heaps on the suspense. It shows no mercy. Those footsteps just keep coming. Before you know it, Perennial Pictures’ military forces are breaking down the door, and the game ends.

My understanding is that (Spoiler - click to show) Varda sold everyone out because she needed the money due to increases in living expenses. She agrees that it hardly counts as an excuse but that she did it anyway. At least she is not trying to take the moral high ground about selling out her teammates. Still. I’m not a fan.

As for the mission, her perspective is that the demonstration is only going to encourage people to want to watch this AI-directed film to witness the artificially resuscitated dead man who seems to embody every nostalgic feeling a person can have (and previously never had) about film, culture, and everything else. The tragic part is how the demonstration aimed to protest capitalistic domination of film production and other artforms, particularly with its commoditization of deceased individuals, only for her to betray everyone for money.

You play as Kon in this endeavor. That’s your code name, at least. The other members of the crew are Varda, Tsai, Sissako, and Vertov. Everyone has their moment of dialog, but character interaction focuses on Varda. The characters sound cool and look cool, but don’t have much exposition. Oh, there is one other NPC. (Spoiler - click to show) Artificially Resuscitated Martin Scorsese. He gets his own character portrait and everything.

Visuals are atmospheric and stylized. The black and white background scenery is that of an office (or safe house, if we are getting into the espionage spirit). The artwork is pixelated which creates a cool gritty effect. Characters also have their own portraits that appear onscreen during dialog. Some portraits are tinted with colour that adds a nice contrast.

Final thoughts
The ending will leave you thinking, what just happened? It’s like a riptide. Pulls you in whether you want it to or not. The atmosphere is strong, and I enjoyed the story. It also introduced me to a meme, well, it seems more than just a meme now. And now GONCHAROV 2073 gave me a new perspective on that. I’ll have to check out the other games in the Goncharov Game Jam to see people’s various interpretations of Goncharov. This is a fun game, especially if you are looking for sci-fi espionage themes.

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