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prepare for return

by Travis Moy profile

Science Fiction
2023

Web Site

(based on 10 ratings)
5 reviews

About the Story

Entry for SeedComp 2023, sprouting stage.

The seed is "other thing" by slugzuki: https://slugzuki.itch.io/seedcomp2


Game Details


Awards

1st Place, Most Sequel Worthy; Entrant, All Games - SeedComp! - 2023

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Number of Reviews: 5
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
At one point you wake up and ask: Does it really matter anymore?, March 5, 2023

In prepare for return, you play as an AI stored in an underground facility with the task of making Earth habitable for humans. Following a series of disasters, Earth has become an apocalyptic world unsuitable for human life. Humans have left and will return once Earth is ready to receive them again.

Gameplay
The game begins with you powering on in the year 2851. The system that you are connected to is happy to answer some basic questions about yourself. You were constructed in the late 21st century by two corporations that have since ceased to exist since every human connected to them are either dead or left the planet long ago. It is time for you to carry out your purpose.

Your current hardware base is a Torsion Robotics AI Core, Model AI-05-3845-5000, housed in Room A48 of Reconstruction Facility 05, with six Intel W-39 Computing Clusters in rooms A49 and A50. More detailed information should be readily available to you through your operating system diagnostics.

Your job is to lead Reconstruction Facility 05 in rebuilding Earth, so it is not just habitable but also aesthetically pleasing for humanity. The gameplay is organized into “rounds” where you resolve alerts, modify objectives, and read status reports. After each task has been addressed, you enter sleep mode.

Editing Priorities:

• Prime: Prepare the planet for the Humans' return.
• Purification: Remove elements toxic to humans from the seas.
• Development: Contact any other remaining complexes.
• Biosphere: null
• Legacy: null

The first task is to choose objectives for several parameters, such as how to remove toxins from the environment or what to cultivate in the biosphere. The impact of your choices here is shown in the summary reports provided the next time you wake up. Initially, I thought this would be a simulation game. Not quite.

(Spoiler - click to show) The summary of each "round" is long with rambling paragraphs, though that may be intentional. I opened two windows to compare playthroughs and noticed that each summary was nearly identical to that from another playthrough. My choices appeared to be meaningless. Plus, Facility 05’s resources are being drained rapidly. Things fall apart. After a few rounds, the game ends when the facility runs out of juice and the AI falls asleep for the last time (I think).

Rather than a planet terraforming simulator, it seems that prepare for return instead strives to depict a noble goal with a (Spoiler - click to show) futile future. As advanced as Facility 05 is, there is a looming sense of never being able to reach the ultimate vision of bringing humanity home. The result is gameplay that focuses on ambience and subtle messaging rather than strategy.

Story
The story is a little reminiscent of the film WALL-E. Let the bots do the work so humans can return to a paradise. But unlike the film’s mobile robot protagonist, the AI in prepare for return is just that: an AI core stuck underground. It does not have the luxury of personally exploring the landscape and remnants of human-built structures. Instead, the facility’s drones carry out the exploration while a software program shares the occasional artifact on human history. None of it provides the AI with the depth needed to actually learn about humans. This proves to be a frustration that only compounds.

(The artifacts were interesting to read. They reminded me of decoding DNA files in The Archivist and the Revolution. Especially the Wikipedia citations.)

The trajectory is an unusual one. We typically perceive AI, robotics, and other technologies as constantly changing, upgrading, and finding new ways to defeat the elements. That is not the case here. You may be an advanced AI in a high-tech facility with a game plan, but the Earth is undergoing changes of its own. Changes that you cannot keep up with. Changes that interfere with your objectives. The result is (Spoiler - click to show) coming to terms with failure. As an AI, the only thing you can do is go back to sleep.

Characters
We’ve already been introduced to the protagonist, AI-05-3845-5000, but the character is best explored through the dream sequences. The AI dreams surreal dreams often underscored by human strife. Some are more exciting than others and typically make little sense. But this chaos is what makes it interesting. It gives you a sense of if an AI on a post-apocalyptic Earth were to dream, what would those dreams look like?

In my favorite dream, (Spoiler - click to show) a meeting is held in a cavern where a wise old master addresses a group of pupils. However, the NPCs are all arachnids or amphibians. At first glance, it seems rather comical if not for the underlying meaning about the protagonist and their functionality as an AI.

"Master," croaks the Bright Blue Leaping Toad, "the students are assembled."

In this dream, the protagonist sits among the students and tries to participate in the conversation. The students are given the opportunity to ask questions. Immediately, the students ask about being. But the master says that he is no philosopher, and that they should look for deeper answers elsewhere. Often, he brushes off the students’ questions.

The protagonist then inquiries about what it means to be lonely. The response is that loneliness is a human emotion and incompatible with an AI’s experience as a machine. Physical phenomena unique to one type of being is inaccessible to that of another. For instance, a human could not experience echolocation like a dolphin or whale would. At least, that is the argument.

"You," calls out Bright Blue Leaping Toad, "the living machine in the second row!"

But what about emotions, like loneliness? Surely pain can be felt by most creatures no matter how diverse. Oddly enough, the protagonist is called a “living machine.” If the protagonist is living, could they experience universal sensations? The protagonist tries to engage the NPCs with these ideas but is shrugged off and told that they are too different to understand.


This ultimately fuels the AI’s frustration at being unable to find ways to better understand humans while it works towards making Earth a place that humanity can call home. How do you make a home for a civilization you barely know? Once the facility is (Spoiler - click to show) no longer able to pursue objectives, its alerts are meaningless. The AI becomes someone who always hits the snooze button when their alarm goes off.

The facility’s (Spoiler - click to show) failure only alienates the AI from the planet on which it exists but is never a part of. There is no crushing disappointment about failing human masters. Only exhaustion and, at the end, indifference. Even if they could get out of bed, would they?

Final thoughts
The idea of terraforming planet Earth sounds so exciting, and while prepare for return takes an alternate route with that concept, it pulls off a compelling story from the perspective of someone who was simply (Spoiler - click to show) not given the resources needed to complete a monumental task. That someone is an AI left behind by humans with instructions to ultimately serve them.

I wish the game was a little more drawn out since there are only a few rounds. It would have been nice to have seen the balance between reasonable and more daunting challenges. Human culture, experiences, history, and mannerisms are all something in short supply for our AI protagonist. But the hard science of removing toxins from an environment seem a little more straightforward and in the reach of the facility’s scientific knowhow.

Nonetheless, prepare for return is an excellent choice if you are interested in post-apocalyptic existentialism, particularly one with a non-human perspective. It contemplates the lengths in which technology can go when saving humanity. Especially when humanity isn’t around.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Play an artificial intelligence rejuvenating the earth for humans, March 17, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes

This is choicescript game entered in Seedcomp, based on a seed by Slugzuki.

You play as an artificial intelligence that has woken up hundreds of years after humans left the earth through flight or death. It is your assigned task to prepare the earth for humans to return.

However, your stores have been heavily damaged. Your goal is to manipulate several different factors to make the earth whole again. You may, however, encounter opposition...

The main gameplay cycle is to wake up after a year or so, consume a piece of Human writing, handle any alerts, and re-evaluate your priorities.

My game ended after about 4 or 5 cycles; there may be more endings.

The media were interesting; I encountered the writings of Du Fu for the first time, which was nice. Looking him up was fun, and I got to read more of his stuff, although most of it was more contemplative than the active poem featured here. There was also some larger writing not entirely meant to be consumed at one sitting (?) like a tylenol label, and some writing I couldn't find when googling, so either from obscure books or not from published works.

I liked the main overall cycle, I liked the writing and the vibes. I think the only thing I could have wished was either that it lasted longer with more cycles and depth or that it was shorter with a tighter focus on the writing segments. Many of the were poignant but I felt like the game was pulling two different directions a bit.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
AI attempts to rebuild Earth for its makers., March 7, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

(This review is based on the SeedComp version of the game.)

After a period of 737 cycles in deep Sleep Mode, the Core of Reconstruction Facility 05 (RF-05-C1) awakens. Time to resume its mission: prepare the planet for the return of the humans.

The Core is the conscious, volitional, self-reflective AI of a terraforming and restoratory facility. It has control over several subsystems which carry out the practical tasks needed to further the overall goals it sets.

Each cycle, the Core gets a report about the previous time period. Based on that, it can adjust its priorities to guide the subconscious systems through the next cycle.

That’s the practical side of things in a nutshell. Providing a home planet minimally capable of supporting human life. The player gets to decide what to focus on and sees the results in the next cycle-report.

Since the Core’s target population is humans, it is also fed tidbits of information about human history and culture by its subconscious Memory database. These consist of seemingly random fragments, some from literary masterpieces, some from more mundane sources. This is a built-in attempt from its makers to teach the AI about human aesthetics, morality, society,… Hopefully, when the humans return, they will come to a world which is tailored to their sensitivities in these less tangible areas of human experience.

The player gets to read these cultural sources from the perspective of a non-discerning AI. This produces a shift away from her preconceptions about quality or value of the sources. A fragment from Homeros’ Oddyssey (Be still, my heart…) might the next waking cycle be juxtaposed with a Wikipedia article about beans ( Bean - Wikipedia). [Neither of these are actually in the game text.]

During the sleep cycle, it seems that the AI is agitatedly trying to incorporate, re-organise and assimilate the information about humanity in its memory base. It does this in dreams. The dreams are not directly related to the information the Core received in the previous waking cycle. Instead they are more like contextless floating memory snippets, short stories told in simple sentences, or free associations of words and concepts.

I played through the game twice, with opposite strategies (aggressive <-> accomodating toward wildlife which may damage the base, reaching-out <-> self-sustaining toward other terraforming facilities that may be out there). Both times my efforts were fruitless and my facility was terminally damaged, unable to carry out its objectives.
There are many options to tweak the facility’s attitude toward the surroundings. I have not (yet) found a succesfull combination, but I will definitely keep looking. (EDIT: Failure is inevitable)

The most intriguing parts of the game to me were the cultural fragments and the dream-sequences. Sadly, those were also the parts where I found the game most lacking. I would have liked to see more of the personal development the AI goes through in response to its growing experience with human culture and its own growing mind.

A very interesting game, and one I hope the author will expand upon.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A little experiment, September 14, 2023
by pieartsy (New York)
Related reviews: seedcomp

An odd little tidbit of a game that didn’t feel quite complete, but was interesting nonetheless. I liked the little poems and word snippets written by the author. (Spoiler - click to show)Is there nothing you can do regarding the lizardfolk utterly destroying your facility? Is that just how the game always ends? I wanted to wrestle with the moral questions it started to raise, but I didn’t have the chance to.

I think the thing that quirked my mouth up the most about this game is the dead-on impression of ChatGPT and AI like it, from the memory core. I kinda wanted to see more of that.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Post-apocalyptic AI game, April 25, 2023
by Cerfeuil (*Teleports Behind You* Nothing Personnel, Kid)

Disclaimer: the following review is heavily biased because I love AI and post-apocalyptic settings and especially when the two are combined, so from the outset the concept was hitting all the right notes. I mean, "post-apocalyptic AI overseeing the remnants of the world" is an idea that resonates with my soul. Plus it's based on a poem by Kit Riemer, who's one of my favorite IF authors. I fell in love immediately.

Also, the ending, as they say, ripped my heart in two.

(Spoiler - click to show)I can't believe the author had the guts to kill off the protagonist like that. I mean, what the hell? When the ending happened, I think I stared blankly at the screen for a while. Then I said to myself, "There has to be a way to avoid this." Then I replayed and discovered the game was entirely linear. None of your choices matter at all. There's no way to avoid failure.

The ending message is devastating. It really makes the game for me, knowing that no matter what you do, you can't avoid your fate. You're always going to be left dead and forgotten. At first I rankled knowing everything I'd done was meaningless, and then the more I thought about it the more I realized how perfectly tragic it was. You were doomed before the game even started. And the slow decline from setting out on your mission with purpose to falling behind and eventually dying unceremoniously is so well-paced.

It makes the greater setting, which is hinted at in just the right ways, even cooler. Throughout the game you're treated to glimpses of what might have caused the earth to become uninhabitable and where the humans went. It's tantalizing to have these sketches of the wider world you'll never know more about because you're going to die alone. And the whole story revolves around futility, so it fits.



Other stuff:

The writing's good. Not necessarily on the sentence-by-sentence level, but in the way all the lovely aphorisms are put together. The snippets of art. The odd dreams you have while in sleep mode. While not directly relevant to the plot, they resonate with the themes of death, solitude, and the search for purpose in a way I can't totally articulate.

I also couldn't avoid thinking about Kit Riemer's Consciousness Hologram and Universal Hologram. There's a scene in I think Universal Hologram where you're watching Youtube videos from thousands of years ago and the Internet, long-ascended to sentient AI status, is fruitlessly trying to explain them to you. But neither of you actually know what's going on. All this stuff has been shorn of its original meaning because so much has been destroyed, and no matter how hard you try you can't recreate it.

In short: Love how your entire existence here is for the sake of a long-gone species you can never fully understand, and love how it ends. Such a keen sense of loneliness and loss.

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