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Silicon and Cells

by Nic Barkdull and Matthew Borgard


(based on 5 ratings)
3 reviews

About the Story

Jaya Koto's plan was perfect: One big VR heist, and she'd be set for life. Too bad the city’s psychotically devout cybercops chose that exact day to screw with her.

With no big score and the city’s security apparatus tracking her every move, Jaya's next step is to find out who's responsible and how she can get revenge. On her way to crack the police state, Jaya collects astounding transhumanist abilities, explores virtual worlds, and uncovers a conspiracy of manipulative oligarchs. Ultimately, this journey leads Jaya to discover the truth of what it means to be human—or something more.

Silicon and Cells is text adventure meets Metroidvania in a retro-futuristic cyberpunk setting with a large dose of parody. Choose bionic or psionic abilities to navigate Jartekan City and investigate its mysterious past!

Game Details


19th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)


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Number of Reviews: 3
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Fight God in Cyberspace, October 2, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours

This is a pretty long download-only unity game that is choice-based with an interactive map, quicktime events and a specialized inventory. It is described as a Metroidvania, and that is true, as you collect multiple powers of your own choice and in a non-deterministic order as you play the game.

You live in a city that has a real-life side and a cyber side, and you can gain bionic or psionic modifications that make you stronger. There are a ton of mini games, including a fantasy MMORPG, gambling games, and arcade games.

There is a big cast of characters and many locations. While each one individually didn't seem super fleshed out to me in motivation and personality, as a whole the plot structure and relationships were interesting and satisfying.

Your goal is to rob a casino, but as the game progresses you find yourself more and more often coming up against God, a powerful AI that is in charge of your city.

The game doesn't have any easy way to save that I could see, but if you 'die' you go back to the last major decision point (I think; I only died once, at the very end). There are 9 branches but I only played through once, so I'm not sure what the others are like.

My number one gripe is that the main interaction was fussy. You read text and then choices appear, but how to get them to appear is confusing. I thought it was when you used the mouse scroll wheel down, but sometimes it appeared when I scrolled up, and sometimes I just had to wait. Choices always appeared whenever I equipped or unequipped an ability, so I eventually used that. Even the opening screen took me a while to figure out what to do. It might just all be timed and the mouse wheel thing was just in my head.

(And, just now, looking back, there is an option in the settings to let you see the choices immediately, so this is totally my fault!)

While the game isn't perfect, it was descriptive, polished (I think I only saw one typo in 2 hours), interactivity had a lot of highlights, I was emotionally invested and I'd like to see the other branches once I have some free time in the comp.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Stylish cyberpunk upgrade-em-up, December 6, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I have evolving views about custom parsers, but at this point in the Comp I’m starting to realize I should probably develop some thoughts about custom choice engines too! I'm lucky that it’s Silicon and Cells that occasions the thought, because it’s a really impressive piece of work. The system has an attractive visual design, with a nice color scheme and the ability to display graphics; the text is clean, large, and readable; it’s quickly responsive to user clicks; and it’s got support for timed events and other bells and whistles.

The engine’s in service of a game that’s on the more systemic side of the choice-based spectrum, as you guide a plucky heroine through a heist and subsequent investigations in a cyberpunk world. The hook here is that through the course of the story, you pick up a variety of Deus-Ex-style upgrades – for each slot, you get a choice of either psionic or cybernetic options which works a little differently – that open up new choices if they’re activated at the appropriate time. You only have limited energy, though, so you’ll usually need to choose which to have powered up. In most sequences, you can freely reallocate energy so you can lawnmower your way through the options, but there are some timed events where preparation – or manual dexterity in clicking to shift energy – will lead to better outcomes.

It’s this aspect of the game that gives rise to the “metroidvania” tag in the blurb, as you spend a good amount of time looping back over previous locations to see whether a newly-acquired ability has unlocked any new possibilities. This is just as satisfying here as it is in a traditional side-scroller, too, so it’s neat to see the mechanic deployed in a radically different genre.

As for the story behind this system, it’s a solid one, though Silicon and Cells is less innovative on this side of things. The introduction feels rather abrupt, as we’re thrown into an expository conversation where Jaya, the protagonist, meets with a mentor character and gains her first ability in service of a planned heist of a high-rolling casino. It took me a little while to feel like I was up to speed on why we were doing this heist and how the characters related – plus I found Jaya was a bit of a cipher at first.

This initial awkwardness goes away reasonably quickly, though, as the momentum of the heist – and its fallout – creates immediate goals, and Jaya begins to develop more of a personality. She’s an appealing figure, from one of the city’s slums but trying to do better not just for herself but also her community, and as the plot expands in scope you wind up getting the chance to make decisions that can have a really significant impact. Most of the main beats are things you’ve seen before in cyberpunk stories – there’s an all-powerful AI running the city, a corporation with shady motives, a circle of founding hackers with messy personal fallout – but it’s all well executed, and the different environments and challenges provide good variety. There’s a fantasy MUD that’s the playground of one of the aforementioned hackers, the casino, which has some working gambling games to play (though I think I found a bug where I couldn’t win at the Yes/No/Go game in the Pearly Gates section, albeit I had so much money by that point it didn’t matter), and various cyberspace archives and corporate HQs, all rendered in tight prose that provides just enough detail to be memorable. Overall, by the ending, I was invested in the story and satisfied with how the choices I’d made – both about gear and about people – wound up playing out. I know download-only games sometimes don’t get as much attention in the Comp, especially if they’re choice-based, but this one’s definitely worth a play.

Highlight: I enjoyed the MUD pastiche, from the realistically-annoying veteran player to the bartender who uses timed-text to deliver a well-paced joke.

Lowlight: the plot thread involving the casino owner felt underdeveloped to me, which was too bad since I enjoyed the initial verbal sparring with her and would have enjoyed seeing it go somewhere – possibly there are alternate approaches where she plays more of a role in the endgame, though.

How I failed the author: the timed events are fun and well-designed, but I’m clumsy with my laptop’s touchpad in the best of circumstances (I haven’t had much chance to sit down at a desk these last few weeks) so reallocating energy to my mods in real time was very hard. Fortunately the game’s forgiving, and autoresolved the key challenges in my favor even when I was flailing, though I was embarrassed that it basically wound up playing itself.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Cute pastel-colored text, seedy cyberverse, successful Unity effort, December 4, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I've known Unity was powerful for a while, yet maybe it was too powerful for a regular-style text adventure. There've been Unity games in IFComp before, the first (I think) being Milk Party Palace back in 2014. It was relatively harmless, featuring Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" as part of the soundtrack, as well as random demands from Alec Baldwin. So it was just a case of people showing off their new and shiny unity skills. That's all well and good, but with Unity being more mature and less new and shiny, we'd hope for something deeper, and I think Silicon and Cells gives that to the reader.

IFComp 2021 had no shortage of simulation games, or games where you went into cyberspace. While they ran together for me, largely because I procrastinated a lot to their end, each was clearly its own game. I think Silicon and Cells stood out the most for me. That's partially due to a good story, but I have to admit I remembered the technical features most. One of the first things SnC provides is immediate customization of font size. This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize you can use the mouse wheel to scroll through the main text window, and you don't have to click "next" nearly as much, and you don't have to worry if you read something carefully enough before clicking "next." This was a big relief to me. The game said 1 1/2 hours, but it valued my time and saved my energy, so I was able to focus on the story. You can, of course, control-scroll wheel with twine, but Unity calculates the text wrapping so you can see as much or little as you want.

The other thing about the text is this: the game is divided into Meatspace, with light blue text, and Cyberspace, with pink text, both on a background. This echoes the "dark mode" that works so well on browsers, and so I'm grateful for it. While Meatspace simply has a standard text interface, Cybertext is is a neat curved 3-d surface plot with all sorts of cute places (castle, your own home replete with whiteboard) and reenforces that it's, well, not real. You know where you are without having to look up a specific location And your dialogue/where-to-go choices are in a thin rectangle on the right. This makes it so reading is never exhausting, and these are the sort of design choices that you take for granted once they work well, but people miss them a lot if they're gone. And it's needed, once playtime gets over an hour. I experienced very few "are we there yet" moments as I went through, despite having no walkthrough.

You don't really need one to get through, either. Because the progression is straightforward, though the puzzles aren't trivial. You, as Jaya, have failed at a heist, but you've apparently done well enough for your quasi-mentor Elihu to encourage you to things bigger than a giant heist. Elihu's plans are deep, and you wind up having to see and talk to a lot of shady people who themselves are fighting against even shadier people. On the way, you get bionic upgrades. You can't use them all at once. In fact, at first, you can only possess one at a time. These form the basis for most of the puzzles. I went with social engineering, which occasionally gives an extra dialogue choice that pops up as soon as you switch it on. Unsurprisingly, these move the game and narrative forward in ways regular chat can't. I also got enhanced vision, which let me see fingerprints on a keypad. Later on, you get super strength or the ability to slow down time, and you get multiple charge units, so you can, for instance, really slow time down or get super strong. Many of the later puzzles require you to switch to the right power-ups in time, or you die. Sort of. The game just kicks you back a bit, and you have to try again. Since there was no save feature, I appreciated this.

As for the details of the plot? It's fun to figure how to cheat at the casino or visit people in cyberspace. The small MUD is full of humor and purpose and an appropriate villain (not that anyone's TERRIBLY nice here) and, of course, a puzzle to get around a troll with way more HP and damage per turn than you. There seems to be more than one way. There's also some character called The Oracle who used to be human and is sort of one of the Elders (like Elihu) who used to be in charge of things, before the G.O.D. framework and its cherubim (who are not very innocent enforcers) took over. You can only ask the Oracle factual questions, so often you need to find the right way to ask. Or you need to ask other NPCs the right way to ask.

So there's a lot of back-and-forthing among the various locations that include NebulaCorp, which is pretty dysfunctional and dystopian, and your own haunts. SnC is good about rejecting you if you don't need to do any more. Some NPCs are a bit snarky but never mean in suggesting where to go next, and your private home in Cyberspace with its whiteboard lets you connect the dots at your leisure. You do, indeed, have a choice of which Elder to betray or annoy. I wanted to betray one of them, but I couldn't figure the timed puzzle, so I went with the other. Hooray, expedience! Sadly I couldn't save and see the other ending quickly. That combined with no documentation cluing all the walkthroughs (surely for getting through the game we deserve a big-picture view of all the ways through?) was probably my biggest disappointment. I saw a well-conceived world but felt locked out from really exploring it, because a simple feature, one much simpler than SnC's useful conveniences, was absent. I noticed Mike Spivey's review mentioned he had an easier second time through, and experience bears this out. The interface is more comfortable, and you have an idea that the world is bounded.

Still, the story engaged me, and I missed that there was satire bit at first, but then again, I missed the satire in Fight Club and was just kind of disgusted (mitigating factor: many people praised it for what they thought it was.) Then again, I also missed the satire in RoboCop the first time through. Then I learned it was there, and I enjoyed Robocop a totally different way. Same, too, with the first bits of SnC. It's pretty clear the scene where you get bionic arms installed is meant to be, and I'm sure I've missed others. It's equally exciting played straight-up or acknowledging sly fourth-wall winks, and even before placing near the top quarter, it showed text-based adventures in Unity are worthwhile and doable, and you don't have to be super-dazzling. The authors showed considerable skill in making SnC accessible, enjoyable and even revisitable to someone who thought he was sick of internet/virtual reality simulators.

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Silicon and Cells on IFDB


The following polls include votes for Silicon and Cells:

For your consideration: XYZZY-eligible Best Story of 2021 by MathBrush
This is for suggesting games released in 2021 which you think might be worth considering for Best Story in the XYZZY awards. This is not a zeroth-round nomination.This is not an official list. The point of poll is partly to suggest games...

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