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Far more than a typical derelict-spaceship game, December 23, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Stop me oh stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: so you’re playing this game where you’re an interstellar thief pulling a heist to relieve a space-governor of his space-crystals, when you get rumbled by the fuzz, except while that all sounds supremely fun it’s actually just the quickly-dispensed with, non-interactive backstory justifying why you’re forced to make a blind hyperjump and wind up lost in space – until you come across and board a derelict vessel, which holds the promise of rescue if you reactive enough of its broken systems to scavenge for parts, though since the crew’s all dead and the superficially-helpful ship’s AI seems alarmingly erratic it’s clear danger could be lurking where you least – or rather most – expect it…
Zoomed out to this level, ALWNS might as well be called “Space Game” – it wouldn’t be much worse than the actual, horribly-generic, title – because anybody who’s played much IF has probably encountered this scenario dozens of times. There’s a slight variation here because I feel like this type of game is usually parser-based, while this one’s a puzzley Twine game that has the same adventure-game type interface I discussed in my One Way Ticket review (click on highlighted objects in location descriptions to examine them in more detail, open up your inventory if you see an opportunity to use one of the things you’ve collected – 95% of the time the only action verb available is “use”, in fact). But if I were to describe a puzzle at random, or similarly highlight one of the plot beats, you’d probably roll your eyes and say been there, done that.
Given all of this, you’ll forgive me for being surprised that this game is actually great. It’s by no means going to set the world on fire with innovation, but it executes on its premise with well-designed puzzles, a nicely pacey plot that boasts at least one clever twist, and character-focused writing that’s way, way, way above the standard for this sort of thing – plus there’s a fair degree of nonlinearity, bonus objectives, and player agency allowing you to make the story your own, on your way to getting one of five different endings or collecting a half-dozen achievements. Sure, there are a couple of puzzles that could use slightly better signposting – though there is an in-game hint system and a robust walkthrough – and if you’re completionist about running through conversation topics with the AI, the middle part of the game can feel a little quiet. But these are small niggles in an entertaining and dare I say even slightly heart-warming take on a classic premise.
Let’s start with the puzzles and the overall game structure, since while they’re well done and important, they’re not what makes the game sing (spoiler: that’s the AI). As you’d imagine, there’s a MacGuffin or two that you need to recover from the ship in order to get the coordinates you need to make your way back to civilization, but various ID-locked doors, nonfunctional elevators, and areas of hard vacuum need to be surmounted in order to find and retrieve them. For the most part, solving these challenges is satisfying without being too tricky – you’ll fix robots, look up schematics, and gain false credentials. There’s also a pleasing variety of puzzle mechanics, from simple use-x-on-y stuff to figuring out a crew member’s ship ID based on their favorite order in the dining hall, and even, in a memorable set piece, using a chair’s ergonomic features to defend yourself. There are a couple of places where things can get a little clumsy – I was stumped for a while on an early puzzle because instead of being able to directly input the passcode I’d deduced, I had to go back to an earlier clue so the game could acknowledge I’d figured it out, and there’s one (optional) chemical-mixing puzzle that doesn’t clearly signpost why you need a source of antimatter different than an easily-available one you’d already used for a previous puzzle – but these are very much the exception, and if you get stuck, you can take a quick nap in your ship and get a hint while resting.
As for structure, the underlying rhythm of the game involves unlocking a new set of areas, exploring them, and discovering new items or information you can use to solve puzzles that in turn unlock the next set of areas. As you go, you’ll also uncover more about the members of the ship’s crew – they all have their secrets and hidden agendas, of course, that you can plumb by gaining access to their personal datapads and video recordings of their final days, just like in any good System Shock riff. As with the rest of the game, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s effective at sustaining player interest and injecting regular novelty into the proceedings. It’s also one of the things that makes your AI interlocutor, Solis, so compelling – you converse with the computer via terminals located in each room, and as you open up new parts of the ship, you get new dialogue options where you can ask about what you find and the facts you discover.
Solis is the heart of ALWNS, as it turns out, both because the narrative hinges on plumbing the depths of its character as you talk to it about the terrible things it’s seen, and done, in the catastrophe that befell the ship, and because unraveling its motivations form a sort of metapuzzle that undergirds the whole game, with your ending largely determined by how many layers of the onion you’ve pulled back. I realize that laid out like that, it sounds like conversing with Solis is a chilly game of mechanical-cat and organic-mouse – but here’s the thing: Solis is funny. Actually, the whole game is funny – I probably should have mentioned that earlier? Here’s the line telling you that your ship’s gotten lost:
"Your navigator is telling you you’re inside the core of a blue-white supergiant in the Hyades cluster, which you’re pretty sure is not correct.”
But most of the comedy comes from Solis, who’s got a great sense of comic timing for a bunch of superconductors. It initially greets you with a chirpy “it’s nice to meet you too, random organic person!” (which, not going to lie, feels like the subtext of 90% of my in-person interactions these days), and when you try to get it to comment on a boring hallway, it makes up a limerick to entertain you – then comes up with a second, even worse/better one, if you press the point!
It’s not all fun and games, though, and as you make your way through the ship you get the chance to engage in some deeper conversations with Solis, about its function and place in the world – as you quickly learn, the inhibitor programs that typically keep AIs on a short leash have degraded during its long isolation – its feelings about the different members of the now-deceased crew, and its curiosity about the rest of the galaxy. Again, these are exactly the topics you’d expect to come up in a game focusing on an AI as the main secondary character, but the writing here is really strong, fostering an empathetic connection with Solis even as the player knows that it doesn’t seem 100% trustworthy.
ALWNS’s success isn’t purely down to craft, I should say: near the end, there are a couple puzzles that feel fairly novel (I was partial to the janitorbot security code one), and there’s one narrative twist that I didn’t see coming, with the narrative zigging when I thought it was going to zag. I don’t want to spoil that, except to say that it made the ending I was going for even more satisfying than I thought it was going to be. Still, if the other 95% of the game hadn’t been executed at such a high level, these last bits of legerdemain would have felt like lipstick on a pig, rather than the final flourishes drawing attention to how cleverly the magic trick’s been done. Between the generic title, abstract cover art, low-key blurb, and long playing time, I worry that A Long Way to the Nearest Star might not get the attention it deserves, which would be a shame – just about any IF fan would find something to enjoy here.