A Long Way to the Nearest Star

by SV Linwood profile

Science Fiction

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An odd not-quite-friendship, big picture tech-futzing, deep-diving anthropology, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I left some really good entries for the end of IFComp 2022, and LWNS was one of them. I confess, I bumped it to the back, because the subject seemed flat to me. Science fiction? Near-vacant ship? A sabotage mystery? Not my cup of tea. Plus there was an indication you had to deal with an AI. I put on my jargon-ducking helmet, only to find I didnt need it. LWNS wound up reminding me more of a buddy-cop sitcom than anything else. Not that it's full of jokes, but there's great interplay between the player-character, a thief whose own spaceship is on the blink after a hyperwarp to escape galactic police, and SOLIS, the AI in a host ship that the thief finds as fuel is low. SOLIS has kept the host ship going– well, sort of–with all the occupants dead. So there's a whodunit in addition to technical footing.

SOLIS's sarcasm and reticence to help with simple tasks suggests malfeasance, but unfolding the big answers isn't that easy. Fortunately, navigation is. While it's ostensibly a big ship, there are areas shut down for security purposes, so that helps with focus. You can visit the living quarters, but the core is off-limits. You need to not only butter SOLIS up the right way, but you need to discover evidence in datapads left by crew members. There's some finagling here. SOLIS knows who you are, being AI and all, but if you have the right passwords, there's not much it can do. It understands deeper things may be at work, and it understands there are things it doesn't understand. Oh--and passwords are inventory items you don't have to remember. Yay, anti-pedantry.

So you can focus on big picture stuff, like cleaning out the lab, where there were some important experiments. It's nice that things like getting the flashlight to work are done from an intuitive item menu. You use something, and if it's in the right place, it works, and unneeded items are discarded. The cluing's pretty good, too–at one point you need to fix a janitorbot, and even though there's a lot of futuristic technology, the puzzle's very much big-picture. The Internet having manuals for download is great, but here

It becomes increasingly obvious the deaths were not accidental, and as it does, your ability to call SOLIS is hampered. The game often suggests you may not want to ask a potentially hostile AI about THAT. And you don't, and there's usually a neat workaround. Then an action sequence at the end to defeat a weird monster provides an unexpected opportunity to cooperate with SOLIS, where it quite believably can't grasp what you're doing, or why, probably because its AI wasn't built for quick-thinking combat.

It's only near the end that you learn what SOLIS stands for. It doesn't really matter, and this is reiterated beforehand, but by that time you've gotten to know it well enough, you feel you have to. The ending put SOLIS's early actions and words in a new light for me, too. It reminds me of that scene in Hill Street Blues where Becker, the tough cop, finally finds the real name of the guy who keeps giving aliases like William Shakespeare. And I walked away with a very human perception of what SOLIS was, what they did, and why they did it. I've, well, been there. It's a human experience we've all had, and here it's done with almost technological detachment, until you realize what the guilty party did, and how it would be wrong to do to a person, but they probably felt clever doing so to an AI. Cognitive dissonance for AI's is all I can say. And I find it interesting LWNS was written in 2022, before the 2022 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year was rolled out. As I see it, SOLIS understands snark, or at least the mechanics of snark. But it doesn't understand deeper, darker stuff. It was emotionally hard, having to explain that through LWNS, even though I just had to click on and option and didn't have to think up the words.

Long Way has, according to the walkthrough, several endings. I did not see them all. But the one relatively neutral one I found provided me with enough food for thought. I've certainly sat through a bunch of "two lovable rogues" productions that made me groan a bit, where I didn't love either, whether it's in science fiction or an action movie or whatever, and I got the feeling they'd not really bonded, or the parting was too melodramatic or whatever, or there was humor, which got laughs, but it missed profound stuff. I can't call Long Way super-profound, as it doesn't want to shake you with its profundity. But at its heart it's about two entities who didn't expect the improvement and understanding that they wound up getting from the experience. Neither did I.

Note on similar works: it feels like Star Trek: The Next Generation is low-hanging fruit, where Data tries to understand what it's like to be human. The computer makes a good, if unemotional, limerick. And there's definite tension as we see whether SOLIS is more like Data or Data's evil twin Lore. But I was surprised how much it reminded me of Tunes for Bears to Dance To, by Robert Cormier, maybe my favorite young adult author. Henry, the protagonist, experiences some very troubling things indeed, despite a lack of melodrama. I rarely have an IFComp entry cut across genres like this.