Aurora

by katz

Science Fiction
2010

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Great beginning but I want to see it finished, September 6, 2022

You are peacefully snoozing away in cryosleep when an alarm wakes you. The ship has not reached its destination and there is an unknown emergency. Sound familiar? Yes and no. This game draws upon recognizable themes of a starship running into trouble in space and pairs it with creative gameplay mechanics. Because the game is unfinished the goal of this review is to offer feedback over its strengths and weaknesses. (This is also probably my longest review yet so hold on………!)

Gameplay
Basics
This is a multi-protagonist game. You start as Jake, the ship's physician. Once you start to wake up the crew the game uses the command “switch to [character name]” to let you play as a different character. The characters remain in one spot until you return. Other games have probably used this mechanic, but it was relatively new for me, and I enjoyed how it shaped the gameplay.

So far, the inside of the ship has about 19 rooms to explore plus locations outside of the ship accessible via spacewalk. I have been unable to get past the retinal scanners that lead to the cockpit and cargo bay. I appreciated how the game allows to you choose between nautical directions and compass directions. Yeah, yeah, I know nautical is more realistic but with IF I am always tempted to just stick with compass directions when I play. Is that lazy of me? Maybe.

Cyberspace
Part of the game takes place in cyberspace which was cool. Accessing the computer is done through VR where the user dons a set of goggles and navigates cyberspace with an avatar by touching links and opening folders. Locked folders require a key, and some contents are protected by encryption. The game says that you need a pass to decrypt the files, but I have not found one yet. I especially liked (Spoiler - click to show) the puzzle of learning how to operate the pods by accessing the instructions in Aleksey’s folder.

After a while, navigating these folders can be tedious because each time you enter cyberspace you have to unlock each file individually and ensure that you have the proper keys. While I think that the character avatars are a bit childish* (anime cats?) and detract from the gameplay’s more somber tone, I like how the contents of each crew members’ personal folders share some insight into their personality.
*Childish given the context.

Stopping points
There are two points in the game where I ran out of progress. The first is (Spoiler - click to show) with diagnosing the crew and the second is (Spoiler - click to show) the phenomena found in Wu’s spacewalk.

The issue with the (Spoiler - click to show) crew stems from the alarm that goes off at the start of the game. The alarm reveals that Aleksey died in his pod. If the player performs an autopsy on Aleksey, they find a small crystal burrowed into his head. The crystal is a nanomachine and likely responsible for his death. The gameplay does not go any further into this. Three other crewmembers have mysterious brain damage and are comatose when you open their pods. Jake keeps saying that he needs to further investigate the crew's condition by running an MRI. But is that possible? I cannot find an MRI machine anywhere in the sickbay. That was as far as I could go.

The second progress stopping point that I reached was (Spoiler - click to show) having Wu attempt a spacewalk to fix the subspace jumper. But Wu’s spacewalk is completely different than if you spacewalk as Jake or Gail. When you step out of the airlock your spacesuit disappears and you are surrounded by mist with voices in the background. There is also a creature lurking about. In the dead of space. Strange but exciting. Furthermore, the game does not let you switch with other characters. If you try the response is "You're not getting out of this that easily.” This effectively created suspense and a sense of danger. Trying to wake up also brings an interesting response. You seem to be in a dreamful state.

When you listen in the mist, you hear voices. I followed the voices’ instructions of "wait, wait, wait, search, search, look" and then got ambushed by an unknown space creature which caused everything to plunge into darkness. Then what? There is more whispering, but it leads nowhere. This felt like a dead end. Still, it leaves the player on an interesting note.


Story
For trivia, the game takes place in 2149. Not bad in terms of advancements in space exploration! Humanity is now heading out of the solar system.

Some general background: The ship’s mission is to travel to a planet named Aglaea to establish humanity’s first presence on a world outside of Earth’s solar system. Ideally, the crew remains in cryogenic sleep until the ship reaches its destination. Once they construct a prototype colony the crew goes back into cryogenic sleep and return to Earth. I can tell you now that things do not go as planned.

The alarm at the start of the game is (Spoiler - click to show) caused by Aleksey’s death in his pod. The only bit of story connected to that is the nanomachine crystal that was implanted in his head. Was it put there to kill him? Is there any data on the crystal? We do not know yet. In some cases, if you examine Aleksey, you will notice that he is wearing a helix ear piercing. Wearing metal accessories in cryogenic sleep is unsafe. That is why everyone keeps their jewelry in the crew quarters. In fact, (Spoiler - click to show) there is a single helix-shaped titanium stud in the jewelry box that most likely belongs to Aleksey. Perhaps there is something deeper, but it is too early to say.

There is potential story about the encrypted files. (Spoiler - click to show) Commander Adam Connor has files in his personal folder mentioning a cargo list, classified objectives, and other subjects. But unlike the contents of the other folders these files are encrypted and require a decryption pass. The player can pull him out of his pod, but he is unresponsive. I have a feeling that answers can be found in the cockpit, but the door scanner does not let you scan his eye while he is unconscious. We also do not know what damaged the subspace jumper that left the ship stranded in space. How (or if at all) these events are connected is unclear, but they raise interesting implications, nonetheless.

Characters
Games with the wakeup-in-a-cryopod trope tend to focus on NPC-less exploration, and if there are NPCs, they are often non-crew characters. Usually, the protagonist is the sole crew member weathering themselves against the elements, but Aurora diverts from that by using multiple protagonists (not just NPCs) that each have a different role to play on the ship. Currently there are three playable characters: Jake, Gail, and Wu, introduced in that order.

Gail and Jake are married which was a surprise since usually you do not see this (for me, at least) in games with similar content and storylines. In fact, they were assigned as a pair. Gail had a specialized pod built to accommodate her issues with low blood pressure to ensure that they could both be part of the mission. It is a refreshing change, and I found their relationship to be endearing.

Most of the characters are (Spoiler - click to show) unresponsive even when you pull them out of cryogenic sleep, but their cyberspace profiles provide some details about their backgrounds and personal interests. There are even character drawings for the crew dossier in the ship’s computer. If you give this game a try, be sure to check them out. Look for the folder called (Spoiler - click to show) “Shared” under the DOCUMENTS section of cyberspace. If this game is further developed, I look forward to interacting with the other characters.

Writing
Dialog (or lack of) is probably the weakest part of the game. I am going to devote a section for this for the sake of feedback. Certain scenes lack dialog, such as when (Spoiler - click to show) Gail or Wu first see Aleksey’s corpse. There is simply no response. Other scenes have random banter that could be smoothed out.

It is impossible to TELL anyone about anything to advance the story. If I use (Spoiler - click to show) "tell Gail about Aleksey" with the intent to inform her that I found Aleksey dead with a suspicious crystal in his brain she says, "I want a kitten" or "I'm sorry, I was distracted by your handsomeness." These seem to be the stock response for queries not yet programmed in the game, but the subject matter of these responses distracts from the game's story (Spoiler - click to show) (death in space) and setting (broken starship). I get that Gail likes animals (so do I), especially since she has an animal slideshow in her computer files. But saying “I want a kitten” while the ship is in a state of emergency completely severed the momentum of the conversation.

The game also needs to have proper responses for some basic and critical topics when you ASK another character. If I ask (Spoiler - click to show) Gail about Aleksey she may say "I only answer programming questions. What's that got to do with programming?" I know it has nothing to do programming! I just thought you would have a comment about his death. This goes for topics such as the mission, speculation over the (Spoiler - click to show) funky crystal in Aleksey’s head, the state of the ship, or even your fellow crewmembers. Hardly any of this emerges in character dialog. Even if the subject is out of a character’s expertise there are some topics that everyone should acknowledge. Just because you are (Spoiler - click to show) not the ship’s surgeon does not mean you have to be opinionless or lack a reaction about Aleksey’s death.

The game explains that it does not provide hints but says, “Maybe one of the other crewmembers can.” In all honesty, the crewmembers are a tad useless in this regard. They have little to say about topics that match their own specialty. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) Gail is a programmer. Jake identifies the crystal from the autopsy as being a nanomachine. Perhaps Gail has some insight.

>ask Gail about nanomachines
"I only answer programming questions. What's that got to do with programming?"

Okay, fair enough. But then:

>ask Gail about programming
"I'm not the girl to ask about that, sorry."

Or

>ask Gail about ship's computer
"Come back when you've got a computer question."


I think that the puzzles are reasonable in length and difficulty. The game is not particularly puzzle intensive. But when the player runs into a roadblock, it is challenging to make any progress since there is little guidance. Using the characters as an in-game help system is a great idea, but it currently needs more polish and refinement.

Final thoughts
Development for Aurora seems dormant. There was activity about it at the IF Forum which died out. For all I know the game is abandoned. If you are reading this, katz, I want you to know that this game has a lot going for it. This review is not meant to pressure or persuade. It is simply to share feedback. As for players, expect this to be an incomplete game. I recommend playing it as far as you can, especially since you might discover things that I failed to notice.