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(based on 17 ratings)
About the Story
Dreams are nothing but organic simulations.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: October 1, 2021
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: Twine
Sequel to consciousness hologram, by Kit Riemer
23rd place - tie - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Through the Shattered Lens
It’s a long game, one that is more concerned with philosophy than it is with its plot. Each action and decision is a chance for the game’s characters to discuss man’s place in the universe and the nature of reality. If that’s your thing, you’re going to enjoy the game’s mix of the profane and the profound. If you’re not into it and just looking for something more straightforward, you may get frustrated with Universal Hologram‘s deliberately enigmatic narrative.
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Number of Reviews: 9
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Universal Hologram is a game about becoming unmoored from reality, about how living your entire life on the internet turns you into a shell of a person (a situation that none of us relates to, I'm sure). It is also about astral projection and the simulation hypothesis. It is also a critique of utilitarianism. It's about a lot of things, and it's really good.
First of all, I love the pictures. There’s something about the AI-generated art style that’s just perfect for this story, and the specific images that are chosen always fits perfectly for the given scene. The soundtrack is nice and provides a good, unobtrusive ambience for reading, until it becomes terrifying in the appropriate scenes.
The writing alternates between a surreal and introspective style (mostly in the narration), and a hyper-self-aware, detached, irony-poisoned style (mostly in the dialogue). Overall I would like to describe the writing as “extremely online”; it reads like "weird twitter", basically. And I found the writing really funny! The juxtaposition of the philosophical and ironic styles makes me want to laugh. I know some other reviewers criticized the style as being hostile, but it worked for me, maybe because I'm used that kind of dialogue. Sometimes the story comes close to dropping the veil of irony and radiates some sincere and even painful emotions. Those parts hit awfully close to home, especially that scene with Dion.
Much of the game is linear, with click-to-advance inline links, with very short passages. I liked that style. There are occasional moments of nonlinearity, like choosing which pyramid to visit, but the game always guides the player towards advancing the main plot. However, there are significant branch points, including choosing whether or not to pursue the main plot at all. I haven't explored the paths that seem to go off-course.
I thought this would be like consciousness hologram , but it is not like Consciousness Hologram. Whereas CH was depressed and melancholic, UH has this wild exuberance about it. Actually both games are comprised of the same emotional palettes but in different quantities; CH on the darker side and UH on the lighter side.
I think one reason I might have appreciated UH more than some of the other reviewers is that I’ve played CH before. CH is a much more expansive game, with more “game-like” segments of exploration, heavy worldbuilding, and a deep philosophical exploration of utilitarianism. The details of the world are harder to come by in UH, requiring some link deep-diving, so some people might be confused by what’s going on. And it’s a really interesting world with complex philosophical underpinnings, so I’d recommend that you play Consciousness Hologram.
UH was tough for me to get to replay. I thought it was mainly due to the snark of the main character, as well as Ged, the person encouraging you to act so everything doesn't go down the drain. Ged cusses sometimes. A few cuss words are nothing in the face of mass extinction, I got it, or I thought I did. This doesn't change how I enjoyed the meat of the game, or what I thought. The most amusing parts to me weren't the direct jokes but when the game stood back and let me think about things. Okay, yeah, I could pull back from the game any time, because I am a person with free will, and the game is just an HTML file with graphics and sound. But the pacing was organized well enough that you'd have a hub and branches, and the hub was pretty clearly a Good Place to Sit and Think of Things. Perhaps UH was too heavy on snark at times, which is okay. But it didn't rely on snark. It did other things to establish a Futuristic Tone, like having about/credits explicitly listed metadata. So I knew what I was getting into. But on reflection, I saw a theme of loss throughout the game, of worlds we dreamed up and let die, and how having someone in our created world keep it alive is, of course, an extreme exception.
You start out on Mars. Humans have moved here long ago, leaving behind a doomed Earth. There are pyramids of information, some practical and some not, and you've been chosen, for whatever reason, to look into them and find something. You're given a multiple-choice quiz you can cheat on, with easy undos, and it seems it's more of a way to catch you-the-player up on what's happening. Often, only one or two choices aren't ridiculous. The quiz to some extent establishes a theme: with all that technology, the witty repartee feels mechanical (responding "was that the first question?" to "Are you ready for the quiz?" is an example.) This pops up later, when you start analyzing the best social responses in a situation, ones most people would quickly choose either way, e.g. polite white lies or overbearing, overstated truth.
Because, as you find out, you're in a simulation. In fact, you are in U9, a very deep simulation, below U8 and so on. So it makes sense that, that far away from humanity, some of your emotions become quantified to some degree, and natural actions, such as deciding whether to tell your friend they look great or awful, become rigorous show-your-work-a-thons. I think it's no mistake that there is no real humor from your point of view, no "oh, that's neat because X," only comebacks.
After a few more evaluations, you find out you may be able to astral-project, and you find your quest. Your world is likely to be deleted. Nobody uses the information from your world any more or cares. Besides, you wouldn't understand stuff like soccer. You just wouldn't. Trust me, the overseeing computer says. It's not worth asking about. You've had a good run, no offense, but it takes work to upkeep, and you do understand your own self-interest may be adjusting your calculations? You and Ged both, really. Ged particularly adamant things should be saved. He provides actual reasons.
If you accept the challenge, you're sent forward into the real world (U0 or U1–I forget) to take a box with your world in it away from the people who are about to destroy it. Even if you succeed, things are irrevocably changed. You probably don't want to go back. And sort of like Narnia, the time you spent away is nothing compared to how time passed below, but unlike Narnia, there are no allegories or talking animals or aesthetic places to explore or wonder. Because, well, simulations are a dime-a-dozen. And I think UH meant not to give too many details, because it wanted to emphasize that even people in badly created or imagined worlds have a world and belong there, and it's the only one they've got. The semi-random, deliberately imperfect, odd graphics seem to reinforce this.
I think I got tripped up on some terminology and some science-fiction conventions, and when I kind of rolled my eyes at the swearing and snark, it probably cost me some Comprehension Points. So I didn't get as much out of this as I could. But there were still more than enough takeaways. The erasure scenes are very good, if you tell Ged to get lost. Given your character's snarky contrarian bent, it feels a little dirty of the game not to give you the chance, or force you to undo a lot. I'd have appreciated, once the game was over, a way to revisit the critical checkpoints and branches to see what happened if I messed up elsewhere. And certainly the whole "we're in a simulation" thing reminds me of all the times I played a game to somewhat-lose to see what was going on. All the people I killed with my decisions, this time through, all the simulations I aborted because I wasn't interested, with no Ged to save things remotely! Even the worlds I created in my head, whether with Legos or a computer program (e.g. The Sims) or even purely mentally, I imagine them drying up and sort of hoping they could save themselves somehow--of course nobody in there has free will or emotions--but I'd like them to live on. While UH kind of crushed me with all the mental worlds I'd created and left behind to shrivel, it also provided a story as to how they could keep going. So it was more to me than standard OMG YOU'RE IN A SIMULATION.
(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)
Universal Hologram takes the player on a joyride through altered states both inner (via lucid dreaming) and outer (via stacked simulated realities), with enough big ideas to make Philip K. Dick blush and off-kilter prose that sells the premise with brio.
Admittedly, it starts a little slow – the opening is well considered in name-checking some of the major concepts that will be explored in what’s to come, and giving the player the opportunity to dig into what they’re most interested in, be that the history of the far-future world, the mechanics of lucid dreaming, or just interacting with other people. But it isn’t until maybe a third of the way in that a real conflict or sense of urgency start to come into the story; before that, it’s pretty much all exploration. Since the writing is good and the world is interesting (it’s a sort of Martian post-scarcity techno-utopia where the Internet is a person and the Earth is gone, but much less annoying than I’ve made that sound), I was sufficiently engaged to stick around until the game got more grabby. I’m once again in the position of having played on my phone, so I was too lazy to copy and paste bits of writing that I liked and I’m therefore in the unenviable position of having to broadly characterize it and say “trust me, it’s good.” But I really liked the way the writing takes a off-kilter conversational, even occasionally lightly confrontational, tone while digging into the heady concepts underlying the setting.
The plot, once it comes, ties together the game’s different themes with some elegance, and the choices at that point shift from being primarily about which parts of the setting you want to dig into to allowing you to decide how or whether you want to cooperate with the ontological heist your character gets press-ganged into, with some surprising action-y bits even coming into play to change things up in the late game. I’m not sure the ending I got completely stuck the landing (though see “how I failed the author,” below), but the journey was well worth the price of admission.
Highlight: I’m a sucker for a good heist sequence, and this one delivers, with high stakes and curve-balls coming left and right.
Lowlight: A tradeoff of this fleet, too-clever-by-half voice is the occasional clanger – there’s one out-of-context Lawnmower Man reference that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.
How I failed the author: after I finished the game, I was turning over its big-picture themes and intentionally-disjointed plot in my brain to see how it all coheres. But almost immediately Henry needed a diaper change, and it was a rough one with two mid-change pees, and after the chaos died down I’d lost the thread and as a result my final take on what the game’s saying and doing is fuzzier than I’d like!
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