System Processing

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Science Fiction

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A lot to process, April 4, 2023

System Processing is a unique sci-fi Twine game that shows considerable potential.

Our protagonist, only referred to as "Ov," lived and died on Earth, but at one point their consciousness was digitized. Little else is known about them (so far) aside from the fact that the data containing their digitized mind managed to end up in an archive on a spaceship called the Alsion. A traveler named Sirit found this data and had the idea of giving the protagonist a new purpose as the ship's AI.

And now, the Alsion has discovered a planet named Kor. It is about to be the new home for everyone on board. It seems that Ov will be out of a job... and a purpose.

Perhaps it depends on one's outlook.

Oh, and Kor is not your typical planet. Nor is System Processing not your typical humans-colonize-the-alien-planet-game, but more on that part later.

Quick overview. There are two names that are thrown at the player that I want to clarify: Alsion (the spaceship) and Tegmen, an offshoot settlement built into the planet. I got them mixed up early on. I thought they were both spaceships. False. Just the Alsion. They are connected to each other by a long organic cable. Both are inhabited, but the current population on Alsion has never been to Tegmen.

Until today!

Ov must figure out what to do on their last day as a spaceship AI because soon the Alsion will be empty as everyone heads on down to Tegmen.

The gameplay is in first person and centers around the flow of Ov’s thoughts which overlap with NPC dialog. You basically hang out in the protagonist’s mind. There is a strong sense of idle contemplation mixed with frustration.

The absence of definitives preserves my sense of estrangement. If I had hard facts and figures, this would feel less surreal. More details might make it harder to think, "Hey, who knows? Maybe I'm not a digital ghost working for one of the far-flung descendants of humanity."

"Maybe I don't split my time between a spaceship and an alien planet."

Interactivity primarily consists of reading a line of text and clicking on a link to continue to Ov’s next train of thought or NPC dialog. There are also secondary links that you can click on to expand the text for additional content. And a really cool “notes” section that allows you to read memos from the travelers or look up information on the population.

We can’t talk about the gameplay without talking about Lađə, an omnipresent NPC who is your connection to all things Kor. Turns out, Kor is the collective hive mind of the planet (also called Kor). It is all joined together, and somewhere, Lađə fits in. They hear Ov’s thoughts, darting in and out of Ov’s internal thinking during the gameplay.

"Maybe I don't regularly converse with a giant psychic plant." (Hi, Lađə. I know you're listening. Yes, I am referring to you.)

(Is that a spelling error? “Plant.” Or is it supposed to be “planet?” I figured it was “plant,” as in Lađə is a psychic plant who is an individual living entity within the Kor hive mind.)

Their portrayal embodies a relatable inquisitiveness while still maintaining the mystery of an entity cut from a vastly different fabric than the protagonist. Lađə tries to maintain a teamwork mentality, but this only fatigues Ov.

For first playthroughs, I tend to zip through Twine games just to get a sense of what I am working with before approaching it again with more attention to detail. Playing System Processing for the first time was an underwhelming experience but replaying it- slowly this time- paid off.

If you are looking for a fast-paced sci-fi game, System Processing will feel sluggish though never boring. The gameplay is not all about sightseeing. You will have a handful of opportunities to make choices that matter, particularly the one at the end.

For the sake of feedback, there are two things that dulled the gameplay’s slick finish.
(Spoiler - click to show)
If you open the (snazzy) folder section, when you return, all the text on the screen is reset to where it began. You must click the links again to return to your spot. The game functions in “checkpoints,” where only your progress from that point onwards is reset. No big deal, but inconvenient if you want to take a quick glance at the population report in the middle of a segment.

Sometimes between playthroughs I encountered a looping effect.

Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the ship
Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the settlement
Greet Lađə

I’m not sure what triggers it but ignoring Lađə and exploring either the Alsion or Tegmen results in a loop where you assess one population before moving to the other only to have the ability to revisit the one that you just completed. I could not find a way to move on. I figured I should mention this in case anyone else experiences this.

I’ve already mentioned the (fortunately friendly) hive mind wonder that is Kor, but the setting is so cool that it deserves extra recognition. Also, astronomy. Kor is tidally locked, which means one side of the planet always faces its star while the other side never sees the light of day, like our own planet Mercury. Unlike Mercury, Kor is teeming with life on every square inch of its surface. The game’s descriptions paint vivid imagery in your mind.

While the storytelling revolves around Ov’s relationship with identity, the overarching story is spectacular for its own reasons.

This is not your classic let’s-land-the-ship-and-claim-the-planet storyline. Human (or a sentient species equivalent) exploitation of resources is a common theme in sci-fi stories about the colonization of other worlds, but System Processing goes for an alternative path.

I am so happy this is a case where the humanoid beings in their bulky ship arrive with the intent of joining this thriving ecosystem rather than trying to exploit it. The game introduced me to a cool new term called Solarpunk which takes a sci-fi/futuristic realm and merges modern societal infrastructure or technology with sustainability and environmental awareness. Kor fits that perfectly.

Besides embracing a refreshing take on co-existence, System Processing has a creative vision of how the colonization process can unfold on an alien planet. Rather than the travelers merely parking their spaceship on the planet’s surface and climbing out, the relationship between the tethered Alsion and Tegmen as two homes (one temporary, the other permanent) in transition offers something new to the portrayal of colonization in science fiction.

(Random note, if I was on a space station/ship, I would want real windows. I would demand real windows. Not screens simulating stars. Not when I’m in space. True, the only sight to behold would be pinpricks of light, but at least it’s real.)

Much of System Processing revolves around the protagonist’s grasp of their previous identity as a living human and the tradeoffs that come with being a digitized mind in the form of an AI.

If the player opts to (Spoiler - click to show) talk to Lađə after the scene with Tlan, the protagonist says, “’But that's just it! You're the alien. I'm the human.’” And it got me wondering. Alien. Human. Where does Ov fit in? First, let’s consider the travelers under Ov’s care. (Spoiler - click to show) I figured they were humans, the descendants of those who originally came from Earth. Until Lađə made an interesting comment:

Oh, fascinating. You were able to roll your eyes? Was this a biological feature the travelers no longer possess?

The travelers lost the ability for their eyes to move around in their eye sockets. Does this mean they are not human humans? When observing one traveler, Ov observes that, “Like all travelers, they appear human, even if travelers no longer describe themselves as much.” Neat.

I think we can agree that Kor/Lađə (the distinction between the two is kind of murky) is the “alien” part of the mix. As for the travelers, calling them outright humans would be incorrect. Something changed. I wonder if they dabbled with genetic engineering or biological modification that allowed this.

Regardless of what went down, these changes have interesting implications for Ov. If the travelers are not “true” humans in the sense that they diverged biologically and culturally from their human ancestors, the protagonist is truly the last of a kind, even if they are now an AI.

Though their physical body may have decomposed long ago on a distant Earth, they are still an “original” human in terms of memories and Earth-based lived experiences. They were digitized in, what, (Spoiler - click to show) 2068? Despite the immense passage of time that occurred since then, this human identity remains.

One way this identity manifests is with the in-game “alert” pop up messages for incidents on the ship that turn out to be an offshoot of the protagonist’s own emotions, such as a (Spoiler - click to show) sprinkler system activating when they feel like crying (clever use of the Twine format). But ultimately, it’s an identity that seems impossible for others, even the all-knowing Kor, to understand.

Ov + Everyone else
The NPCs, though expertly designed, did not leave much of an impression on me. Rather, it was their situation and the decision making within these circumstances that held my attention. I have a feeling though that I will be the outlier on this. Players will likely feel an immediate connection with the characters. Besides Lađə, the only NPC we engage with is (Spoiler - click to show) Tlan, a traveler on the Alsion.

First time around, the scene with Tlan left me feeling confused and indifferent. In it, Tlan (I’m sorry, Tlan) is crying while I was simply not following the conversation. It seemed almost melodramatic even though the scene is clearly a serious one. I was surprised with myself on my reaction. After all, the scene is carefully worded and paced for full impact.

Perhaps I don’t know Tlan well enough. To me, they are Traveler 127823. This game made me want to reexamine why I felt the way I did. I’m still breaking it down. I would absolutely be interested in learning more about their character (and that of Egravn).

Name: Tlan
Identification: 127823
Status: Alive (well)
Age: 32.3 cycles
Residence: Alsion
Location: Server Room (astral-side)

(Feedback: Tlan has a paragraph- be sure to approve their request- that uses the words “stay” and “leave” frequently when mentioning the Alsion and Tegmen. As a first-time player I was a bit confused on what they meant. Clarity would have helped.)

Second playthrough, I had the context needed to make sense of everything. Tlan is sad because Ov expresses the desire to stay on the Alsion after everyone leaves. Tlan sees no reason for Ov not to come with since A, it is perfectly feasible, and B, how the travelers may feel about Ov is irrelevant.

System Processing is tied to a secret I have.

The big secret is.......

(Spoiler - click to show) I kind of like being the AI who throws a tantrum.

Ov has a bitterness about feeling underappreciated and misunderstood.

People were more likely to show gratitude towards a sentient plant vine with lovely flowers carrying out their will than a robotic AI voice coming from a hidden speaker. Therefore, Ov thinks that “everyone” dislikes them and cannot wait to leave them behind.

Travelers smiling at and thanking the vines of Kor while my work goes unacknowledged (or simply critiqued).

It's not as if you can take out revenge on the ungrateful inhabitants. This is not a case of Vengeful AI vs. Organic Lifeforms. You can’t throw tantrums in this game.

Saying their names in reverent tones while mine is barked at the air.

I suppose that would be going a little far. Although I wish there were more options on how to… respond to said inhabitants.

Peacefully, of course. :)

Still, Ov stubbornly refuses to take part in the joyfulness everyone has about moving into a new, perfect home even though there is more than enough room for them as well. But these feelings of reservation are understandable.

"Ov, would you speak with us? Just for a moment."

Ignore Lađə, I've already made my decision
Speak with Lađə


As you can see, this conjured up my inner irritated AI.

If a game is going to have a ticked-off AI, I rather it be the PC than the NPC (which seems to be more common), even though I will totally play both. There is also an interesting distinction between AI as a user fixture and AI as established authority, but that is a separate discussion.

After playing this game I finally understand at how pissed off Solis feels about the collective crew in A Long Way to the Nearest Star. Solis, I think I understand your pain now.

At least, I have this:

Maintenance Requests
Urgent Request (from: Eiro) – DENIED

Jokes aside, this grappling of identity takes front and center in this game. It’s a roller-coaster of ancient memories and immediate emotions. In fact, we see indicators that Ov’s blanket perception of the travelers is not an entirely accurate one. The memos in the notification box tell a different story: Ov has fan mail.

People are pouring their hearts out in gratitude, taking time out of their day to wish the ship AI a happy retirement. There is clearly more to this relationship between Ov and the travelers than what is presented in the gameplay. While they may not have been popular, the memos clearly indicate that some people do care. I would love to see this expanded.

A Twine game does not need fancy visual effects to have a striking appearance. Sticking to a consistent colour scheme can do a lot in making the player wonder at how professional the game looks. Even more so if you throw in some matching decals or symbols. Take System Processing for an example.

In System Processing, the main colour is green (text, links, icons) which only furthers the player’s mental image of a planet brimming with alien flora and fauna. Hovering over links causes to slightly glow with a green tint that hints at bioluminescence. Aesthetically pleasing and effective at building atmosphere.

I applaud the author’s design choices for Lađə. Their (they?) dialog is shown in gold text that conjures the image of sunlight which is perfect for their character. Next to the text in the same colour is a small smiley face icon. At least, that is the first facial expression we see in the game. It changes. (Spoiler - click to show) There are four possibilities: Happy, super happy, neutral, and sad (not your typical emojis). Let me tell you, it is so unnerving to see this sunny face change during the gameplay.

The difference is miniscule: a line curved downwards to form a frown or the upturning of lines in the eyes to indicate delight. Extremely basic stuff and yet it conveys a startling shift in tone. Besides being a clear indicator of the character’s emotion, it adds tension and a fluidity that would be lost without the icon as a reference point. You feel yourself slowly sliding down your chair as that smile turns into a neutral stare and then a frown.

While this may seem like a trivial detail to spend two paragraphs on, I argue that it is the strongest point in the game’s visual design.

(That little beaker icon was also nice.)

Final thoughts
This game is actually a fragment of the author’s plans. System Processing is meant to be longer and more complex. Being only 30% of the entire vision, more development will hopefully follow.

I appreciate that the game is an abridged version of what clearly plans to be an ambitious project. If a meteor were to strike the Earth, the game can still stand on its own as a completed piece. Same goes if alien scavengers arrived a thousand years later and somehow salvaged it. I think they would be pleased.

I could totally envision System Processing as being a slick commercial Twine game. It has the uniqueness that sets it apart from sci-fi games with similar subject matter, it wields a simple but assertive visual design, and it shows a strong potential for characters who could resonate with a wider range of audiences. I can easily see this being a sci-fi game for players typically not interested in science fiction.

Here’s the tricky part. While several categories for the game earn 6/5 stars, some parts are not as refined. I tried to incorporate some feedback as to why. I hope it helps. The rating also accounts for my overall experience. I took off a star because I was not always engaged with the character interactions. Is that necessarily a fault? Maybe, maybe not. I am open to how other players feel. I desperately want to love this game. It’s just not quite there. Yet.

I highly encourage you to play System Processing to experience it for yourself. My review, while detailed, can’t do it justice.

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