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About the Story
Imagine, if you can, a world where you can't safety meet with other people, and where a computer screen is your only tenuous connection to the outside world.
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This game is about the feasibility of forging human connection during extreme and anonymity-strict reality with special attention on how connection can in fact bloom in unexpected ways.
Earth has been taken advantage of by an alien hive mind that makes life on the surface hostile for humans. A xeno-intellect, known as the Hive. No one knows its reasons, but the Hive detests human interaction. It does not want to see people gathered in groups socializing and forming connections. To protect themselves, people now spend their time in bunkers, hardly daring to leave at the risk of being killed by the Hive. People are scared to question it. But does that deter them from seeking connections anyway? No, it does not. Without any opportunities to meet with people face to face, interactions are now done through anonymous digital avenues.
But first, a quick note on content: The gameplay consists of (Spoiler - click to show) two characters engaging in roleplaying with kissing and similar activities. I would not call this a graphic game. Some of the content just starts to cross the threshold before the game reels it all in. There is language but it is often blotted out with the * symbol. While the game is more focused on the (Spoiler - click to show) Hive's control of interactions than of sexual content it would be safe to approach it with an 18+ rating.
The player first chooses from a list of callsigns is that is used to interact with users and assures anonymity. I experimented with all of them, and they did not have a noticeable effect on the gameplay. The conversation is always with Topaz, a user who has been having chats with the protagonist for some time.
The player usually has two to three dialog options for each turn, some of which upset the Hive. Your dialog options are shown in green text except for a few that are green and red. These (Spoiler - click to show) end the encounter with Topaz either because they terminate it, or you do. When this happens the Hive intervenes, its text appearing in red. It seems dismayed by the outcome of the conversation and inflects its will on it to reverse the player’s previous choice. Here is an example of a response that occurred when I clicked on one of those links (The player callsign I used in this playthrough is ICEBERG):
(Spoiler - click to show)
HIVE> WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND
HIVE> THIS WAS NOT THE DEMONSTRATION WE WERE PROMISED
HIVE> ICEBERG ABORTED THE ATTEMPT TO INTERFACE WITH TOPAZ
HIVE> DELIBERATE SABOTAGE POSSIBLE
HIVE> TEMPORAL REWIND...
Immediately afterwards (Spoiler - click to show) Topaz returns online and resumes as if the exchange never happened. The only thing Topaz says is, "sorry, connection dropped" or they blame it on a glitch. When I first played this game, I wondered if Topaz was a simulation or maybe even the player. But now after playing the game a few times (Spoiler - click to show) I think that these two characters are real and that the Hive simply possesses some serious capabilities that allow it to discretely influence human interaction, such as the ability to adjust time, further hinting at its omnipresence over Earth.
I still have questions about the (Spoiler - click to show) meaning behind the Hive’s response. The Hive seems to be analyzing the conversation with an expected outcome. The discontinuation of the conversation clearly goes against these expectations, prompting the Hive to intervene. But if the Hive is so against human interaction, why is it angry that such an interaction ended? It is almost as if the Hive makes a breakthrough on the nature of human connection without fully realizing it. My only complaint is that the game could have explored this development in greater detail.
One reoccurring concept is what the game calls “digital hygiene,” which involves painstakingly avoiding sharing any sort of defining information about yourself, especially location. Your name, age, gender, religious beliefs, and even hobbies are all considered to be poor digital hygiene because it could catch the Hive’s attention. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) when Topaz shares that they found a bottle of whiskey outside of an empty 7/11 the player can choose to remind them that even mentioning a 7/11 was risky because the Hive could choose to search every 7/11 in an area to narrow down Topaz’s location. This uncertainty is a reminder of the Hive’s ever-present influence on daily life. The practice of digital hygiene is a concept that we see throughout the game.
Near the end of the game Topaz asks the question of what is required to make a meaningful human connection and what happens when anonymity strips it away. It seems like the protagonist has successfully built a connection with Topaz and yet it manages to be both genuine and flimsy. Genuine because they enjoy engaging with each other. Flimsy because digital hygiene ensures that you never really get to know them. What surprises me is (Spoiler - click to show) that the game lists itself as a romance piece. While the game features romance-like activities, such as kissing, the gameplay did not give the impression of being about romance. I think that some of that is up to the player to interpret, especially since the game is not long enough to really dive into these ideas.
As the game ends the conversation draws to a close and both characters log off. Afterward (Spoiler - click to show) the Hive is stumped about the interaction that took place. It views the two characters as being small and insignificant and yet it is baffled that they are willing to spend time and energy into seeking a connection, even if that connection is only a shadow of what human interaction once looked like. This is followed by an archivist's note that adds an unexpected twist to the story. The end of the game portrays the characters’ dialog as an archived sample from the past by leaving an archivist’s note. The player realizes that the gameplay was a glimpse of a past conversation. It then raises the question of the fate of the characters and their society.
The archivist explains that “It is unlikely the events recorded contributed to the xeno-intellect's decision to withdraw their consciousness from this universe, but the possibility cannot be entirely discounted." What does one make of this? Were the contents of the conversation enough to sway the Hive’s decision to execute Topaz and the protagonist? Is withdrawing consciousness the same as execution? There is also the suggestion that the Hive was eradicated when the note says, “a dormant processing node retrieved from the husk of the xeno-intellect.” The word “husk” forms the image of it being a dead carcass rather than the beast that hear about in the gameplay. There are no clear answers but is interesting to contemplate.
We learn little about Topaz and the protagonist which falls in line with the themes of anonymity. The Hive, on the other hand, is the overshadowing antagonist, but we never learn much about it. The gist is that (Spoiler - click to show) it is an alien lifeform that supposedly invaded Earth and took up residence in the atmosphere. If someone decides to risk their life and explore the Earth’s surface they know better to glance up at the sky. Its history with humanity is not explained in detail, just that it has an iron grip on humanity and is responsible for many deaths. There are some suggestions on why it is opposed to the gathering of people. Topaz and the protagonist ponder if the Hive understands the notion of individuality and how unique connections can be formed between individuals that is not shared with the broader population. The game only brushes the ethical implications of such a being and does not elaborate on its physical and mental composition that causes these qualities.
This is one of the most visually stylized Ink game I have played. It uses a black screen with mostly green and red text. It creates a “digital” look that adds atmosphere. The Hive’s text even trembles slightly to convey a charged and angry energy.
This game uses a lot of fade-in text effects but implements them well. Choice-based games sometimes fall into a trap with fade-ins, often when it is portraying chatrooms or similar forms of communication. Text fade-ins and pauses may be small, but they can slow the gameplay if it takes a full second and a half for the text to appear. That may not sound like much, but it adds up, especially with replays. This game manages to avoid that, using appropriate pauses to simulate conversation while also keeping a steady pace.
The game is linear and takes about 15 minutes to play. Even though (Spoiler - click to show) it wraps up the same way the gameplay has enough variation to encourage multiple playthroughs. It is a fantastic use of Ink both visually and in gameplay quality. If you like chat interfaces in choice-based interactive fiction games or dystopian sci-fi settings than you might enjoy this game.
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Games which take place in chat messenger systems or on a digital interface by grimperfect
Specifically, works where the main mechanic is either exploring a in-game digital interface(ala Secret Little Haven) or communicating using a type of chat/text messenger system(think Emily is Away).