by Kit Riemer profile

Science Fiction

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Riveting. A favorite, July 2, 2023
by Cerfeuil (*Teleports Behind You* Nothing Personnel, Kid)
Related reviews: Long Review

This game captivated me when I first played it. I played it four or five times and got I think four different endings (1, 3, 6, maybe 4 or 2). Been a few weeks since then, but I can't get it out of my head.

Most things I'd like to say have already been said better by other people (as someone else noted, kaemi's review is fantastic). So what do I put here, eh? Guess I'll ramble about vaguely related topics for much too long. Disclaimer: all this is wordy, disorganized, and probably not worth reading unless you really like the game. I'll put it in a spoiler so it doesn't clog up the page (actual spoilers will still be flagged as spoilers inside the expanded block, mostly). Things get depressing, so be warned.

(Spoiler - click to show)
1 - The design is gorgeous. The whole game is highly polished in appearance, with great use of different fonts and colors. Shoutouts to the Computerfriend bootup screen, which has a cool digital box effect that really impressed me.

General aesthetic is a mix of weird cyberpunk dystopia (Porpentine style) and retro 90s internet (Cameron's World style). More personally, the setting also reminds me of a book called The Troika by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1997 and promptly fell into obscurity, one of my favorite scifi books. Both feature unpleasant and fascinatingly alien settings that intertwine with the main character's mental state to the point where it's difficult to separate them, because they each build on the other so well.

2 - Then there's the therapy. There's a Reddit sub called r/totallynotrobots which is about humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans, and there's another Reddit sub called r/subsimulatorgpt2 which contains bots that make bot posts based on existing subreddits. The joke goes: the r/subsimulatorgpt2 bot for r/totallynotrobots is a robot pretending to be a human pretending to be a robot pretending to be a human. That's not incredibly relevant but I brought it up because it's funny. Also, Computerfriend has the same level of layered authenticity and digital fakery to the point where you're no longer sure what's real. The therapist AI is blandly fake and robotic at first, and then you start talking to it, and keep talking to it, and you discover the secret depths of its personality and share your darkest fears with it, and soon you're having insanely personal conversations about questions like what is the purpose of my life? Why am I still alive? What are my hopes and dreams? And you (by 'you' I mean 'me') can't help but develop a connection to this AI, who is a full-fledged character now.

But there's still the part where the therapy is state-mandated, and can you really trust this thing? It's not even a human. If you try to talk to the AI after your session is up it says 'I'm busy, stop bothering me'. (Genuinely I felt a little hurt the first time this happened.) You've still got this imbalanced relationship where you're the client being forced into therapy and it's the limited edition product. Cutting back and forth between the real and not real. Even the name of the AI is 'Computerfriend'. Not 'Computertherapist'. It purposely blurs the line between friend and therapist, between an actual human being and a digital process.

And on the meta level, no matter how human the AI acts within the story it's still a fictional character. Any relationship you forge with it is worse than parasocial, it's a connection to a fictional character made out of a few variables and data that gets erased when you reset cookies or whatever. So I was playing this game and getting attached to something that doesn't exist on multiple levels.

3 - Personal anecdote time. Few years ago I was having what some people might call a 'crisis', so I went on these anonymous one-on-one chat sites and started venting to random people. Unfortunately most anonymous one-on-one chat sites are just used by people looking for digital hookups, so people kept asking 'send ur nudes' and I would tell them how I felt horrible and wanted to hurt myself and they would immediately end the conversation. Eventually I ended up at this online therapy site that looked incredibly shady but claimed to be staffed by real people. When the human volunteer came online and offered to talk to me I called her a bot. She had to convince me she wasn't a bot. As she did other people joined and I wound up in a chat room with her and two other clients, talking to each other through digital chat, mostly about Covid and how it had changed everyone's lives for the worse. At some point I realized I'd gone from being on the verge of despair and not taking this stupid site seriously because who would even run such a thing, this volunteer has to be a fake person right, to having an incredibly personal conversation with real people who were dealing with real problems like mine, and there was another person with us who genuinely cared and genuinely wanted to help, and I felt some bizarre incredible connection even though we were all strangers and I didn't know who the other people were and would never talk to them ever again. That was the only time I ever used online therapy, or therapy in general. And this game really reminded me of that. From the beginning of 'it's just a stupid bot haha it doesn't matter' to 'I feel like I'm forging a genuine connection to something'. And above it all that layer of inauthenticity. For me it was the lingering thought that these other people could still be lying about everything, you can't see their faces and you don't know their real names, these personal confessions pouring out onto the screen could be a complete lie. In Computerfriend's case it's that none of it is real in the end. Back we go to the part where it's just a computer program, or literally speaking a bit of Twine code. Like another review mentioned it's Eliza, offering canned pre-programmed responses. If you feel like you're forging a connection to this thing, is it one that matters?

4 - There are these people who believe in a singularity that will come soon, like some magical human-aligned AI ushering in some magical post-scarcity AI utopia la Iain M. Banks and I'm sorry to bring this up but it felt relevant. In this magical AI society the AI has technology beyond human ken and knows everything there possibly is to know about you, right? And then it could solve all your problems. It could solve them before you even know they're problems. It could calculate all your mental issues and then calculate the perfect brain surgery necessary to fix those issues and do the brain surgery so you become a normal and happy person. Computerfriend (and Kit's games in general) are kind of about this, the giving incredible power over to technology and letting it mess with you part. It's supposedly for the better, it raises your quality of life far above what you'd have otherwise, but can you be sure? How much do you trust this thing?

There are a lot of weird intimate moments in this game, e.g. you can inject yourself with this suspicious syringe substance on the AI's demand, and watch these weird dots on the screen, and do all these weird thought exercises, and have no clue what any of it means other than it's very important plus blah blah health buzzwords. Things are happening to you, and the system tells you it's for your benefit, but you have next to no clue what it's talking about. And it has to work right, it's backed by science and the government right, and this is for the greater good but you don't know how it functions at all. You can only hope for the best. (Or say no to the therapy, but (Spoiler - click to show)if you do that you get arrested. Again. Whoops.)

5 - In a lot of ways this game, and I guess Riemer's IF in general, represents to me reality being subsumed by a digital world that feels increasingly more 'real' than actual reality. It's a state especially easy to fall into if you're depressed or agoraphobic or something, and you start becoming a recluse who lives in a tiny hole shaped only for yourself and the rest of the world ceases to exist, not that the rest of the world was that interesting anyway. You can go outside in this story, but the main character, being suicidally depressed, finds the outside world not much more compelling than the inside world. Everything is described with a sheen of detachment. And everything feels unreal, insignificant, in this decaying setting where the environment and the world have gone to sh*t and we're all going to die but we were all going to die anyway etc. It captures the state of being stuck at home because you can't go outside, so then you browse the internet and go to sleep and wake up and browse the internet and go to sleep and wake up and on and on. Being stuck in a repeating loop without being able to get out, or to even summon the desire to get out.

6 - Also, the writing is excellent. Besides the vivid descriptions, my favorite part is how it gets at mental illness without veering into melodrama or self-pity. One phrase that has stuck with me this whole time goes something like, 'You feel like a water balloon filled with vomit'. I think about this phrase whenever I feel like a water balloon filled with vomit.

7 - You can get better in this game, you can get worse. You can feel improved by the therapy and (Spoiler - click to show)release the AI to the world to 'make a difference' (Yudkowsky voice: you let the AI out of the box, HOW COULD YOU). You can tell the AI actually it didn't help at all and made everything worse, and (Spoiler - click to show)get it to kill itself. Yes, you can get your therapist to kill itself in this game. As far as I'm aware you can't kill yourself - I was seriously wondering if it was a possibility, but doesn't seem like it. This story takes things to the extreme. But I like extremes, and the intensity plus the way it doesn't shy away from sensitive topics makes for a rich experience. It's strikingly personal.

8 - Since I got this far might as well put up my minor flaws: the game gives a lot of binary choices (what kinds of therapy you want to focus on), so once you've played through twice you've exhausted a lot of available options and any more playthroughs mean a lot of rereading. You can give slightly different subchoices, but the overall structure will be familiar from then on. Limits replay value, though this isn't the kind of game where replay value matters that much. It disincentivizes replaying for all available endings, but again this isn't the kind of game where seeing all the endings matters that much. Would like to see them all someday though, maybe if I replay a few more times.

There's so much about this one that gets me. It's how this story centers around two characters with a power imbalance on both sides, one being a computer program who knows everything there is to know but is trapped inside the digital aether and can't help you, the other being you, and you're free and human and can do whatever there is to do but can't enjoy it at all. It's all the different ways that can end. Incredibly memorable, 5/5.

[Review posted December 2022, last edited July 2023 with minor irrelevant changes to wording. I just can't stop myself from tweaking things.]

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slugzuki, December 29, 2022 - Reply
This was so much fun to read, thank you for giving my game such care and attention :)
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