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Some glimmer of hope in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future..., August 7, 2023
This is a Post-Comp Version review. Also maybe biased because I really like Autumn's work.
In a far future, after centuries of conflict, the Earth's population has been reduced to small communities stuck inside arcologies (city domes). In one of them, lives Em, an Archivist (sorta), trying to survive the best she can (sorta), and maybe (re)form relationships to better her situation. Throughout the game, you must ensure Em is on top of her duties and health.
As with her other Dendy games, A&R works in layers. On the surface, it is a resource management game, where your savings, energy level (hidden), mental and physical health (hidden) must be minded when organising one's day or spending.
While you have agency in this, how far you can go with the different actions will depend on whether you've unlocked certain storylets, or Em's current health at the time. Since she has chronic issues, you won't be allowed to churn through hundreds of files for your job, or even do anything at times.
Underneath, two other mechanics come to play: the relationship/storylet aspect with Em's old acquaintances, and the archiving loop, Em's job. Both will affect Em's survival (savings/health) and the ending of the game.
The first is relatively similar to Autumn's previous Dendry games, in which a side-story will be parsed throughout the game, requiring the player to meet specific characters multiple times to uncover the story at large. In this game, clearing more than one path in a playthrough is quite doable.
The latter is a mechanic I had not really seen before in an IF game, but one I enjoyed greatly. Your job entails decrypting and archiving files, each with a specific code (hint hint), requiring to be either placed in a specific slot or discarded (or you can keep it for yourself). Combing through the documents were quite fun.
The first time I played the game, I thought I could survive all on my own, leaving past relationships where they were, focusing only on my job and keeping myself afloat. I remember it being incredibly stressful (I almost cried when Em was on the brink of eviction). Everything felt hopeless, and the almost-clinical-at-times prose, as well as the UI, accentuated that feeling.
This time around, I followed Autumn's advice and shamelessly begged my acquaintances for money. I didn't want to recreate that very anxious feeling I had the last time - and wanted to see what else I had missed. Indeed, it was much less stressful to go through. I didn't really have to worry about money (thanks A-), I didn't have to exhaust myself with work, and I could explore more different facets of Em's life (her past relationships, herself, how she had to navigate the world). The world is still wretched, but there is more hope. You almost believe that surviving through it is... doable.
The storylets manages to offer a bit of levity in this wretched world, in which Em can find a community helping others, rekindle her relationship with a (re)closeted trans person, rekindle her relationship with her ex who you had a child with. In (re)making connections, you can learn more about your past and how you (don't) fit in this world. You can go on a date, cook with someone, spend time with your child... have a "normal" life.
I quite enjoyed how grounded and raw these storylets felt. They, at times, seemed like a commentary on our present, with the tribalism of social media, the lack of trust in the news, the grueling life under capitalism, and the treatment of transfolks. Strip away the sci-fi/post-apocalyptic future, and they could could be right at home with our current time.
I still hated the news part... its description changing the 'a form of self harm' was on point considering the comments...
Even if you don't interact with anyone, you can still learn about the world and your place in it through the notes (essentially a Codex page) or DNA files you decode. From old recovered chats between yourself and other characters, science articles, old journal entries, and documents regarding the Arcology's founder - Liana -, you can build together a bleak image about the world, the state of the environment and human condition, filled with disenchantment and conflict.
Depending on what you do with your day, you may find some Easter Eggs, like the TV Series you can watch or the Games you can play, little winks to Autumn's other games. Some characters of the game, made obvious by their names, share a resemblance to ones from the Pageantverse.
With the implementation of the Autosave, I was able to reach a lot more endings than the first time around, especially less bleak ones, without having to replay the game. Those endings are highly dependent on the actions you took during the game, some being sweet (especially with K-), some being maybe critical (imo A-'s, Alone), and one specifically blew my mind (Ending 1 - didn't find before).
Ending 1 is by far the most interesting one in my book. While it might seem a bit like a Deux Ex Machina or coming from out of nowhere (depending on your playthrough it may feel like a whiplash), it is the one that has not left my brain since I've replayed the game - maybe because of how strikingly different it is from the others. I think this ending might work best if connections with other characters were not made. It also made me wonder whether Em's life would have been that different if her arcology was still in contact with the others, or whether contact was severed between all arcologies. Honestly, it brought a lot of questions about the world after reading through (sequel of Ending 1, when?).
I don't know if there is a point or a moral to the game. If I were to give one to it, it would be that communities are important for people to thrive, maybe even necessary, and that the world can be a very difficult place when you keep to yourself, worse when your situation is dire in the first place. Even if it seems bleak, there is a glimmer of hope and goodness there...