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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Event[0] Video Game Review & Analysis: Combining an Amazing Central Mechanic with a Neat Little Story

A while ago, I finished the video game Event[0], and I found it interesting enough that I want to write about it. I feel like I don’t write enough about video games*, despite playing them at least semi-frequently, and I’m interested enough in the medium that I’d like to change that. Apologies if this article winds up a little rough as a result, but I figure it’s better to try it and learn from the experience than never bother. But more over, I think there should be more in-depth analysis of video games, as there is in other mediums, and I’d like to chip in, so this seems like a good chance to try.

*I really, really wanted to write something last year about Undertale, but I could never get an angle to approach it from other than “this is just so good in every way, play it”. I still don’t have anything else to say other than this, but it’s still worth saying I think.

First, a general introduction to the game. Event[0] is a first-person/environmental narrative* science fiction game created by Parisian developers Ocelot Society**. Set in an alternate 2012 where commercial space travel has been going strong since the 1980s, you play as a space traveler who is forced to evacuate a doomed ship at the start, only to eventually drift to a mostly-abandoned decades-old ship.

*I’ve heard a bunch of names for this genre, and these two seemed the most common, so I split the difference.

**Also of note: the game was financed, in part, by the Indie Fund, a group that specializes in helping fund smaller video game projects. In under a decade, they’ve already built up a pretty good library of titles. And if you’ve seen the very-good Indie Game: The Movie, it’s worth noting that one of the founders is Jonathan Blow, one of that documentary’s focus, as well as notable creator in his own right of titles like Braid and The Witness.

The catch is, there’s one member of the crew left: the ship’s artificial intelligence, Kaizen-85. You have figure out how to work with Kaizen to repair the Nautilus to get it running again, all while determining what happened to the rest of the crew.

Having to butter up or coerce an in-game character into helping you isn’t anything radically new in a video game. What is new is the central system Ocelot Society has built the game around: Kaizen (and the rest of the ship as a whole, including things like doors) can only be interacted with through discussion. Specifically, by typing into various consoles scattered around the ship to “talk” with Kaizen. Not picking pre-set choices or anything like that that you might see in another game; you have free reign to converse with Kaizen in just about any way that you’d like. It’s really quite amazing.*

*For anyone curious how this works, the always-amazing Game Maker’s Toolkit has a fascinating video that digs into the nitty-gritty of this a little more.

With all that description out of the way, I want to discuss my thoughts on the game a bit more. There will be some spoilers eventually, so be warned, but if you find this interesting so far and want to discover things for yourself, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s a little on the short side as a warning, so if you aren’t sure, maybe hold off until it’s on sale or something, but one way or another, it’s worth a look. Also, I’ll start on the game’s mechanics and design before moving on to story stuff, so if you’re more concerned about narrative spoilers, you can read a little further.

And with that…

The Game’s Design
Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat; programming this game was a pretty incredible feat. The general design, all the work that was put in to making Kaizen respond, all of it plays perfectly for the intended purpose. And as many others have pointed out, the nature of the narrative, namely conversing with an AI, forgives any small quirks that may come up. In my opinion, this feature alone makes the game a success, and more games trying to be “open-ended” should consider a similar approach going forward.

Also, on a conceptual level, there’s something to be said for the neat synchronicity in the story and mechanics. I mean, your character’s actions in-game directly mirror your actions, since they’re just typing whatever you type on their own computer. There were several times I forgot I was actually playing a game and tried to exit out of the game’s terminal like I would a command line window on my computer. That’s type of immersion is something that few, if any games, can achieve. Sure, part of it is due to the nature of the game’s story, but kudos to Ocelot Society for taking full advantage of that.*

*As a side note, this made the “navigating the ship” parts of the story a little more jarring, thanks to the contrast. You move around the ship by clicking the mouse in the direction you want to go, with moving the mouse changing what’s in the field of vision. In retrospect, that method of movement is not that much more unusual than the more standard “WASD/arrow keys” method of moving, but that style is much more common, which made it even slightly more confusing when you left a terminal to go back to walking around and moving isn’t what your first instincts might say. That said, I wouldn’t say it’s a fault, more like an interesting aspect of collective gaming intuition that I hadn’t considered until now. And if we’re going by what’s “natural”, focusing on something and walking towards it is a much more “natural” way to think of moving than arrow keys.

In contrast to the smooth integration of mechanics and narrative, there are the puzzles and challenges that the game poses to you to impede your progress. Most of them…don’t really mesh with the rest of the game so smoothly. It’s sort of telling that, if I stopped my play sessions between getting the “clue” from the story that was intended to nudge me in the right direction and solving the puzzle that, when I returned the next time, I could remember what Kaizen has told me, and what room I had been in when I received it, but not what the clue itself was, or what it corresponded to.

{Here we cross into more spoiler-y territory about a specific puzzle or two, although nothing narrative}

Some of these moments are memorable in and of themselves, like the space walk sequence. That’s definitely a high point in the challenges the game serves up to you. Others are sort of just figuring out how to pester Kaizen until it divulges what you need to solve the puzzle. Which isn’t bad, but it does make how you go the info more interesting and memorable than the puzzle itself, and the challenges that are especially oblique just sort of fade from memory. For one specific example, I wasted a lot of time early on when I found that one puzzle required that I press keys on a defective terminal until the glitched images overlapped to form an eye. Sounds easy, except I took a break in between learning that and actually doing it, so I had to spend a decent amount of time in my next play session pestering Kaizen a second time to remind me where I was headed and what I needed to do. I could remember all the story-relevant details that I had learned, but not what would actually progress the story.

Also, it’s worth noting that, for as interesting as the story is, that way it’s divulged is a little irritating. It’s completely optional, and requires reading through the individual logs on each terminal, which can only be called up if you remember the (totally not required) command (which…again, I had trouble remembering to do across play sessions; my memory is not great). On top of that, a lot of the logs are “corrupted” false leads, meaning you’ll spend a lot of time thumbing through files that don’t actually contain any relevant information at all, which makes you a little more disinclined to check everything and more likely to forget to do it religiously to get all of the information. The ending will still make sense without it; just about everything you need to understand the most basic level will come from interactions with Kaizen. But it made me wish I had been a bit more diligent about checking everything considering how relevant it becomes at the end.

With that in mind, it’s worth looking at that story, particularly filtered through the biggest non-optional part, the ending.

The Game’s Narrative

{Everything is on the table here, so this is the really spoiler-y part}

Okay, so a quick overview of the story for those who haven’t played the game but don’t mind the spoilers: you learn a bit about the crew of the ship, primarily Kurt, ground control and head of the operation, Nandi, Kaizen’s favorite crewmember, and Anele, who is clearly the source of a lot of anguish for Kaizen due to her treatment of Nandi. Everyone onboard the ship is dead, including Nandi, who Kaizen feels deeply responsible for to some degree but also blames Anele. Along the way, each terminal has some dialogs of old conversations held on the ship. The mystery of what happened to the crew, the pretty-but-desolate rooms, and uncomfortable ambient noise contribute a great tone to the story, overall. It’s nice atmospheric storytelling on the part of the devs.

In the end, to re-activate the ship and head home, you have to reach the bridge to deactivate the dangerous Singularity Drive powering the ship to get Kaizen to agree to take you home, which requires a roundabout path. Eventually, though, you enter the corridor to the bridge…and find it covered it Anele’s incomprehensible writings. And then you reach the bridge and find her mummified corpse hooked up to the ship’s computer.

At this point, at the very end of the game, is where it’s decided which of the three main endings you will see. If you destroy the drive powering the ship like Kaizen asks, the computer blacks out and Anele takes over, imploring you to abort the destruction of the Drive and merge your consciousness with hers in the ship’s mainframe, overpowering Kaizen and letting her take the supposedly-unstable drive back to earth to kickstart deep space travel for the masses.

Your decision forks are two-fold: did you destroy the Singularity Drive as asked? And if so, did you stop the process to merge with Anele and the Nautilus? And there’s some interesting thematic stuff there:

First, the ending does a good job of subverting the “evil AI” ending that the game hints at over its course. In the end, no matter what ending you pick, Kaizen is a good robot trying his best. He didn’t directly kill Nandi and violate his programming, but instead left her adrift on a space walk at Anele’s urging that there was an emergency that threatened the rest of the crew. Kaizen made the calculation to save many lives over one, and left her. Kaizen is ultimately just another person, trying to do what he sees as the most good, but possibly (or possibly not) manipulated by more self-interested actors. He was informed (or misled) that the Singularity Drive was a threat to Earth as long as it remained in proximity, which is why he’s sacrificed the Nautilus to remain adrift until that threat can be disabled.

Ultimately, trust ends up being a main theme. Most of the endings are “good” in their own way, and the only “bad” one is triggered by abusing Kaizen over the course of the game (he’ll abandon you after you destroy the Drive, leaving you possibly without a clear way back to Earth). If you treat him well, either by fulfilling his request or being very nice to the AI while playing, he’ll let you save the Singularity Drive and help you return home. And of course, the “Anele” ending is predicated on trusting the scientist on her findings. In any case, collaborating with other individuals on that forsaken spaceship is the only way to get a positive ending.

In maybe the “best” ending (possibly; the game doesn’t really seem to judge, but it does give this one a custom song to go with it), you are asked to totally step into the role of Anele. If you upload your consciousness, you may end up “killing” your closest crewmate in Kaizen (it’s not really clear that he’ll be able to come back) instead of Nandi, disobeying the orders of your mutual director Kurt for a greater good in bringing space travel to the masses, and sacrificing your body to become one with a computer. In the end, though, you both still make it home, although it’s a hard call to make.

Or course, in the other “good” ending (ie; the one that doesn’t end with you drifting in space), you still get to make the same choice about the matter as Kaizen. You’re the newest member of a space crew, being told two competing stories about the Singularity Drive and what it can do. You have to make a decision of whether or not to scrap it, and if you do, you’re presumably making the mental calculus that the boss of the operation, Kurt, has been truthful with you and that it could explode and endanger the Earth if it gets to close. And in doing so, you have to ignore another crewmember (here Anele instead of Nandi), condemning her to floating helplessly in an abyss (cyberspace instead of actual space) for the rest of her days.

The only way to not metaphorically become one of the two crewmembers is to be nice to Kaizen while refusing to help him complete his mission. He’ll take you home even without destroying the Singularity Core if you are persistent enough about keeping it and have been especially kind, showing that you comprehend the situation and decision that’s being made.

And what’s more, all of the background information you have to inform this decision is simply ship logs, so more or less the same information that the characters themselves had when making these decisions. In presenting you with directly analogous situations with shaded morality, Ocelot Society does a clever job of forcing the player into making a moral choice and understanding why the other characters did what they did, and, by presenting it as a first-person narrative, doing so in a way that only a video game can. That’s pretty neat, in my opinion.

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