2016 has been a stellar year for science fiction in video games. Usually a genre reserved in gaming for laser guns and alien warfare, developers got smart and delivered some truly provocative narratives fitting of the medium this year. Both AAA publishers and indie outlets have made serious contributions to sci-fi recently, and as someone who likes his narratives dense and haunting, I’ve been eating it all up. It’s time to add another one to the growing list of winners. Because despite some noticeable flaws in the gameplay department, Benjamin Rivers’ Alone With You left me with a sick feeling, lodged deep in my gut. The best kind of sick feeling, too; the kind that forced me to confront some uncomfortable questions, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled.
Players take the role of a gender-neutral astronaut, stranded on a failed space colony. Your only companion in Alone With You is an AI program, designed to ensure your safety and survival. The AI tasks you with exploring and scanning the ruined colony, or what’s left of it. In theory, you’ll be able to collect enough components for an escape pod to get off the imploding planet. But the thing is, you and the AI won’t be enough. You’ll have to rely on the help of four colonists, all with a different area of expertise. This is where things get weird. The catch is that these colonists may not actually be alive. Your sole interaction with them is through the AI, who reanimates them inside the game’s equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck. None of them remember anything up to a certain point, and it’s up to you to build relationships with them, as well as fill them in on memory gaps. You can talk to them in any order, and choose to get close or keep them at arm’s length.
It’s one part dating sim, one part mystery, similar to this year’s excellent VA-11 Hall-A. Conversations with these holograms progress in a traditional visual novel fashion, unfolding little bits and pieces of each tragic character’s lives with each conversation. You have to interact with one person each day, but on a fifth day, you’ll get to choose which hologram you want to interact with. This, of course, gets you a little bit closer to whoever that person is. Or not, if you choose a different person all three times. It’s up to you. Personally, I found myself gravitating to an introverted techie and strong-willed botanist, two characters I won’t soon forget.
From a narrative standpoint, Alone With You is a definite winner. It made me ask questions about my own morality and mortality, in ways that few games do. There’s some rough subject matter brought up throughout, and honestly, the final major choice I had to make sort of winded me. As in, it left me sitting in my chair for a few minutes, realizing that I was going to hate either choice in some way or another. It was one of those tough final calls that stuck with me, and I actively want to dive back in to see what happens if I progress the game in different way.
Where the game sort of falters, however, is the core gameplay. While the haunting aesthetic and atmosphere were enjoyable to soak in, and some late-game puzzles were genuinely fun, the majority of the gameplay consists of walking around and clicking on things. In the first hour or two, there are no real challenges to speak of, so that repetition did get to me a little. Then again, one could make the argument that the repetition is intentional, and meant to simulate what your astronaut is going through at first. Either way, I definitely found the latter three-quarters of Alone With You more compelling than the first one. Once it felt like a true adventure game, complete with brainteasers, I definitely became more involved.
Still, where it counts, Alone With You is still a really worthwhile purchase, especially for people who like their sci-fi narratives challenging and thought provoking. It offers up more complicated questions and conflicting worldviews than anything you’ll find at the movies this summer, and for half the price at that. Some early tedium doesn’t offset what is ultimately, an admirably solid and daring take on the concepts of loss and redemption.
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