2017 has been a phenomenal year for game releases, but 2016 was no slouch either. I wrote some stuff about the games I played last year but didn’t really end up sharing it with people. I was going through some real big problems then that I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to blast this out.
But hey, those personal dark days are over, and it’s just fun for me to look back at this list! Also, I wrote way too much for this to not be read by others even though I doubt I can keep anyone’s attention with how long-winded I got in these write-ups.
Anyway, starting off with the my “least favorite” and counting down to my 2016 GOTY. I say “least favorite” because I enjoyed all these games to some extent and that there isn’t really an outright bad game on the list.
There’s one thing this tightly confined walking simulator does perfectly, and that’s establish a mounting sense of dread built on the theme of obsession.
The setup is a familiar one - you wake up in a seemingly abandoned small research/testing facility without your memories and with only a disembodied AI guiding you to reach an understanding of your current situation. You do so by inhabiting a handful of fragments of your past made corporeal by the technology you were researching (a holodeck, basically) before something went horribly wrong. The limitations of this technology have you only navigating cramped spaces within those memories, but you only need to hone in on one or two details that stand out through visual or audio cues to piece together a narrative and make progress.
The AI eases you into your journey of self-discovery. Your first memory is of a beaten path through lush green trees, warm light passing through the leaves, lilting music fading in and out, and a bold, blue butterfly resting on a rock. You’re drawn to it, this fragile, beautiful thing. It’s arresting. You look closer. You’re somewhere else.
The way Asemblance advances is very true to how reflecting on memories is a form of time/space travel. It’s jarring, but there is a human logic to stringing moments separated by days and miles together via one striking image or sound. And from that moment of serenity outside, you’re on a downward spiral to ever-more dark, constricting spaces in your office and your apartment, finding threads naturally that let you weave the tragedy of this story in your mind. Recordings of experiments going awry, frantic voice messages pleading you to go home, lights flickering down the hallway to your bedroom, a photo of a child tucked away in a drawer, you know where this is going.
The difficulty of confronting the sins of the past is a subject worth tackling on its own, but the developers seem to think otherwise. There are multiple endings to the game, each one leading to another. Attempting to reach the last two takes a giant leap from the organic progression you’ve been making, requiring obtuse actions and pixel hunting. The final conclusion was tied to an ARG that demanded the community to work together to get to it.
I never got to play PT, but I’m probably not wrong in saying Asemblance was heavily inspired by it, recreating that experience, warts and all. It broke the mood for me. I was immediately put off by the sidelining of the strong emotional hook for the meta game, an aspect in gaming and geek culture at large that I can respect but have zero interest in engaging with.
I can see the thematic layer of obsession being realized through the player base spending days to crack the game wide open, but seeing how the “white shift” plays out and knowing that this is a “pilot” episode for a planned series, I think I know exactly where the devs are more interested in taking this story.