by Vincent Chandler
reviewed on PC
When is a game not a game?
The ‘interactive novel’ as a genre has become synonymous with controversy and contention. Many argue that these narrative driven experiences don’t belong under the umbrella of ‘video games’, whilst others are quite vocal in dismissing their thematically rich and nuanced approach to storytelling as pandering to an overtly political or pretentious SJW crowd. Although not a first-person walking simulator in the strictest sense of the word, Alone With You certainly positions itself within this camp of games – coming straight off the store page it describes itself as “a sci-fi romance adventure”, which immediately tells us this isn’t your grandfather’s point and click adventure.
Romantic subject matter aside, Alone With You as a package is charmingly unique. An interesting depiction of the far future and off-world colonisation, it makes use of pixelated pastel hues and mild purple tones to evoke a truly unique washed-out and soft visual style. The retro art direction draws parallels to the adventure games of old, even if the gameplay is not as deeply influenced. This visual aesthetic coupled with the Ivor Stines’ ominous and haunting score does well to elicit a sense of otherworldly isolation that helps to underpin the game’s central themes. In short, the game is a gorgeous package that proves that an 8 or 16 bit visual styling can be used to greater artistic effect than simple cartoon nostalgia. The Super Metroid influence, in feel and colour is palpable.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Point-and-Click
The core gameplay is extremely straightforward – you are alone on a dilapidated space colony, the other occupants all dead, the facility itself ravaged by a catastrophic seismic event known only as ‘The Rift’. With the help of the colony’s sentient AI you need to repair the on-site escape vessel and get off this hostile planet. In order to do this, you must adventure your way through the remains of the colony, searching for scraps of technology, food, fuel and medical supplies to endure your coming journey. This primarily consists of moving around rooms looking for things to scan, with the occasional puzzle that involves you to look for clues in the environment. This central ‘point-and-click’ style gameplay (which I have dubbed walk-and-scan) is laborious, drawn out and boring, creating a plodding pace that struggles to support the wonderful visuals and strong script.
Of course, the focus of Alone With You isn’t on gameplay, but instead placed upon narrative as well as world and character building. On your journey throughout the facility the colony’s AI provides exposition and helps you to come to understand what went wrong in the first place. It creates a rich backstory of interconnected characters and very human mistakes. In addition to this, the AI resurrects key staff as holograms in order to lend their expertise to fixing the ship. And this is where the game becomes a ‘romance’; every night, when the colony is on lowest power usage, you partake in a ‘date’ with these important members of staff and begin to get to know them.
Having used their last known psych-profiles, these self-aware and sentient holograms begin to question the very nature of their own existence; “am I really real?” one asks, whilst another is concerned with not being judged by the actions of his now deceased physical counterpart. Themes of isolation, companionship, love, rivalry and how we as humans cope with these experiences all feature heavily and give us a rewarding and rich text to consume.
And this is where Alone With You is at its best. The writing is strong and the characters are well realised. There is a depth to the existential ponderings and reflective self-examination very rarely found within the scripts of video games. It makes the ‘date-nights’ far more interesting than the rest of the gameplay on offer.
Bogged Down By Gameplay
As an experience, I feel that Alone With You is held back and hindered by its need to be a video game. The insistence in making me trudge through areas looking for clues and items I may have missed on my first run through in the interest of padding out the game’s length or creating some form of gameplay is frustrating and detracting from the intelligent and mature narrative at its core. These areas could have been significantly reduced in order to allow the game to flow better, and not make the mid-game such a drag.
In spite of this criticism, the need to inject gameplay into the dialogue-tree driven ‘dates’ actually furthers some of the central themes of the game. In order to motivate the holographic engineers and experts to work on your ship, you must make them happy. You must discuss their whims, understand the driving force behind their choices and engage with them in a way that raises their morale. In reality this means answering with the nicer, friendlier response during a conversation, which is hardly a challenge. However, this creates an interesting dynamic where by my need to fulfil a goal (the repairing of the ship) had me telling people what they wanted to hear, as opposed to what I wanted to say. I found this rather thought provoking as I found myself feeling disconnected from these very realised human characters as I used them as a means to an end – further exacerbating the sense of isolation within the game. However, I am doubtful a fail state exists, where by saying the wrong things to ‘demotivate’ the team would result in another less desirable ending.
Alone With You is a truly unique animal, the strength of its writing and characters is a testament to the artistic merit within the growing ‘interactive novel’ scene. Instead of simply using science fiction as a backdrop for laser guns, space battles and alien babes, Alone With You engages its audience as adults. It examines what it is to be human through the genres of science fiction and romance, genres often man-handled or abused by the medium. It kept me guessing, with it avoiding the clichéd plot twists and contrivances that I expected. If it weren’t so concerned with providing a conventional gameplay experience in its exploration through the use of dull puzzles and boring search quests, Alone With You could have been paced a lot better. If it were, it could have gone down in history as a ‘must-play’ cult hit for those of us with artsy-fartsy sensibilities, but instead it’s a title for acquired tastes.
Unique, beautiful art style and soundtrack, thought provoking
Very little gameplay, exploration is tedious.