Developed by: Nilo Studios
Published by: Nilo Studios
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4
You’re standing in front of a computer terminal. A siren wails above you while a pulsating red light stabs the air. A narrator, who sounds like he could be the successor to the HAL 9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey” says that a dire emergency is underway that requires urgent attention. You step up to the terminal and push a button. The noise subsides. A mini-questionnaire appears on the screen that asks how you’re feeling: good, not good, confused, or angry and confused. After you select your choice the red light gives way to dull, work-appropriate conditions as the narrator tells you that there was no emergency and that everything that you’ve witnessed up to that moment was a test to see how you would respond under pressure. In the ensuing calm, the narrator asks if you’re sure you’d like to continue with the task you’ve been at for “far too long.”
A cloud of irony hangs over that statement as “Asemblance” is a game that can seemingly be run through in an hour, though by no means is that initial hour likely to satisfy your interest. The game has multiple endings — each more obscure than the last — that complicate rather than clarify your experience. I’ve spent several hours trying to reach the game’s ultimate ending and I have no idea how close or far away I am from completing that task.
If you have no patience for experimental art that doesn’t stick to the normal narrative patterns of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement then this game will almost certainly leave you bored and bewildered. But if you’re a puzzler who doesn’t mind circling over clues again and again, and you’re keen on checking out the more offbeat areas of gaming, then read on.
Soon after the game’s intro, it becomes apparent that the terminal before which you stand controls a memory theater of sorts — a chamber within easy walking distance where you can step into memories that may or may not be yours. Without much ado, you’ll unlock a forest setting, an office, and an apartment. Exploring these areas reveals information about an ethically dubious science program organized around the suppression of neural pathways associated with unwanted behaviors and crippling memories in human beings.
As you progress through “Asemblance,” it becomes obvious that you are trapped in a time loop –reminiscent of the horror classic P.T. — another game that was designed to be discussed and unpacked by a community of players. Prospective players should be ready to look outside the game for solutions — there are online images to consider, timestamps to mull over, a reddit thread to consult, and even emails — actual emails — to send. At present, there is an active thread on the Steam forums dedicated to unpacking the game’s mysteries which I’ve found to be an invaluable resource. (When this review was published no one had yet completed the game.)
When I spoke with the game’s creative director Niles Sankey about the challenges of bringing such a conceptual project to fruition he said, “One of the goals we had was we wanted to present ideas for the truth, perspectives on the truth, and give branching narratives about what the truth could be without hitting people over the head with this is the truth. So… we really want people to explore the fiction that is in front of them and theorize. The challenge for us was how do we present a compelling narrative, without being obvious as to what that narrative is or binary with what that narrative is. [As in] here is the answer and that’s the final answer. We want people to be able to discuss and debate what they think based on the fiction they find in the different memories as to what the truth is.”
Clearly, only those with a high tolerance for ambiguity or a passion for talmudic-like parsing need apply.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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