Whilst it was released last year for PS4 and PS Vita, the launch of Alone With You on Steam is likely to generate further discussion amongst (this time around) PC gamers as to what impact a narrative, told through the medium of a video game yet requiring minimal interaction on the part of the player, has on the overall experience of ‘gaming’.
This is, of course, a discussion that inevitably elicits highly subjective responses – largely because enjoyment of a game is inherently based on what any one individual might appreciate, which in turn is based on any number of personal preferences. As writers, journalists and players we can of course debate games and their content, discuss their perceived merits or lack thereof, praise or criticise their ambition, graphics, fidelity, originality, cultural engagement, and so on and so forth. However, if a person doesn’t like walking simulators or narrative-heavy games, then their experience of such games might frequently be diminished – potentially due to the fact that they may perceive their input, as a player, as deliberately minimised by these genres.
Length: 5-7 hours
All this is to say: Alone With You might not be a ‘game’ for all players, in the ‘traditional’ sense. It is strongly narrative-driven; an interactive story that is largely told to the player with only minimal dialogue options to drive that narrative forwards at certain points. Yet to me, Alone With You paradoxically felt intensely reminiscent of some of my earliest gaming memories – text based adventures on the ZX Spectrum, point-and-click tales from nineties-era PC gaming.
Let me write this down.
Alone With You is a beautifully told science-fiction tale, the premise of which bears classic features of the genre. The player navigates this story through the perspective of a lone-survivor, stranded on a colony of a planet upon which a terraforming mission which has gone terribly wrong. The player’s character is largely unknowable, positioned instead as a vehicle through which the stories of all the other colonists are told. Indeed, this ‘character’ could more aptly be referred to as a façade instead, given that this figure functions as a window into the story of others, offering insight into their lives.
The narrative is an impressively poignant affair, albeit the mechanics of progression are a little rudimental: the player is tasked by the colony’s surviving AI to undertake several missions to various outposts, in order to recover the requisite parts and supplies necessary to launch an escape ship. However, developer Benjamin Rivers Inc. does a good job of not making this a bland exercise that detracts from the overall story. During these phases of exploration interaction with all manner of objects is encouraged, the details of which add context to the narrative and provide vital clues for progression throughout these areas. For a game that fundamentally relies on text to tell its story, it is appropriate that solving puzzles requires the player to pay close attention to the clues held within said pieces of text.
Getting to know you.
Whilst the process of moving back and forth collecting items and syncing data does become quite repetitive, this linearity is counterbalanced by some incredibly strong characterisation. The AI uses data gathered on these missions in order to facilitate conversations with artificial reconstructions of the perished colonists, in order to aid the escape. The stark images of destroyed outposts and a ravaged environment, which are subsequently juxtaposed at the conclusion of each mission with a highly personal interaction with a colonist whom the player knows has long since died, is striking and effective storytelling.
Alone With You allows the player becomes a confident of these characters, learning incredibly personal details about their lives on the planet, their individual motivations, their fears. There is also a degree of choice available here, as the AI later offers further meetings with individuals of the player’s choosing. During my playthrough I picked the same colonist for each additional rendezvous, as I was struck by the dark self-doubt that haunted this particular character. The fears of this character were hinted at in scraps of a story they had written, that I had continued to find abandoned during my visits to the outpost where they were stationed.
The presentation and pixelated art-style does, of course, play to the undercurrent of nostalgia that flows through Alone With You. This works on several levels: it fits the game’s throwback feel in terms of its text-based adventure format, and it fits the moments of introspection and reminiscence that are its thematic strength. The game is also a decent length for titles of this nature, taking me just over five hours to finish (and I’m a quick reader).
All definitions of ‘game’ aside, Alone With You is an impressive affair that I recommend to anyone who has an affinity for science fiction narratives and/or interactive storytelling. Its tale is both haunting and human, incisively reflective and extremely well told.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.