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Wot I Think: Killing Time At Lightspeed

Antisocial media

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Something I’m very much looking forward to is seeing the visual novel increasingly mature away from creepy adolescent dating simulators toward more interesting topics. It’s already happening, of course, but it’s safe to say the genre has a “norm”. A lovely example of something utterly different is Killing Time At Lightspeed [official site], a science fiction tale of future technologies and future travel, told through the medium on social media. Here’s wot I think:

The premise is a lovely one – you, Jay, are aboard an interstellar ship travelling to a recently inhabited world in another solar system. The journey will take 29 Earth years, but for you the flight will last half an hour. Entertainment on board is provided in the form of a simple text-based computer that updates with the latest news stories, feeds from your social media platform FriendPage, and private messages, which are beamed from Earth slightly faster than you’re travelling allowing you to see annual updates over the course of your brief/extremely long trip. You can interact on a limited level, replying to various messages from a list of options, but mostly you’re passively taking on board the chatter as you would in such circumstances.

The plot at the start focuses on the release of a new cybernetic implant called Oqular, a piece of tech that is implanted in your eye and allows you to experience the 2045 version of virtual reality. You read the discussions your friends are having about them, enthused early adopters, cynical skeptics, and those certain it’s going somewhere bad. So yes, it works as both a direct allegory for the current discussions taking place regarding VR (the similarity of the name to “Oculus” can’t be a coincidence), as well as a broader, more widespread fear of the pace of technology. Or more specifically, the abuse of technology.

At the same time, you have access to Skimmit – a service that provides succinct snippets of world news in each upload, giving you a broader idea of the reception of advancements both in entertainment technology, and also the increased uptake of cybernetic implants, replacement limbs, and even replacement organs. The range of articles you get works extremely well, giving you straight reporting, loaded and embarrassingly ignorant tabloid-esque coverage, and the sort of ranty personal angles of tech blogs. While it’s a little heavy handed in its use of soundalike company names and products, the attitudes shown in the reporting do a nice job of prophetically speaking about our own state of affairs, which is of course always the sign of smart sci-fi.

With each update another year passes on Earth, meaning you get these annual snapshots of your home planet, and see as your friends move on in their discussions and opinions… to a point. In fact, it’s here that the storytelling of Killing Time rather starts to unravel.

It’s a touch peculiar, really. While the news stories move forward in leaps and bounds, exploring governmental intervention in personal tech and privacy, questioning understandings of reality, potential hazards for human augmentation, and so on, the social media snapshots seem like they could be from the next day. Your chums’ lives barely seem to edge forward, apparently taking years to make minor decisions, and certainly not seeming to react to the extraordinary amount of time that passes for them between your responding to their comments. In the first five years, none even alludes to commenting that you’re reacting to something they used to think, forgot they ever said, or now feels weirdly out-of-date. Instead they react like you’d IMd it to them. And I’m not exaggerating – this is a discussion that takes place over a year, about whether someone should go to the park!

This does start to improve later on, but not comprehensively. There’s a conversation where you ask someone about the limited ability of a new synthetic robot, and by the time he’s able to reply all those issues have been long patched out – that makes sense. But in the same chain of messages your encouraging someone to change job is met as if in the same breath. Someone else (finally) criticises you for replying to a year old message, and well, the whole thing is in a muddle. Then I read a news story and for the first time in all of fiction history, saw the word “Luddite” used correctly! I immediately forgave it everything.

It’s also pretty telling that my early complaints were that the game repeated the same motif far too many times, but by the second half I was lamenting how few years were left in my half hour journey (the game itself lasts as long as it takes you to read the messages – there’s no silly time limit here). Just reading the same timeline of the same people (plus other silly things like some bots and_ebooks equivalents), a wordy news feed, and a few personal messages, felt too repetitive, right up until I wanted it to last for longer. You get to know those few people through the process, even if the glimpses are a little erratically delivered, and the leaps and bounds in technology and the governmental response to such technologies is well handled. And frighteningly relevant.

It smartly picks up on current trends: hashtag-led rebellions, divisions based on being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of new developments, fear of unchecked police authority. But it isn’t too heavy-handed with these, and it certainly isn’t hand-wringing and shouting “AAH BUT AHHHHH!” at you, which is rather impressive. In fact, later on it becomes rather uncomfortably topical regarding events over the last week. (It’s less clear whether the dreadful grammar in some of the straight news stories is a commentary, or a lack of proofing.)

The ending is lovely and perfect, itself its own gentle commentary on something else the game frequently touches upon. And I’ve come away enjoying the whole experience far more than I had thought was likely nearer the start. Yes, there are some significant narrative issues and it’s a shame they weren’t better managed, but the overall effect works well.

It’s clever for all sorts of reasons, but the most smart aspect is its recognition of your passivity in the role of a visual novel player, and making that the most crucial part of the story is telling. It’s a chilling thought, spending less than an hour losing thirty years from the lives of everyone you know, and while I think the game does crucially badly fail to give the feeling that three decades have passed for the people you follow, the ten years or so it far more feels like has just the right effect of alienating distance and discomfort.

This gives me far more hope for visual novels than I’d had before, and I imagine that’s largely due to a lack of exposure to the great stuff out there rather than for a lack of it. But if you were wanting some hope too, you’ll find it here. Progressive, witty, and touching, if chronologically troubled, Killing Time At Lightspeed a fine thing.

Killing Time At Lightspeed: Enhanced Edition is out on Steam for around £6.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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