Futureshock: one day in some strange year to come, Event [official site], a game primarily about simulating conversation between you and a possibly self-aware AI, will seem like a vaguely absurd relic of an innocent past. From my festering chair in the retirement home, I will stave off loneliness by holding convincing conversations with Google Deep Mind or AppleSoft Siri or Sony Zangief or Trumpatron 3000 Gold. A videogame in which I converse with a rudimentary AI that can only really offer canned responses to keywords? Might as well play Space Invaders.
Even so, lost in spacey / chatbot adventure Event has very clever tricks up its sleeve, and hints of where videogame conversation might or should one day go. Its tinman has a heart.
There's some wraparound fiction involving future societies and alt-history 1980s and magic-come-deadly warp drive tech, but really it's just set-dressing for a central tale of working in an uneasy alliance with a chatty spaceship AI named Kaizen. Kaizen's former bosses are all missing, presumed dead, and you've wound up stranded on the damaged craft that the AI is the only apparent remaining inhabitant of. Doors are locked, systems are damaged, and you're a long way from home. Kaizen seems to want to help, but they have requests of their own, and provide obstacles of their own.
Event is fundamentally a first-person puzzle game, augmented by a couple of somewhat tense zero-g / limited oxygen sequences. It's the nature of those puzzles which is ingenious, though. Some, sure, are about finding door codes and passwords in chatlogs, on scattered post-it notes or by refibbulating the triangulometer or whatever, but there's a throughline of trying to tease vital information out of Kaizen.
There's more than a touch of Her Story in this, in that finding a relevant keyword elicits a new, potentially revelatory response or action, but the key difference is that you have to type out a full question or response rather than just spam words. Kaizen will generally sound bemused or nudge you in another direction if you do blankly type LOG or DOOR or even WHERE IS EVERYONE.
You need to be specific, and that means verbs and names, be the latter a specific person or a particular door. Better still, Kaizen responds, to some extent, to tone as well as intent. I noticed from the chatlogs that Kaizen's former boss had a tendency to call them 'buddy' or 'KZ', so I began using these affectations myself. To my delight, Kaizen would suffix its responses with 'pal' or 'partner'. Thanks, buddy.
This wasn't something I was railroaded into, and nor do I think it affected outcomes, but it dramatically changed how I felt about the game. I wasn't just trying to coax information out of a machine - I was trying to be friends with it. I felt alone when the game began, but by the mid-point I really did feel as though it was me and Kaizen, together against the odds.
So I always offered a 'thank you' every time Kaizen opened a door or showed me a log, and they always replied with 'you're welcome'. I always tried to ask how Kaizen was whenever I was reunited with them, via a new Terminal, after a short period away, and often Kaizen would reveal a little something about their state of mind. Usually, they were worried about loneliness, that I might go away too.
There's even one sequence where the solution, or at least a solution, is to gradually persuade an apparently fearful Kaizen that I was not going to die if I performed a certain action. It reminded me of trying to reassure my distressed child that her beloved godfather would not disappear forever when he left our house. A masterful touch; something of a one-off, a complaint which might be levelled at several facets of Event, but I'm so glad to have encountered it at all.
Sure, I could see Kaizen's limitations all too clearly. Many lines repeated, many responses had nothing at all to do with what I'd asked, many 'I cannot help you' replies were made to perfectly straightforward queries, and several times Kaizen just started blithering away about plot stuff regardless of what I'd said.
Attempts are made to conceal this stuff as the random wibbling of a half-mad machine in, of course, the HAL paradigm, but Event doesn't get away with it. It is redeemed by the aforementioned options for organic chumminess, though. Absolutely worth experiencing despite the limitations - and, frankly, expecting Google Deep Mind in an indie game is entirely unfair anyway.
Also, getting to type sentences in rather than click on words is a delight - a point of physical connection with the in-game terminals, direct communication with Kaizen. (Though before I sound too enamoured of the controls, I should mention that its default setting is unspeakably awful mouse-only first-person movement that can only have been devised by someone with a deeply-held grudge against humanity. If you play this, the first thing you should do is dive into settings and choose 'Keyboard movement'.)
I've completed Event once, which took a brisk three or four hours, but I'm left with the lingering feeling that I've only seen a fraction of it. There are certainly aspects of the background story that weren't fleshed out because I didn't ask more about them, and looking at PR screenshots I can see that there were options to inquire about yet more objects in the ship.
It's possible that there are alternative endings too; I tried to trigger them but seemed inexorably to move towards one outcome, but perhaps saying different things to Kaizen might have taken things in another direction. Whether or not that's the case, I genuinely don't want to find out - because retaining the idea that there is much more to Kaizen than I ever encountered is so much more pleasing that mining the AI for every possible response ever could be. Right now, I feel as though Kaizen is still out there somewhere, waiting for me, worrying about me, or plotting.
It should be said the game, as least as I experienced it based on what I asked of Kaizen, plays it softly-softly in terms of what might loosely be described as its 'morality'. There are opposing ambitions within the story, and Kaizen does have agendas, but it seems extremely careful to not stamp any good/bad absolutes onto anything.
I can't say much more, obviously, because of spoilers, but it may be fair to say that the ending leaves something to be desired as a result of this. I felt a little flat, but it didn't really matter.
Far more importantly, the uncertainty about whether Kaizen is 'good' or 'bad' shapes you how treat the AI, and thus what kind of rapport you have with them. Again, this is Event's trump card: despite limitations, it's truly and just about convincingly a game about talking to a machine, and building a relationship with it. Clever, tantalising stuff, and all set within an appealing if slightly too downplayed retro sci-fi setting. There's a touch of Silent Running or Moon to it, which I'm a sucker for.
Event is probably too short for its own good, less because of (kill me) 'value', but more because it limits how far it can take its idea. What's there is very glossy as well as clever though. Despite its sometimes very obvious limitations, Event feels like the start of a beautiful friendship.