Electron Dance
29Aug/1610

The Insufficient You

asemblance-trees

I completed the first-person thriller Asemblance (Nilo Studios, 2016) in a few hours but what had started out as excitement morphed into frustration and eventually liquefied into a bitter soup of dissatisfaction.

Like Cradle (Flying Cafe for Semianimals, 2015) which I discussed recently, it marries interesting ideas to some big flaws. But it has a lethal problem which cannot be fixed: something that’s vital to enjoy the game is not included in the purchase price.

If a game takes my fancy, I like to rush straight into it and evade any previews or essays about it. Here's the blurb for Asemblance on the Steam page:

You wake to find yourself trapped inside an experimental machine... A machine built to simulate memories. You no longer recall why you entered, but an AI voice guides you. Trying to escape, you face memories from a past you may not want to remember.

The game itself had my attention right from the start. Although an AI talking to you in a calm-yet-creepy HAL voice is nothing new, I couldn’t get any narrative bearings and that uncertainty was exhilarating. I followed the apparently linear path the game set out and discovered few locations to explore. This was not an automatic disappointment because I approve of density-led design, similarly demonstrated by Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), Verde Station (Dualboot, 2014) and Cradle. Asemblance isn’t quite as dense as Cradle but it has one particular area which is supersaturated with readable documents.

Asemblance went on to deliver an excellent headfuck moment and I was fully onboard. Yes. Good game... but then the wheels came off.

asemblance-chamber

You can reach an “ending” pretty quickly but as you still lack the slightest clue as to what is going on, you know there must be more to dig up. But like other secret box games that do away with arcade difficulty, Asemblance comes down to finding triggers to move things forward. Here, you have to look at the right thing versus Dear Esther's “narration minefield”, but some of these triggers are far from obvious. The first trigger, and I’m not going to label this as a spoiler, is a butterfly. But if you look at the butterfly too early, like I did, it triggers nothing, and the machinery becomes exposed. Triggers are triggers only when the game says they are.

The other problem is that Asemblance plays its cards so close to its chest it never ever comes out and talks to you straight. This is a serious problem because you're inhabiting the world of the most unreliable narrator in history: your own memories. Asemblance constantly warns about false memories so I trusted nothing, hoping I would uncover some way of divining the truth down the line.

Then I reached another ending, which was identical to the previous one save for an alternative portentous voiceover... and did not yield any extra information. There is nothing more annoying than having an achievement called The Truth pop up when you feel you discovered nothing of the sort. In fact, every ending was identical: a different voiceover, no revelatory content.

What seems to be the ultimate ending, the so-called “White Shift”, is so obscure that you couldn't possibly work it out alone. The answer is actually out there on the web, which catapults Asemblance into ARG territory. The discovery of the White Shift ending even made a Kotaku headline but that's still not The Absolute Honest To God End of All Ends ending, which can only be triggered if you observe that one of the rules the game had previously imposed is now broken. This kind of switch can work, but here it feels just too sneaky, real needle in the haystack stuff. Unless, of course, you see the game as an ARG where it only matters that someone solves it, not everyone.

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Some players have faith that the truth will become clear in the next game. If you go to the Asemblance website you’ll read:

Asemblance is the pilot episode of a mind-bending franchise inspired by The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and the Black Mirror television series.

It suggests an anthology of short stories, not a continuation, which means we probably have all the answers we’re ever going to get.

Asemblance is not pitched as an ARG but unfortunately that’s how it functions. You need to mull over the various tiny narrative clues with other players to figure the story out and being part of a collective trying to solve Asemblance's mysteries would have been great fun (I was a big fan of I Love Bees). But an ARG is localised in time. It's broken after people have done it and moved on. Where would I find a “fresh” Asemblance community to work with? One of the developers, Niles Sankey, said in an interview:

Finding that balance is definitely a focus for future episodes, but we wanted to see how far players would go, and more important, we wanted to get players working together. It was so rewarding to watch Twitch streams lead by ImTheBlueRanger, lulusoccer and Bumbleworth, but we hope to lower the on-ramp a bit more in the future.

This left me feeling frustrated because the game I bought was incomplete: part of its narrative engine was missing, a team of players to work with. Asemblance oozes atmosphere and ideas, yet it is difficult to recommend because it is an ARG camouflaged as a single-player experience.

But I'm going to go out on a positive note! Design issues aside, there's fantastic talent on show here and the team took a more risky route to do something different. While I regard this iteration as a failure, Asemblance is loud and clear on one score: Nilo Studios is one to watch.

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It seems like this is a traditional and rather serious problem with trigger-based games — that whole “if you look at the trigger before it’s ready, nothing happens,” issue. I wonder if this stems from accidental psychology on the part of developers. They’re creating a mystery of sorts, one to which the solution is obvious… to them. And because it’s obvious to them, they lose sight of the fact that maybe it’s not so obvious to others.

    Just hiding the trigger until it’s ready would work in most cases, but that is an imperfect solution, especially if the trigger is someplace the player has already been. I recall once in Morrowind I found an interesting cave and explored it thoroughly. Hours later I stumbled on a main story quest that directed me to that very cave. I went back and discovered that deep in the bowels of the cave, a new door had appeared, House of Leaves style. This didn’t bother me, really; it’s like quietly respawning accidentally-destroyed, game-critical entities when the player’s not looking.

    But in a game like Morrowind, a game of rootless exploration, such things are a lot of more digestible. In a game like Assemblance, which seems much more focused, it becomes a problem. You have more patience than I do, HM. I could maybe live with the triggers-are-only-triggers-when-they’re-triggers thing, but that AND an unreliable narrator that ultimately reveals nothing would irritate me to no end.

  2. Hi Steerpike, thanks for being the only commenter here. It was getting a little lonely, y’know?

    To be fair, the game could argue the triggers only work in the order they do because that’s how the mind works! A later trigger won’t work unless you’ve built up to it. But it didn’t feel very coherent to me. I could give it a pass until I felt like it was toying with me and I was hunting for triggers under mattresses and that sort of thing.

    Fortunately, unlike Morrowind, Asemblance is a small space and I was able to bear the imperfections. All told playing was around 2-3 hours I think. I could recommend anyone playing until the first ending provided you accepted you weren’t going to understand the story. It’s classy in many ways, so I’m still excited to see the next “episode” of Asemblance.

    I’m hoping Nilo Studios will learn from what went wrong (they favourited my tweets when I said I was disappointed). The trouble as I see it is that there is a core group that really love the game – these people are happy with the game as it is – but I think a lot more players could dig this if it was a tad more transparent.

  3. Well, good on them for favoriting your tweets and accepting thoughtful criticism. Given what you say above it could just as easily have become WHY HM, WHY WOULD YOU LOOK AT OUR BUTTERFLY BEFORE IT WAS READY TO BE LOOKED AT THIS IS YOUR FAULT

    So I appreciate the developers’ willingness to consider the perspective. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? With luck Nilo Studios will take to heart both your compliments and your issues. They definitely seem to have a lot of talent, and I’m interested to see what else they’re able to show us!

  4. I hadn’t heard of this one before, so thanks for pointing it out to me. Not a game I think I’ll go for, but certainly a studio I will look out for in the future.

  5. I feel awful suggesting this, but it would be worth picking up after a big discount.

  6. Even (yesterday) played Verde station in one session and was impressed by this small but fine piece of SciFi. Craddle is on my wish list, and now Asemblance as well. And glad you are also into ARGs! See you at unFiction? :D

    greetings, merzmensch aka kosmopol

  7. Yes, I really love Verde Station. Cradle is definitely worth the time I spent with it, but expect a LOT of reading.

    I’m not sure I have the time to engage with ARGs although I like the idea of them. I much more likely to be making my own failed ARGs!.

  8. Oh this accidental ARG is soo amazing! I totally know your feelings. I actually did two ARGs on myself: one with a mysterious Puppet Master from Texas (who I know only with his nickname XIII, but with whom I spent weeks of intensive communication) and one by myself. This was tons of work and nerves, but it was very inspiring experience.

    We also had such situation like spreading to folks a random coordinates, and finding out, a group of 20 players, who live near the coordinates, are about to go there and look for hints/swags/dead mails (and we both were living far away from this point). So we had to re-act, and used ingame the foundings these peoples did at the named location.

    ARG was my life, and if I had more time, I’d install more and more ARGs. Now I only report about running projects (http://merzmensch.blogspot.com).

    Anyway, enough about me – I am every happier to found out your site here (and I have to thank Verde Station, who led me via google search to you).

  9. merzmensch, hats off to you, you really do love your ARGs! ARGs are extremely hard work and I can imagine it is gratifying to see people chasing up clues and figuring their way through your crazy logic maze. There’s always a little… danger involved. That it’s all going to fail, that a clue or bridge will be unsuccessful. I found it stressful but perhaps it’s exhilarating for some?

  10. Absolutely – in all aspects. It’s a thrilling and fascinating experience – and a pretty stressful one. I played many “grassroots” (player made ARGs) and many of them failed because of lack of motivation (by puppet masters, or by players). But this two grassroots we/I made, were fortunately successful. In aftermath, if I come back to these contents, blogs, materials used in the ARGs, I feel a nostalghia, a strange bright depression like those protagonist of Tommaso Landolfi in his unbelievably wonderful short story “Dialogue of the Greater Systems” – me and some players are just a bunch of people, who have this shared memories, this experience from both parts of curtains.

    I’ll do once a transmedial documentary about it, even if I am unsure, whether it’s relevant for somebody besides of the member of these events. Well, “The Institute” as documentary exists, so why not? :-)

    And yes, this is an exciting experience – to read your recipients in real time – and (since you aren’t bound on a project schedule, like professional marketing ARGs) to re-act to their ideas in the story flow. This meta-interaction is perhaps still undiscovered by writers, though you can make a perfect (for all participants) narrative in such crowd sourcing project.


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