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.
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.
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.