The Fall of Asemia by B.J. Best
The Fall of Asemia is a story about loss and violence and language and memory that, to me, evokes the war in Ukraine and works like Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, as well as the asemic writing of authors like Henri Michaux. In this game, you play a scholar who is translating an old text–an account of war and exile–from “Asemian” into English. You click through variations of each Asemian glyph, which causes the corresponding English translation to shift. Even though the story was bleak, I enjoyed inhabiting this world of churning meaning. The variations of each line were similar enough to suggest that they all might have come from the same source text, yet distinct enough to feel satisfying and novel, even over three “rounds” of translation.
The notion of gesturing toward meaning but never really nailing it down reminded me of John Cage talking about the relationships among syntax and sense and militarization, and how deliberately making language less understandable in effect “demilitarizes” it. I wondered how this might relate to translation–specifically, translation of a story about military invasion and occupation.
To get at this idea from a different direction: I felt a little let down by the final choice, both because I was hoping that it would feel more consequential, and also because I was disappointed to finally land on a definitive translation. Throughout the game, the failure of meaning to be pinned down felt like a kind of resistance, a kind of opening. This continuous movement, combined with the very strong writing, infused the game with energy and preserved a sense of possibility, albeit limited. Taking a narrative that was multivocal and constantly shifting, and freezing it into a single voice, a single sentiment, conveyed a finality that also felt a bit like defeat. It was a fitting and effective end to this haunting game that was as much about translation and the writing of history as it was about Asemia.
New Year’s Eve, 2029, by Autumn Chen
In New Year’s Eve, 2019, you play Karen Zhao, a college senior trying to endure a new year’s eve party–a harrowing confluence of family, friends, former friends, and potential romantic interests. The stakes are defined early in the game: “Everyone you grew up with between the ages of 10 and 18 are here. Your old friends and acquaintances, and their parents and siblings and everyone else. People you thought you had left behind, or had left you behind. Itʻs as if every loose plot thread of your life has come together in this moment.”
Indeed, one of the most stressful aspects of this game is navigating your continuously shifting identities–and the corresponding expectations–in relation to the people you talk to. You are by turns daughter, sister, niece, friend, ex-rival, possible love interest, symbol of achievement and future success. Even within those identities, there is plenty of anxiety-provoking ambiguity to confront: would you still consider Aubrey a “friend”? How about Miri? Are you just friends with Emily, or is there something more there? Is it all just in your head?!
Though the game tracks stats for hunger, thirst, anxiety, and the status of your relationships with the other characters, I didnʻt discover these stats until I read other reviews–I think because the writing provided enough clues about each of these variables, particularly anxiety. In fact, the only “stat” that I found myself altering my behavior in response to was time: I became hyper-aware of how slowly time was advancing in these excruciating social situations, and it sent me constantly fleeing from room to room in order to avoid awkward interactions.
NYE, 2019 is a great portrait of this age, for these particular characters, with powerful secondary themes underlying the main conceit of social interaction as an optimization problem: For instance, the way the status-focused conversation between the adults is mirrored in the conversation between the young adults, the way that friendships fade, and, the most poignant one for me: the growing distance between Karen and her mom.
(A final note to say that I have not had haw flakes since I was a kid, so I will definitely be looking for them next time I’m at Costco!)
Computerfriend by Kit Riemer
Iʻm going to echo a strategy from Mike Russo’s IFDB review and say that my experience playing Kit Riemer’s Computerfriend was equal parts “You’re the birthday boy or girl” and “Tony Leung whispering into the tree at the end of In the Mood for Love.” That’s pretty ridiculous and also a gross oversimplification, but I’ll try to explain:
Computerfriend takes place in an alternate 1999, in Godfield, Louisiana, URAS (Union of Remaining American States). Godfield is a place where the air is unbreathable, the cars are disposable, the cows lay eggs, and everything tastes like death. You have just been released from a psychiatric hospital and are cleared to recover at home, provided you check in regularly with an ELIZA-like computer psychotherapist, Computerfriend.
Author Kit Riemer says Computerfriend was “fun and weirdly relaxing” to write; it was fun and weirdly relaxing to play, too! Despite its toxic setting (not to mention its premise: state-mandated therapy with a computer program), Computerfriend’s strange details and startling imagery filled the game with energy, humor, and life.
However, Computerfriend is much more than dog milk and slimeworms. At first, the eponymous psychotherapist seemed a bit like someone whoʻs busy texting and saying “uh huh, uh huh” as you try to tell them something important. But as the game progressed, it became more and more direct and disarming. I found myself interacting with Computerfriend in a very candid and honest way, and making a genuine effort to examine my feelings–even across multiple playthroughs (I got 4 of the 6 endings so far). And I was moved by its off-kilter yet matter-of-fact exploration of loss, absence, regret, loneliness, and alienation.
By the end of the game, I felt like a menacing animatronic beaver that had just caught fire, like a person who had just confessed an unbearable secret to a random tree–and like a random tree that is full of everybodyʻs damn secrets. Because of this, Computerfriend was my favorite game of the festival and it is one of my favorite games overall.
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