The Fall (2018) [Switch]

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We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn’t obey the rules.
-Alan Bennett, Getting On

 

 

SPOILERS
(though I mean the trailers kind of give it all away)

 

 

Purpose…

We all have one. Well, some of us have several. When we don’t, or when we’re still looking, it can be a real downer.

Purpose is at the core of why we get up out of bed, why we make sure we look halfway decent before heading out the door, why we work or go to school, take care of our families or tend to our hobbies. Purpose is everything and finding purpose can be one of the most exhilarating experiences anyone could have (spoilers) but it’s been said that life doesn’t come with a manual, and so people find purpose in their jobs, in creating, in art, in learning, in religion, in communities, in social interaction, in their families or friendships. We as individuals must find something capable of sustaining our drive for purpose.

So then imagine being an artificial life-form. You know what? Let’s go further than that. Imagine being an autonomous, humanoid battle suit with a fully functioning onboard A.I. capable of vocalization and self-defense, equipped with stealth camouflage and a thigh-mounted firearm, and you’re carrying a person protected inside your metallic shell whom you’re charged with protecting to the utmost. Your pipe dream, right?

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One of the trappings of artificial entities both in fiction and in the literature surrounding the development of A.I. in real life has been the inclusion of purpose. After all, when you make something, typically you create with purpose, with functionality or “use” in mind. Things are made for a reason. The game we’re about to talk on was made to entertain. Whether for the completion of a specific task or for the betterment of the human experience or for the simple curiosity of the scientific mind, artificial life-forms are mused into our stories and into reality with innate purpose.

This immediately sets our robot servants apart from the fleshy, fragile creatures that we sire biologically; our artificial creatures are born with single-minded, specific reason(s) for being, typically known by them from the get go. They get a head start on why they’re here.

However, the path of the automata is not without its perils, before you go getting jealous of the life of the positronic brain. For instance, while human beings have the blessing (and the curse?) of being able to search for their purpose, most ideas about machines project that they cannot. Mechanical life is confined often by strict rules, the most famous of these being those created by one of the fathers of science fiction, Isaac Asimov. His three laws of robotics, as well as conflicts between predefined behaviors and logic, have been echoed throughout entertainment history from HAL 9000 to WALL-E.

hal9000I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I’m ontologically predisposed.”

It seems that while we the people fight against the lawlessness of our natures and struggle against our baser selves daily in order to exist as an ordered society, trying to develop our ethics and study our virtues, teaching them to the next biological generation, we don’t allow the same for our mechanized children.

We have laws alongside our free will to choose between right and wrong, good and bad, correct and incorrect. Free will is that elusive concept that we seem to find ourselves possessing without explanation but which we can’t seem to truly replicate in machines, beyond the realm of fantasy. We the creators give to them laws which by the precision of their design they are unable to break any more than a line of code can choose to render a different result or a word processor can choose to become a synthesizer.

When things go according to plan, that is.

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Less friendly than your toaster deciding to go rogue and become a fondue fount instead, The Fall is a game of mysteries which copes with themes of rules, purpose, and protocol without truly giving all the answers.

The game begins with a mechanical humanoid exoskeleton falling from space toward an unknown planet, crash landing and waking to find that it is utterly lost, its pilot Colonel Josephs unresponsive and in critical need of medical attention. No internal records exist of its previous missions. Its onboard computer takes control of the suits basic functions.

This is the A.R.I.D. (Autonomous Robotic Interface Device) of a Mark-7 Combat Suit, whose intentions are peaceful. Her (the A.I.’s voice is feminine and the game is designed to tempt the player into attributing personhood) higher functions are restricted since her human is incapacitated. She is also without her firearm to defend herself. Thus the game begins to play out as she discovers where she is and how she can reach the medical facilities.

Three rules bind her operating system: Must not misrepresent reality, Must be obedient, and Must protect active pilot. Don’t lie, don’t disobey, and protect the person in the suit. As the game wears on and A.R.I.D. finds her ability to safeguard her human compromised, the relationship between these three rules becomes… tenuous at best.

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A.R.I.D. finds herself in the bowels of some kind of junkyard complex, the remains of robots littering the dimly lit corridors. A.R.I.D. discovers that these are de-purposed machines, not all of them in complete disarray or disrepair but discarded perhaps only for their obsolescence.

As she continues to look for a medical bay, it becomes increasingly clear that this is more than an abandoned facility. Something sinister has happened here and I should be up front about the fact that exactly what occurred seems to be beyond the scope of this game. There is a sequel that was released in February 2018 and yet another sequel is on the way.

Passing by other robots that appear disturbingly to have been crucified, A.R.I.D. finds the rotting bodies of humans hung up in similar poses. A shadow stalks her in the dark, the Caretaker, an android in charge of “caring” for this grisly place.

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She finds a potential ally in the Administrator, though, an A.I. in the facility mainframe that gained sentience through its long isolation but which is wholly dedicated to the rules and protocol. The charming Administrator, it is he (again, I’m condescending personhood) that shrinks A.R.I.D. to “Arid” as a proper name. He represents the most human character in this brief game with its small cast and limited setting, which makes it all feel like a Twilight Zone capsule story.

When the Caretaker marks Arid as faulty, the Administrator presents her with the opportunity to embrace the rules and become re-purposed as a domestic android. Arid is run through a gamut of tests involving menial tasks such as serving food at a family table and quieting down a baby. Arid continuously finds herself at odds with the strict rules, finding often times elaborate ways to solve the puzzles set before her.

 

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The Fall has a lot of high ideas that it wrestles with but never gets on top of. I don’t think that was the intention of its creators. It is, after all, part one of a larger story. However, the story of The Fall is its biggest draw and what is here may be enough to intrigue most players.

 

 

The 8-bit Review
Visuals icon Visuals: 7/10
The Fall is a very dark game, thematically and also literally, of course. When starting a new game, it prompts you to turn down the brightness more than just a bit. Playing at these prescribed levels, Arid is a mere silhouette and everything is black edges and shapes with little more than the shimmering visor of the Mark-7 Combat Suit, a flashlight, and a street lamp to illuminate the surroundings.

Lighting (and the lack thereof) play a huge part in sustaining the sense of isolation, desperation, and madness of Arid’s journey. It’s a moody atmosphere that refuses to let up. Lighting and darkness also make solving its puzzles an occasional challenge. You’ve got to refine your ability to see what’s around you and search for anything out of the ordinary. Occasionally, this can be something as tiny as a viscous drop of liquid in the dark.

The Fall isn’t a heavily detailed or ultra high definition game but it is one that nails a great sense of ambiance and tone, due no doubt in large part to its visual philosophy. Minor effects like a cracked screen when damaged and the OS mockup of the main menu are welcome curiosities, as well.

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audio1 (1).png Audio: 8/10
The Fall has this great soundtrack that sounds as if it’s right out of Alien or some other gritty, dirty science fiction horror-piece. I am more than tempted to quote our own Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage on this:

“…one of my favourite maxims for game soundtracks: it should be there to enhance the mood of the rest of the game, not to take centre stage. Writing soundtracks is very different from writing music that’s supposed to be listened to as its own thing!”

I wholeheartedly agree. In the modern push within gaming to portray video games as on the same level as movies, perhaps for the sake of legitimacy, video game soundtracks have evolved to match the orchestral symphonies we’re now accustomed to hearing at the theater. However, it shouldn’t be too controversial to assert that video games and movies are not the same thing. Music in video games has to be there to highlight a much more prolonged experience and in the case of skill-based games, it must not be so distracting as to cause the player to lose. As for The Fall, the music here has to support its dedication to atmosphere, which it does splendidly.

Even better than the music, in my opinion, is The Fall’s voice acting. That becomes especially impressive when you realize there are less than a handful of speaking characters in the entire game, aside from a few recordings of human voices in various simulations, and every one of these characters is an artificial intelligence. At first, A.R.I.D. and the Caretaker only interact in the sterile tones we’ve come to associate with robotic voices and the prospect of playing a narrative-heavy game with so little inflection became a concern at the back of my mind.

However, there’s the Administrator who taught himself how to sound more human. Arid too begins to develop and show real emotion as she proceeds, her own semblance of humanity not so ironically coming to the fore when she violates the rules. I imagine this involved careful planning on the part of voice direction. The game needed to create this illusion of real A.I. finding themselves.

narrative Narrative: 8/10
Okay, so here come the heavy SPOILERS! If you want to avoid them, please Ctrl+f Gameplay in order to bypass this section.

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While attempting to find medical care for Col. Josephs. Arid finds her capabilities pushed to the limits by the harrowing Caretaker and the strict rules of the facility. Determined by design to protect her pilot, Arid begins looking for loopholes in every situation to bend every rule, eventually bending even the rules that bind her operating system. The player must watch as she develops self-delusions about her own behavior (misrepresenting reality). As her madness deepens, she goes to any length to reach her goal, even going so far as wiping out innocent re-purposed androids to protect her colonel.

The shock is all the worse at the end when Arid finally reaches the medical bay. She lied, broke rules, and let nothing else stand in her way to arrive. Then she finds out that no biological signs are detected in her suit. There is no Colonel Josephs. They M. Night Shyamalan’d it!

Arid is determined to be a deviant unit and is hoisted away for recycling. This is where the game ends and the next begins. Quite the story of a descent into insanity as seen from the highly purposed life of a machine. Arid was faulty the whole time and I’m guessing that’s why she fell to the re-purposing facility in the first place. I liked the ending, though in retrospect it seems a tad abrupt, and the lead up to it was truly gripping. The takeaway I had is that our social fabric and our identity is dependent upon the existence of rules. We may kick against these goads constantly but many rules help define our boundaries, our behavior, and our sanity.

HangingDroids_preview.jpegArid takes part in genocide.

Can I say the ending was somewhat predictable? Here’s a question I posed to my friend the Timely Mage on May 11th.

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Conversation abridged for the sake of brevity.

Maybe I’ve seen one too many science fiction movies. There’s also not a whole lot of subtlety in the fact that Arid seems to be spiraling toward malfunction as the story goes on. Actually, The Fall appeared to me to strike a balance between too obvious and overly vague.

This feeling was compounded when I began listening to the game’s commentary, which is sprinkled throughout the journey toward the medical facility. I suspect The Fall is a game its developers put much intense love and care into, but listening to their description of the game it seemed to me they were describing a game that was far beyond the scope of the one I was playing. Does it carry too high of an aspiration for its own themes?

Hearing the developers describe an early puzzle where you had to retrieve a gun from a rat-like creature as a complex metaphor for the Cold War where Arid was America because of her blue visor, the rat was Russia because of its fur that resembled Russian hats, the gun represented stockpiling weapons… The puzzle was such a tiny part of the game and no themes like that ever came up again, so I ultimately decided that the developers were either joking or were simply seeing more of their own creation than what they were able to reveal through The Fall, as if it were the tip of some iceberg. I’d chalk that up as overly vague where no player was bound to assume that the slugs represented Vietnam or the headless corpse Richard Nixon, but in the same game there are much more tangible themes that are carried throughout the entire experience which are much more plain to see through.

This left me with the sensation that I wasn’t really sure what to make of The Fall. I resolved that admixture of un-surety by realizing that I enjoyed the ruthless drive and the curiosity of the game, especially the last third of it, but I don’t put too much stock in its themes. Maybe that’ll change after playing the sequel?

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gameplay1.png Gameplay: 6/10
The Fall is an adventure game and as such it tasks the player with solving puzzles through item acquisition and combination. As mentioned, you’ll need a good attention to detail in order to succeed without running to your nearest search engine for all the solutions (I had to do that twice to ensure I didn’t get stuck for all eternity). Even after I cheated (see, I break my own rules because I’m human), I still believed that the puzzles made sense and were fair for the most part. Their solutions could clearly be reached with the clues and information given in the game. We’re not talking Lucas Games level of ridiculousness for these puzzles.

I do have to report that a lot of the game’s controls frustrated me. At a handful of points in the game, it seemed to me that the controls would change on me randomly. The button I was using for select changed. The method I opted for to wield Arid’s flashlight switched. Glitch, perhaps?

Even without this potential glitch, I felt the layout of the game’s controls were strange…

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Accessibility icon Accessibility: 4/10
I simply felt that the controls were mapped oddly. Not even by the end of the game did I ever become proficient in managing Arid’s stealth camouflage, firearm, and ducking in combat with hostile patrols. Having to play between the two left shoulders for stealth and the weapon, clicking the right joystick to cycle between laser sight and flashlight, adjusting play from charging the weapon to rapid fire, none of these things came easily and it’s not like I’m new to holding a controller in my hands.

This inevitably made the combat portions of the game, which were already few in number, feel tacked on like afterthoughts. Perhaps they were remnant ideas from another more action-oriented game. Here they seemed like obstacles between the pace of the game and its puzzles, irritations when I had to stop thinking about solving some spatial riddle and start thinking about dodging bullets.

The Fall involves a lot of reading, which is awesome. It fleshes out its world and the environments through nodes that Arid can shine her flashlight on. When some text boxes wouldn’t activate even after I shone the beams on them, forcing me to readjust Arid from another angle, that was the final straw in the irritated camel’s back.

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challenge Challenge: 8/10
Is The Fall a hard game? Failure is a limited outcome given the infrequency of battle scenes. Even then, only the last couple firefights are truly difficult. Dying doesn’t take you back far at all so you’re only restrained by the level of your patience. That transitions us to the puzzles themselves. As mentioned, these aren’t the most arcane or abstruse. I thought they were fair. Some of them really require thinking outside of the box, though, but that is perfect for a game about an A.I. learning to break its own rules and find loopholes in order to proceed!

Uniqueness icon Uniqueness: 8/10
The Fall is more action-oriented and less textually-dense than a visual novel, yet it is more pensive and unhurried than your typical game with a gun-toting robot. Science fiction tends toward blockbuster territory and The Fall is nothing like that. It’s a game which rewards patience. Just be sure you don’t drag that story out too long. It seems to me to benefit from a brisk pace that keeps up the tension while still allowing you the chance to explore your surroundings and choose your responses in dialogue.

my personal grade My Personal Grade: 7/10
I liked this game and I give it a heart 7-out-of-10. It’s rare that science fiction blows my mind anymore, and I still love it anyway, though Over the Moon’s The Fall falls into the territory of concept-driven sci-fi that I find most appealing. Getting into the head of an A.I. and watching her spiral out of control was a psychological treat. It’s in this spirit that I must thank Over the Moon and Plan of Attack for supplying TWRM with a press copy of this game for this critique.

I suppose the biggest question at the end of so many words is this: Is the impetus of The Fall enough to make me want to play the sequel? Yes, the game has a potentially surprising ending and yes, it is a rather short game, comparatively speaking. It’s enough to where I feel motivated to play The Fall Part 2: Unbound just to see what happens to Arid after her existential shock. In that light, I’d mark The Fall a success!

Aggregated Score: 7.0

 

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