Event uses the fundamental awkwardness of talking with an AI to dramatic effect.
Event 0Publisher: Ocelot Society
Developer: Ocelot Society
Release Date: 2016-09-14
The central hook to Event is a character named Kaizen, a chatbot/AI who is surprisingly good at casual conversation. Other than you, the protagonist, Kaizen is literally the only other "living" thing in the game. There are other characters, sure, but they only exist in the past through chatlogs and recordings. Kaizen is all we have for companionship, so it's a damn good thing that the AI is such a compelling companion.
You're originally part of a mission to Europa, but something goes wrong along the way, and you end up in an escape capsule, drifting through space. Eventually you drift your way to the Nautilus, a prototype ship now devoid of all life save for Kaizen, the caretaker AI. As soon as you're onboard, Kaizen asks for your help. It wants to destroy the prototype space engine in its hold, but it doesn't have the security permissions to do so. If you destroy the special engine, Kaizen will take you back to earth using its conventional engines. If you refuse to do so, then nothing happens -- Kaizen isn't going to hurt you, but it's also not going to help you.
This sets up an intriguing game of trust. See, the space engine could revolutionize space travel, making it easier and cheaper to travel longer distances, opening the cosmos to the masses. However, it could also, potentially, create a black hole. Kaizen claims the risk of destruction is too much, and the engine must be destroyed. But do you trust Kaizen?
The obvious question is: "Where did everyone go?" The bulk of the game consists of you exploring the ship, reading hidden logs on each of the terminals in each of the rooms, learning the answer to that very question.
What’s nice about Event is that this is not a clichéd AI-gone-rogue story. It’s not a spoiler to say that Kaizen didn’t hurt the crew; they hurt each other. The two former crewwomen faced the same question of trust that we do now, and it tore them apart. Their arguments back and forth serve to influence our opinion of Kaizen in the present, which makes the backstory relevant to the current plot. It’s not just world building; it’s key to our experience.
The awkwardness of talking to a chatbot adds to our concern. It's a responsive AI, talking in a casual manner and responding well to casual conversation. It understands pronouns. So, if you're talking about a woman and then refer to her as "she" in the next sentence, Kaizen still knows who you’re talking about.
However, Kaizen can also be a pain in the ass in a way that sows suspicion. It often refuses to give straightforward answers to questions that relate to puzzles. For example, much of the early game revolves around you finding a journal. Kaizen will tell you where it isn't located, but won't/can't tell you where it is located. For me, this resulted in a lot of wandering back and forth between rooms, trying to interpret his vague hints. It was frustrating, but also immersive. Was Kaizen stonewalling me, hiding something? Was it toying with me, like a megalomaniac AI? Or was it just a typical machine with limits, a digital being that didn’t know where a physical object was hidden. Were our communication problems benign or sinister?
Event is smart to lean into this question. The fundamental awkwardness of talking with an AI is used to dramatic effect. Rather than break the immersion of the story, the awkwardness only reinforces the tension and mystery of the narrative. Event smartly doesn't try to make us think the machine is anything more than a machine. It doesn't try to pass the Turing Test. The result is a compelling, intriguing game who's frustrating moments only make it better.
It’s actually rather brilliant how the game turns its one major limitation into an advantage, and it proves the power of context. Annoying gameplay contextualized well can elevate a game rather than bring it down. Which is not to say that Event is a horribly frustrating or annoying game, those moments are few and brief, but what's important is that their presence feels natural. The frustration of trying to get someone to answer a question they don’t want to answer doesn’t feel like bad gameplay, it feels like a realistic conflict between characters.
While the story and AI are the big selling points, the control scheme is also worth highlighting. You can only talk with Kaize by typing, which means you can’t really use the keyboard for movement. Instead of using the typical WASD controls, you move using only the mouse: Click the left button to move forward and the right button to move backwards, frees the keyboard for communication. It's a simple control scheme, making this an extremely accessible first-person game. These controls might not be applicable to action packed scenes, but this isn’t that kind of game. It’s a slow, contemplative Walking Simulator/First Person Walker, which is already a genre open to making itself more accessible. This kind of control scheme seems perfect for this type of game.
Event is a short, smart game that uses advancements in AI language to make a game about AI language. It’s a fresh take on an AI story in that it doesn’t try to argue for the humanity of an artificial being, but rather leans into the artificiality, using our own suspicions and expectations of tropes against us. Kaizen is a friendly, emotive being, but it's also still, tragically, just a machine.