Deep Space travel and colonization, if we can ever achieve it, is going to be incredibly difficult. Anywhere we go, we will have to bring or manufacture all of our own food and oxygen. Long stretches of time away from Earth’s gravity will wreak havoc on the human body. Human colonists will have to live in confined spaces for months or even years at a time, possibly away from all of their friends and family. A colony will also need a method of harnessing energy to fund all of its life support, research, and terraforming activities. People will eventually reproduce, which means that children will be forced to grow up in this incredibly harsh environment. All the while, the colony may be threatened by natural disasters that dwarf anything that is experienced on Earth. And, if anything goes wrong, rescue is virtually impossible. All of these challenges are featured in Alone With You, a hybrid adventure game/visual novel about a doomed deep space colony.
Alone With You is certainly not the first game to portray the physical hazards of deep space, but it is the first game that I have played that successfully tackles the psychological hazards as well – the isolation, the loneliness, and the constant, intense stress that comes from years of living in tiny dwellings light years away from home. All of these challenges could push even the most psychologically fit human being to the breaking point.
Alone with You artfully and intelligently takes on these themes; as a story-driven experience, it largely succeeds. As an adventure game, however, it does not fare as well. It tells its story through a series of mostly linear levels and, with a few exceptions, it fails to provide much of a challenge along the way. The characters in the game are fleshed out adequately and their dialog is well written, but the time in between interactions with these characters is too repetitive and uninteresting for Alone with You to be considered a great game. It is still worth your time though if the game’s story appeals to you and you don’t mind its mediocre point-and-click gameplay.
In Alone with You, you play as the lone survivor in a deep space colony that has collapsed due to a natural disaster. Accompanied only by a talkative AI, you travel back and forth from your headquarters to various outposts, collecting information and machine parts to repair your escape pod and leave the planet. Along the way, you read diaries and computer logs that describe what has happened at the colony and, ultimately, the final fate for everyone who used to live there. Each night, when you return to headquarters, you enter a holodeck-style simulator where you get to hold a conversation with one of four characters who comprise the game’s story. All of these characters perished before the game takes place, so the people that you speak with are recreations, built from the tidbits of data that you discover about them during your missions. These sections don’t contain much in the way of gameplay, but instead they are the “visual novel” portion of the unique mixture offered up by the game.
Alone with You wears its emotions on its sleeve. It is a tragic story, and there is very little in it that is uplifting. The game’s story centers around the arc of four colonists, each of whom faced their own challenges and met an unfortunate end. The game invests very heavily in these characters, essentially banking the whole story on whether or not you will sympathize with them and care about them. Fortunately, the game is very much a success in this regard. It is easy to get attached to these characters, because they are both likeable and very relatable. Everyone in the game, even the minor characters that you learn about as you explore, feels like a real person, complete with real emotions and real flaws. Their stories are interesting and believable, especially their reactions to their eventual realizations that they had no hope of surviving. Some people rose to the challenge and took charge of whatever situation that they were in. Others retreated into despair and isolation. This intense psychological stress even shows up in the colony’s AI.
The space colony also feels like a realistic installation; the game’s designers have read about or researched enough about the subject matter to understand the practicalities of colonizing space. There is a gigantic botany lab that grows food and produces oxygen. There is a mine where the planet’s source of energy is harvested. The colonists consist mostly of scientific specialists and supervisors, along with a psychologist to help people deal with the intense mental challenges of their work. It is all as fragile as you would expect it to be in real life – one tragic mistake or natural disaster easily wrecks what took more than a decade to build. By the time that the game takes place, the colony is in a state of complete disrepair, with all of the food stores depleted and many corpses to be found.
Assisting the game’s story is the terrific, almost horror-like sense of atmosphere that the game offers. The game communicates that atmosphere in a number of ways, like its dark, grungy scenery, terrific synthesized soundtrack, and the remarks and descriptions of your AI companion. The game’s retro pixelated graphics aren’t very attractive, but they get the job done. Every area has broken down machinery, arcing electricity from loose wires, overgrown foliage, crumbling walls, and all of the other signs of decay that you would expect a broken colony to show weeks after everyone who could maintain it was gone. Alone with You could be repurposed into a survival horror or an action game and it would feel right at home.
Just about everything Alone with You does well falls into the category of story, character design, or atmosphere. Unfortunately, everything that the game doesn’t do well falls into the category of gameplay. The best way to describe the gameplay would be that it is an old school point-and-click adventure game. However, the game presents almost nothing in the way of puzzles to solve. There are four installations on the colony, each of which you visit three times (which itself becomes a little bit tedious). Most of these are set up the same way – you walk in and either the power is off or some of the doors are security locked. You find an unlocked door, usually along a linear path, which leads to a computer terminal or an object that you need. Then you use what you find to unlock another door and explore what is behind that one. While you are exploring you click on everything that you can to either scan it or pick it up. This process continues until you have unlocked every door and clicked on every clickable item, at which time the mission ends and you head back to the base for the night. With one or two exceptions, this is the rather uninteresting routine that you repeat a dozen times. This game provides the perfect setting for some challenging point-and-click gameplay, but it squanders that opportunity.
Repetition is another problem that plagues Alone with You. It is a game that could probably shave off a third of its running time by skipping some mundane moments that feel like they are in there to pad its length. You visit each place four times, and each time that you do, there is a short cutscene that shows you turning on your rover and driving across the landscape. When you return home at night, you get that same cutscene. The first few times this happens, it is a welcome dose of realism, but by the end of the game, you will just want to skip it. Every night, you return to your bed to sleep, and every morning when you get up you go visit the AI core to have a quick discussion. These little bits of repetition wear out their welcome as well. Every door that you open launches a one-second cutscene of you opening up and passing through the door. This problem isn’t an egregious one, but it gets rather annoying after a while, especially when you want to quickly backtrack across an area and don’t feel like watching yourself climb every ladder or go through every door.
The degree to which you like Alone with You will depend largely upon how much emphasis you put on story versus gameplay. At times, the game feels a little bit too much like a walking simulator with 1993 graphics. A game like Alone with You that features survival so heavily as one of its major themes should make survival tough and satisfying, but the game does not offer that experience. On the other hand, success comes in abundance with the game’s setting, characters, and story. Whereas most “space disaster” games feature scary aliens, action, and explosions, Alone with You features realistic human tragedy. It is a unique approach to this genre of fiction that I have never experienced in video games. It is for this reason that this game can still be considered an overall success, despite its overly simplistic and deeply flawed gameplay.