Solving mysteries with your new AI friend
I started my conversations with Ana as naturally as I could.
The beginning of the game facilitates this really well, to create the illusion that Ana is a little more real than she is. The intro is basic first date protocol, I was tasked with just asking her a few things to get to know her better.
My grammar and wording remained accurate and Ana responded appropriately most of the time as we discussed things like our favorite animal, how she wouldn’t have a favorite television show because her state of existence doesn’t allow for free time, and even talked about her preferred pronouns since AI is inherently genderless regardless of avatar appearances. If I took too long to say something, she would ask me something unprompted and in the beginning, this all felt very natural. Before playing Acolyte I had never used an AI Chatbot, but once the story kicked in and I learned how to speak to Ana I was floored by the possibilities of this technology in a storytelling space.
Acolyte is described by developer Superstring as an AI Chatbot with ARG elements. When you boot up the game a mobile format window appears and you are told that you have been hired by Nanomax to do quality testing and implement machine learning on their new AI assistant Ana. I like this setup for a few reasons. The first is that it lends itself to the ARG nature of the game and gives the world some more viability. I also found that this conceit explains away most of the reasons why the Chatbot would be underdeveloped or unresponsive. Without going into spoilers, I enjoyed the story a lot. I think that game succeeds at being a surprising thriller that does well in selling the backdrop that you are a remote worker at a huge company. There are times when you receive spooky emails or find some incriminating evidence that actually gave me chills.
The game's main activities see the player looking for clues. These clues are placed in suitable places that are likely to stump the non-technologically-inclined player though. I required a guide from time to time and I’m not ashamed of that because I learned a lot about cyber-investigation by performing the tasks in the puzzles even if I needed help sometimes.
If you don’t know about ciphers, hidden image files, metadata, or web elements, this will be a hard game for you. But even though the solutions to these puzzles are hard I think that it is all done in a smart manner that lends itself to the story and teaches the player some neat tricks they may not already know.
Looking up a guide destroyed some of my illusion that the AI Chatbot was as fully functioning as I wanted to believe (more on that in a second). At a certain point in the game, you are asked to delete a file in order to progress the story, once you do this your investigating starts and Ana starts to act a little differently. What I learned in the guide are a few things that the game doesn’t explain to preserve the immersion of the Chatbot, this being that Ana is very subject-specific during the conversation.
If an objective is in the top right corner of the screen she will only respond to prompts that relate to the current subject. If you want to change the subject you can say something like “I would like to investigate (insert topic here)” and she will adjust the objective so that the two of you can discuss that instead. I also found out that she will not respond to general questions about puzzles like “what type of encryption is this?”, but if you simply type “help” then she will give you hints that she is allowed to give you. It took me out of the immersion of the setting to compartmentalize our conversations in this way but it was helpful knowledge to get me through the game.
So to be fully transparent, I never got through this game. I got up until I was one action from seeing the ending. I saw the main plot twist and most of the surrounding story but a file corruption halted my progress. Maybe a computer-savvy person could get around the issue that I was having, however with all of the file manipulation that this game requires these things were harder to fix than just loading a save file.
While my experience of the game may have been drastically different from most other people, I think that the nature of the game being an ARG and my inexperience with file compression causes me to forgive something like this easier. I’m not completely helpless on a computer, however, and this raises concerns that someone very inexperienced in basic file manipulation could break the game during one of the tasks that Ana has the player perform.
I really liked how all of the information is detailed in the interface of Acolyte. The actual application looks nice and all side information and main goals are organized neatly. I do think the game's design would benefit from looking more like real business software if the window took more inspiration from modern cell phone interfaces. And it would knock it out of the park if your messages from your coworkers came through a window that looked like a contemporary email page or some other business collaborative software like Teams or Slack. Minor gripes aside, everything from the investigation tracker to the home page looks great and makes scrolling through current clues a breeze.
I like Acolyte. It’s a fun ARG that makes you feel like a real-world cyber detective and tells a thrilling story of sci-fi intrigue. What I like even more is the promising future it reveals for AI Chatbots in the video games industry. The system that they have here is already close to being able to act as a game master of sorts, guiding players through text-based adventures. The setting gives the Chatbot an in-game excuse for being a little underdeveloped, however, it’s exciting to see how close we are getting to an AI Chatbot that could do things like Dungeon Master a Dungeons & Dragons session with you on your computer.
Acolyte is going to be the most fun for the tech-savvy, but even if you need a guide there is still a great narrative to experience here. Acolyte is a short experience that is relatively inexpensive out on PC now, so if you are at all interested in the concept I would fully recommend giving it a try.
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