The Star Trek television series have regularly used the holodeck, that miraculous virtual reality playroom, to raise the question of what differentiates a holographic representation of a human being — especially one with an advanced artificial intelligence — from the real thing.
In one memorable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton's character Geordi LaForge falls in love with the holographic recreation of a real-life scientist.
Alone With You, a game made by Toronto-based indie developer Benjamin Rivers, explores this concept further, marrying old-school point-and-click adventures in a sci-fi setting with the usually niche genre of dating simulators.
You play as the last survivor of a terraforming space colony that recently suffered a catastrophic disaster, with only a few weeks to escape before the planet implodes.
Every day, you'll wake up and set out to nearby locations such as a biodome and mining station. You'll rummage through leaky corridors and lived-in employee quarters in the hopes of recovering the equipment needed to build an escape pod that will get you off the planet.
Inspired by classic adventure games
The first thing you'll notice about Alone With You is its retro-inspired style. Characters are drawn with rough lines and stop-motion-like animation often seen in classic point-and-click adventure games for the PC like Maniac Mansion and King's Quest.
Your character will run across areas bathed in muted greens, greys and purples with surprisingly fluid animation. The environments themselves are mostly static, except for flickering lights and steam bubbling out of the broken-down, abandoned facilities.
Small interstitial animations add flavour to the scenery: Every time you walk through an automatic door, for example, you'll see it slide open and make a distinctly Star Trek-like whoosh sound.
It's all terribly reminiscent of the critically acclaimed 1991 adventure game Another World, which Rivers — who also teaches game design at Toronto's OCAD University — calls "one of the games that made me want to make video games in the first place."
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Most of the time, the game's narrator takes the form of the colony's artificial intelligence, whose language oscillates from coldly logical to surprisingly affable. Those who have seen the 2009 film Moon will see similarities in the player-AI relationship, as will fans of android superhero the Vision from recent Avengers films.
'Awkward online dates in space'
In between your away missions, you'll spend time in Alone With You's equivalent of a holodeck to meet one of four digital companions. They're recreations of people who used to hold important positions on the colony, and their skills will help you on your mission.
The twist? The "real" versions of these characters are long dead, but their computer-constructed copies have no memory of their last days. It'll be up to the player to find clues as to their flesh-and-blood versions' fates. But along the way, you'll develop friendships, or even romantic relationships, with these companions if you wish.
Rivers wanted to take a more Westernized approach to the dating simulator, a niche genre usually made by Japanese developers and filled with cartoonish character tropes in high school settings.
In Alone With You, your encounters closely resemble awkward coffee dates with someone you first met on Tinder or OKCupid.
"I wanted to make sure people felt a little bit of that hesitation you get on a date, especially a first date," Rivers told CBC News, "where you're trying to be cool, maybe you just genuinely like the person and you're having a good time talking. But because it's a date, there's some weight that comes from that, and it gives you pause whenever you think about saying the next thing."
For the most part, Alone With You's script pulls this off very well. Despite the sci-fi setting, most of the characters' motivations and hang-ups are relatable to just about anyone — for example, maintaining a suitable work-life balance or navigating the complex interpersonal relationships and personality conflicts with co-workers.
While the game is set firmly in a fictional universe, Canadians will appreciate a few clever nods to Canada. The company behind the terraforming project is called Hudson-Cartier (most likely a reference to the Hudson's Bay Company and explorer Jacques Cartier).
You punch passwords into a computer called the Maple Terminal. And one of your holographic companions, Winnie Laurier, could trace her lineage back to former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier.
Like any good Trek holodeck story, you'll spend ample time with your companions in their digitally recreated homes — Leslie surrounded by the plants and trees she lovingly cultivated in the biodome, or Pierre in his cluttered study, handwritten blueprints taped to the walls.
In fact, compared to your player character, an indistinct figure whose helmet obscures his/her face, your holographic companions might feel like the most human members of the cast.
Alone With You is available on Sony's digital PSN Store for the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita.