I picked up Aksys' Virtue's Last Reward again after a long break. It's a game that I hold at a distance, scrutinizing its intents and how it pulls its strings, as I find it difficult to immerse myself in its stories and characters. It's pretty much the Saw horror movie franchise with 75% less gore; it's scene after scene where the characters' lives are dependent upon solving Rube Goldberg-type puzzles set by an in-game gamemaker, Zero. This game is "dark" so of course Zero includes the prisoner's dilemma, resulting in all players distrusting each other to the point where learning anything about them is arduously drawn-out. By the way, your player character is a pervy cretin that cannot wait to make his next upskirt and/or dick joke and it's just like…Sigma. Calm. The Fuck. Down.
The plot is garbage, the characters and their designs are dumb, and I am a sucker for escape-the-room games. Them's the breaks. The puzzles are fine: you look for glowing objects in the room, combine them or plug them into various slots or keyholes, and sometimes they include cryptic, potentially plot-related messages. Beyond the instances of foreshadowing in the puzzles (mentions of "the lion" and "the sun" which 16 hours in have yet to pay off), I wish more of the puzzle-solving actually felt tied to the story.
Virtue's one memorable mechanic, though, is all about how it lets you explore its story. It's the first game I've encountered that, diagetically amongst characters within its world, addresses its own branching narrative system. The decision tree is completely exposed to the viewer. At any point where the player has control, the interface has a "FLOW" button that shows a chart with every plot instance and the forking paths. You can tell by the length of some branches which paths will lead to an abrupt demise, though the game stops the player from going straight down the longest path too early in the experience. If you try to cut straight to endgame, you'll find a "TO BE CONTINUED…" scenario due to missing information to be discovered in another path.
The story tree is pretty much a lie. You can play segments of the game in an order of your choosing, but ultimately you will need to go down most of the paths, including those you wish you wouldn't. This is not your story. Admittedly, I have trouble role-playing mean in games—my first times through Virtue's, at every instance of the prisoner's dilemma, I chose to ally, but it turns out I'm here to win and not to make friends. You have to betray someone to unlock a piece of information that could save everyone's lives…eventually. Maybe. I haven't beaten the game yet. Either way, Sigma's story has the window dressing of customization, but the game clearly has a set path for him.
The game also has expectations of you, Sigma's invisible hand, and it thinks you're an optimizing asshole. At branching points, decisions made by non-player characters in a previously played path will not be consistent the second time through. Sigma will say that this is not what happened last time, and the other characters will basically respond, "What last time?"
This is a missed opportunity. I love the idea that the game will respond to the act of replaying. Games that feature romance expect a lot of replay, because in video games, we're all serial monogamists: you want to date everyone because it's fun to recontextualize characters in different relationship dynamics. I find it rare that anyone settles down with the first NPC they get with. (Note I said rare, Garrus waifus.) Even outside of romance, games allow for mistakes, and saving and reloading allow players to undo those errors. I was excited at the prospect of a game that responds to players overriding choices. I mean, it'd be cool to see an ex from a previous save chew you out for going with someone new, or even a character from the current playthrough responding to the optimization of a relationship. Game dev Robert Yang has some great thoughts about the agency of programs in relationships with those that use them: "There is an inherent power dynamic that prevents software from ever meaningfully negotiating with humans… An AI cannot quit playing, nor protest when you begin reloading savegames to achieve optimal outcomes."
What if the AI could protest, though? It's a cool question, and Virtue's has an inkling of that. Unfortunately, Virtue's is too enamored with what it perceives as cleverness to do anything with the actual interesting bits. It's like a Neal Stephenson wannabe, using pulpy characters and plotting to show off how smart it actually is in errata and worldbuilding, with notes strewn about with content ranging from Knox's Ten Commandments for writing a mystery to integer factorization. It's one nam shub away from being totally insufferable. Not much actually changes between Sigma and the rest of the cast when jumping between the branches: at worst, someone you've betrayed now distrusts you more than the last time. One other character that's also cognizant of the parallel realities mostly rolls their eyes at Sigma's incompetence. The game pokes at thinking about the consequences of replay, but it's mostly there to move the plot along. There's no emotional pushback from reliving and changing events. You don't have much choice in how to treat others—someone always gets hurt, but you're not given a reason to care.