Game Review: Choice of Robots

Type of game: Text / interactive novel
Written by: Kevin Gold
Published by: Choice of Games
Year: 2014
Played on: Steam
Review by: R

Back when I was a kid, I used to love those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I had quite a few of them: taking in every sort of quest from exploring the galaxy to becoming a champion rider, even quaffing ginger beer and solving mysteries with the Famous Five. I’d devour them all, turning back and forth the pages to leave no option unexplored. I hadn’t realised until very recently that these kinds of interactive novels were now available digitally, but it’s a perfect fit for the format: the simple, ”choose an option and click to continue” method of progression prevents any sneaky peeking ahead or changing your mind (always a temptation in book form), encouraging more investment in the choices the reader/player makes.

As an adult, horses and plucky kids don’t really do the business for me anymore, but do you know what does? ROBOTS! And in Choice of Robots Kevin Gold has created a game that has really got me hooked.

Art by Jason  Wiser: http //madwomb.com/home.php

‘Cover’ art by Jason Wiser: http //madwomb.com/home.php

What’s it all about?

The premise is simple: you control the actions of a promising postgraduate robot-maker about to switch on her most advanced creation. Your interactions with that creation – and with the other humans characters in the story – will shape the course of the next 30 years of your life, and of world history. Every choice you make about how your robot looks and develops contributes to its 4 key statistics:

Autonomy
Military
Empathy
Grace

And so your creation can be anything from an obedient, childlike dependent, to a wise oracle or an armed and deadly rebel. Discovering how the seemingly insignificant comments and choices can later come to have radical effects makes for a really fascinating journey.

The Good

So, so much! This is a well-written story than satisfies on a range of levels, tempering its deep moral and philosophical conundrums with amusing pop-cultural jibes and references to sci-fi and robot lore from Asimov to Optimus.

TF cheevo

Yes, there are “cheevos”

The game has huge replay potential. Steam tells me I’ve put in over 24 hours on it in the past week or so (well, that’s what Christmas breaks are for, right?) and I’m still enjoying exploring subtly different variations of the story line. If you’re an achievement hunter type then the list of 72 potential achievements will keep you coming back for more. The achievement names give some idea of which paths must be taken to attain them but there’s often more to them than meets the eye (sorry!) I seem to have joined a friendly little community of Choice of Robots wannabe completists on Steam (I currently have 6 left to gain) and it’s a fun challenge trying to figure how what choices to make to unlock those final elusive few. I’ve got to admit I’m completely stumped on how to get the ”Officiant” and ”Lunatic” achievements!

But what I’ve enjoyed most about this game is how much it’s taught me about myself. Before I started the game I’d been joking with B about how I’d soon be marching towards world domination at the head of my army of Killbots. Yet I began by giving my robot inventor my real first name (any excuse to get close to the ‘bots) which encouraged me to think carefully and choose honestly and my first few games revealed that I was much more of a lover than I was a fighter….

…By which I mean that I couldn’t resist getting attached to my robot, Ratchet (although an interesting choice of default names are available, type your own is an option so all of mine have had Transformer names, I couldn’t resist) and repeatedly picking options that ended up turning him into a strange and wonderful mechanical child. Indeed, it was quite a surprise to find out just how much I struggled to neglect or mistreat my bots. It’s only been on later play throughs – and with a conscious effort of achievement hunting will – that I’ve managed to pursue the story’s more military options. Even then, I struggled to force myself to create a robot who fully betrayed me. Hell, even Starscream remained surprisingly loyal to me! I guess I’ll just leave my Killbot Overload cape and crown at the door shall I?

Dsc00007ed

As I said, I guess at heart I’m too big a robot lover. But all in a wholesome, maternal sense of course. Well actually… The second half of the game does allow the option for creating a robot love companion and – if you want it to – it can play a little like one of those creepy Japanese dating simulators; albeit one that asks some pretty damn well pertinent and compelling questions about the nature of love, attraction, and the social capacity of artificial intelligence. Still, I won’t tell the internet how that turned out for me.

Just don't ask Transformer name I chose here

Just don’t ask which Transformer name I chose here

The Bad 

Really not a lot. The game auto-saves each story as you progress, but be aware you can’t revert to previous options and there’s no ”back” button; so if you change your mind or accidentally click the wrong box, tough luck. I’ve mostly found this to be a positive feature that helped me achieve greater levels of immersion in the story but I do see how it could be frustrating once you’ve played through the tale a good few times and just want to explore very subtle differences in the final chapters. There’s no way to do this except by going right through again remembering and replicating all your choices up until that point. Fortunately the game is sufficiently well written that it can support this level of repetition.

A couple of the throwaway jokes fell a little flat for me (maybe because they don’t relate to my familiar UK culture). There was also one option – about going knife throwing – that occasionally seemed to spring from nowhere, with no explanation in the preceding paragraph. So I think there may be a few tiny bugs, or perhaps I just missed something?

It’s very much a game of two halves with chapters 6 and 7 allowing you to change direction radically and even build a second robot, with options dictated by your statistics and finances at that point. Only once or twice in the games I’ve played has that transition jarred.  Of course – as in any game – some run throughs will be more fluid than others. The author does his best to provide a coherent and unifying context for all situations, and largely succeeds,  but – as the final chapter is usually quite emotionally charged – it can feel a little disjointed when following on from some of the more militaristic pathways. For instance, having fled the country after participating in a failed robot uprising (not to mention having had Starscream murder a long list of people on my behalf), it did feel a little unlikely to be making a nostalgic visit home in the final chapter!

Verdict

Mostly, however, Choice of Robots holds together beautifully, packs a surprisingly emotional punch and allows the player/reader to explore some paths that are both fun and fascinating. After so many games with ever flashier graphics and movie-length cut scenes it’s also really refreshing to let my imagination do the bulk of the processing. I got this game in the Steam sale but even at full price it would be well worth the money.

I’m definitely interested now to try out other titles by Choice of Games. The format just works so well. Although it’s undoubtedly the subject matter that’s been most captivating here. If you love Robots (and not necessarily just like that) you should certainly take a look.

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