Event and intentional clunkiness
Event is a game about survival. If you haven’t played it yet, I’d like to warn you that this article contains major spoilers. As in, this post reveals the ending of the game, and some of the most magnificent moments in the game. The game is a few hours long, available through various stores through their website, and launched at $19.99. It is a fascinating game, and one of the more tense game experiences I’ve had in a while. It comes strongly recommended, and even if you feel the price isn’t worth it, I’d recommend you bookmark this article and read it only after you acquire it through a sale or bundle in the future. This game is good.
In Event, you play the sole survivor of a failed space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europe, and find yourself marooned on an unknown human spaceship that unexpectedly draws your escape pod in. The spaceship turns out to be a luxurious cruiseship with all sorts of comfortable facilities. In this alternative timeline, humanity kept exploring the technology for space exploration after the cold war as their top priority. To achieve its goals, Earth united its governments towards that goal, and also sent cool 80’s luxury technology into space.
The modes of interaction in the game are limited. Hovering over an object will interact with it or show you information about it. The left mouse-button moves your character forward, and the right mouse-button moves backwards. This is a clever hack to avoid having to use letters on your keyboard, because the main mode of interaction is typing messages on a Kaizen-85 terminal, the shipboard AI aboard the luxurious Nautilus spaceship.
The terminals are numerous old-fashioned interfaces scattered across the ship that allow the user to type anything they want to. You can write messages to Kaizen-85, or you can execute commands or interact with programs you can boot up to hack around a bit. The core of the gameplay, however, is simply typing messages at Kaizen-85, which operates primarily like a chatbot.
Kaizen-85 is a bot that operates better with well-written, human-sounding operations. “open door d3” will open the door, but “Would you please open the D3 door, Kaizen?” will do so too. Typing “log” to open the logbook on the specific terminal you’re in will simply make Kaizen confirm there is a logbook, while “open log” will open it for your (plot-crucial) reading pleasure.
The shipboard AI, you see, has a moral quandary. Something aboard the ship has proven to potentially be dangerous to humanity at large if returned to an Earth orbit, and it has allowed Kaizen-85 to have less regard for the safety of those people aboard the Nautilus. Yet, unless the crew actively tries to return the ship to Earth, the AI’s programming forces it to cooperate in full honesty.
In Event, nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Throughout the game, it turns out everybody has been misunderstood and slighted in some way, everybody is dealing with incomplete or faulty information, and everybody has failed to communicate those concerns properly. Event is a game about the failure of communication under stressful circumstances. It’s both a story and a game about failure across world views, perspectives, communication paradigms and differing value systems.
Kaizen-85, like many things in Event, is clunky. It’s Siri or Google Now or Alexa, if any of them was built in these fictional space 80’s. It will just as frequently understand you as it won’t. But Kaizen-85 is also more than that. It understands a tiny bit of context across several messages, and it has a somewhat insecure personality. Kaizen-85 has been alone for decades, and with its primary concern the safety of humans, it has developed a personality that is somewhat hesitant, somewhat paranoid and somewhat ecstatic to meet a new purpose after the crew of the Nautilus presumably perished.
You’ll frequently wonder what specific combination of words will allow Kaizen-85 to give up information it doesn’t want you to know, what you can say to let you through, what attitude will make it trust your intentions. Kaizen-85 can read tone, and it will test your willingness to cooperate and trust it through various means in the ship. Early on, the ship computer opens the door into a room in a ominous corridor with some reluctance, asking you to not enter the room. The response to that request seems binary – you either listen or you don’t. If you listen, or inquire more, Kaizen will reveal that it was preparing the room for your comfort and that that was supposed to be a surprise. If you don’t listen, the game brilliantly places no reward or punishment on that, simply changing Kaizen’s understanding of your personality, but not changing its core purpose, to ensure your comfort and safety. Kaizen-85 is not a rogue AI. It’s isn’t a cliche murder-bot. It simply doesn’t know whether it can trust you, and it’s trying to figure that out as you both try to fulfill your separate goals.
The best scene of the game takes place not aboard the Nautilus, but outside of it. After an unfortunate accident that the AI believes killed the player character, the player finds themselves floating in space near an airlock with a terminal. Kaizen-85 is unconvinced the person outside the airlock can be the same person that it believes is now dead inside the spaceship. As your oxygen runs out, you have to talk and convince the shipboard AI that it is you, and that it should open the airlock to let you in.
Normally a chatbot not responding properly gives us a feeling of failure on the computers’ end, but in this case, who has the blame doesn’t matter. Kaizen-85 has a different personality, a different communication paradigm, and a different value system. It perceives trust and consciousness a different way than humans do. It perceives language and communication unlike humans do. It perceives urgency and necessity differently from how humans do. The computer isn’t being clunky or failing – it’s making a genuine attempt at communicating across these cultural barriers. What you’re facing is a communication problem, and in the scene outside the airlock, our agency and immersion places the stakes on our end through the dwindling O2 supply in our suits. Our immediate solution is to reach for empathy, but Kaizen-85 has no such thing. In our arrogance, we believe our projection of humanity, of ourselves, means Kaizen-85 is like us. Because there’s a semblance of humanity to Kaizen-85, we believe it to accept and agree with our worldview.
So maybe, Event is a game about different world views. Kaizen and the player have to learn to communicate across different types of consciousness. The two-person crew of the Nautilus perishes over a failure of trust between each other. One of them trusts the AI, and befriends it as if it were human and ultimately perishes. One of them sees the AI as utilitarian, antagonizes it, and ultimately perishes too.
In the end, there is no way to fail at Event, because there’s no right or wrong. The game ends with the player having to choose between trusting Kaizen, trusting the judgement another human whose consciousness in now stored in a computer, or trusting neither of them. Kaizen-85 suggests to severely damage the ship in order to remove a device aboard that could threaten the Earth. The computer-stored human suggests that the device is stable, and that it will bring prosperity to Earth and end inequality. Both of them claim the other will lead to your ultimate demise, and both of them claim they will return you to Earth safely. And you, you’re just trying to survive and get home.
All endings resolve positively, although not always for equally so for everyone involved. If you choose to trust the human, you’ll find yourself uploaded to a computer, leaving behind your body and returning to Earth. If you decide to trust neither, Kaizen-85 will shut down and trap you aboard the Nautilus alone in an orbit around Jupiter, keeping the Earth safe. And in a beautiful twist, if you decide to trust Kaizen-85, Kaizen-85 still has to decide whether it actually trusts you.
In that regard, Event can teach us a lot about communicating and what our humanity is and isn’t, and what it means and what it doesn’t. In all cases, there’s a computer terminal right there to communicate with. Our biggest challenges to overcome in the game are our projections and assumptions, our failure to communicate and our frustration at how clunky that communication is. We need to understand Kaizen-85 as a logical device, filtered through human creators and our human interpretation.
Event is about being abroad, and not understanding the local language and culture. It’s about communicating in stressful situations. It’s about the dangers of projection our belief system on others that might not share it. But mostly, Event is about asking and listening, even if we disagree, even if we misunderstand, even if we wish they would just understand what we’re trying to say. A failure to communicate between two willing and genuine participants is never the fault of one person alone.