The year is 2042. Synthetic beings and cybernetic augmentations are becoming more and more a part of everyday life. Interstellar travel is now a reality, and humans are leaving Earth for other planets and galaxies.
Thus the stage is set for Killing Time at Lightspeed, a text adventure game in which you take on the role of Jay, a guy on a spaceship that’s embarking on a near-light-speed journey. It will be approximately 29 years until the spaceship reaches its destination, but in perceived time the flight will only seem to last around half an hour. Mobile devices are not allowed to be on when the ship is entering or exiting light speed, but in the interim Jay kills time by chatting on social media.
This interactive narrative unfolds via the interface of a Twitter clone called FriendPage. Jay’s FriendPage timestream and message box contain dialogue from his friends back home. Individual comments, consisting of 120 characters or less, have a “commend” button, the like button of this fictional social media platform. Some messages have reply chains to read through conversations between multiple characters. Periodically you’ll come across messages with a “prompt” button which calls up a list of different reply messages to pick from. Having played through the story a handful of times (the first playthrough takes an hour or two depending on how much and how fast you read, but subsequent runs can be completed in a matter of minutes) the dialogue choices don’t lead to any monumental outcome changes, but they do at least offer an element of player agency to dictate how certain relationships unfold.
Though it exists in the future, FriendPage is a simple black and yellow text interface just barely more visually advanced than a command prompt. Aside from pixel art avatar portraits, there aren’t any graphical elements to the UI. Sometimes there will be a link to an image that a user posted, but when clicked on there’s always a message saying the media isn’t available, so it just ends up being a tease. Media elements like GIFs and video clips and images, all done in a pixel art style, would have gone a long way towards providing an even more immersive social media experience.
Additional backstory can be discovered by reading through articles and news headlines from the Skimmit app. While I didn’t find the character stories to be all that memorable, the world building aspect of the narrative is done very well. The news articles effectively pull you into a plausible environment where humans are becoming all too reliant on their devices–the primary catalyst for this story is a product called Oqular, a video camera and media playback device that people get implanted in their eyes–new civil rights issues are coming to the fore with the advent of synthetic life, and the legal and regulatory systems struggle to keep up with advancements in embedded, always-on technology, particularly as it relates to things like body hacking, data theft, personal privacy, and intrusive advertising. Things are made all the more interesting due to the differences in time, with messages taking longer to send and receive the farther Jay travels. So each time you refresh the FriendPage timestream to advance the story, the unfolding lives of Jay’s friends are fading deeper into the past.
Humor also plays a key role in player engagement. Many of the news stories reflect modern events and poke fun at pop culture happenings, from more serious things like a 12-year-old boy having the cops called on him at school for having cybernetic limbs (an obvious reference to the “Ahmed Mohamed clock incident”) to jabs at the yearly iterations in game design with headlines promoting the multiplayer footage reveal of ‘Modern Warfare 27′ in the year 2044, or raising questions about the automations of the “Unreality” game engine leading to a flood of crappy free-to-play games. And FriendPage wouldn’t be a true Twitter simulation without spambots, reality show commentary, and some good ol’ snark.
Killing Time at Lightspeed serves as a fascinating commentary on the pervasiveness of social media and technology in our everyday lives, smartly told through a simulated social media interface that pulls you into a unique text adventure experience. At the same time, the personal stories aren’t deep or variable enough to the point where you’re likely to form any emotional connections with the characters or be left with the feeling that you affected their lives in a meaningful way (which in a way is what some would say about real social media). It’s also hard to say whether or not the Enhanced Edition created for Steam is worth upgrading to–it includes expanded FriendPage and Skimmit story material, as well as achievements and a soundtrack for added immersion so the constant clicking and scrolling doesn’t feel so empty. Fortunately, the original version of the game first created for Antholojam is available to play in your online browser for free. You should absolutely give that a whirl first and see if you come away invested enough to want to get the paid version. For most players, I have a feeling the free game jam version will suffice.
+ Clever social media text adventure storytelling
+ Fascinating examination of social media/tech influence
+ Laced with humor and references to modern societal events
– Dialogue choices don’t offer significant outcome variations on multiple playthroughs
– Individual character interactions don’t feel that meaningful
– Enhanced Edition is a questionable value upgrade over the free version
Publisher: Green Stripe Snake
Release Date: 7/5/2016
Source: Review code provided by publisher