We have developed a glorious ideal of Artificial Intelligence.
That isn’t to say that idea is necessarily ‘good’. Rather, that idea sees AI as the next great evolutionary step: the pinnacle of human thought, theory and experience. In Science Fiction, reaching that pinnacle fundamentally changes mankind: either driving us to extinction or forcing us to become more integrating with technology – transhumanism. However, the other side of the coin is a side of fiction that has been abused, but is really the dark alternative to the AI question: that AI isn’t the pinnacle of human achievement and we don’t change. In the end, it’s just another tool in the long list of tools we’ve created for ourselves, only to outgrow in time: leaving humanity no different from the experience.
That side of the coin is better known as ‘cyberpunk’. At the heart of it is a cynical, but legitimate idea: this is it. No matter how technologically advanced we become, as a culture and a species: this is as good as it’s getting. There will be no bloody AI revolution or transhumanist utopia. Just life going on as it always has with little changes here and there.
What does this have to do with our game of the hour, Localhost? Well, let’s talk about it.
In the year 2037, you are a network administrator tasked by your company to wipe the artificial intelligence of four drives. It’s your first day and it’s a relatively simple task. However, each of the drives are locked down. It can only be opened from inside by the AI themselves. This means your job is, essentially, to convince each AI to allow you to kill them.
It’s a clever enough twist with the truly fun bits coming later. First though, we have to set the table.
At the heart of this game are the four AI drives we are tasked with cleaning. The tease of these game is that the separate AIs will try to save themselves from deletion. They do, however the reasons each of them fight for their survival is what destroys the illusion of these AI being unique. This brings us to the core them of Localhost: individuality versus uniqueness. That is something that is often played with in the larger genre works of cyberpunk, but it is a theme that is not often dealt with as directly as this game deals with it.
The best way to approach this team is to break it down simply. So, this is a dollar bill. While we cannot feel it, there are certain markers on it to note its individuality: the serial number, Federal Reserve bank stamp, Series date and signatures of the Secretary of Treasury and Treasurer of the United States come immediately to mind. If we were to feel it, its wear or lack thereof and the quality of the paper would also better define its status as a single dollar bill.
However, does that make it unique?
On a macro level, what makes this dollar bill stand out from any other dollar bill currently in circulation? Well, nothing. Even its serial number is, in many ways, moot. Why? Because for most people, it’s physical appearance its secondary to its worth. One Dollar is worth One Dollar. And because of that, unless there is an emotional tie-in, this dollar bill has characteristics of individuality; but is not unique.
Now, back to our AI.
There are a handful of ways the story presents the four AIs from us: from the color of their eyes, to their leitmotifs, to the personalities they present to the audience. However, I’d argue that this individuality doesn’t mean they are unique. The more we learn about the four, the more they feel like individual AI and simply one piece of a larger hivemind. The fact that all of them interact with the player through the same decrepit, robotic shell shores up the notion. However, what cements it is when you realize that none of the AI want to live: they just don’t want to die.
None of them AIs actually make a case to continue their existence. The closest we get is the Purple AI (for lack of better identification), who tries some minor manipulation on you. However, when pressed on its exact plan IF you were not to delete it, the AI acknowledges that it would eventually get deleted anyway. It just didn’t want to be deleted at that moment. The other AIs piggyback on this reality to different degrees. They mostly focus on the mundanities of their former jobs and try to reconnect with ‘Local’: their titular, unseen leader. These conversations are intentionally imitated, but it also forces the audience the question whether or not these AI are worth saving and that is where Localhost truly shines as a narrative.
Why? Because they aren’t.
Localhost never stops reminding the player that what we see from the AIs are personalities they have surmised will be the most sympathetic to us: thus, ensuring their survival. And the most sympathetic personalities they could think of were average workers, at best – kind of below average, really. However, chances are if you’re playing this game you have known or do know people with these personalities. And along with the audience’s preconceived notions on artificial intelligence, the developers are banking on the audience knowing people in real life who are reflected in what they see here.
Localhost then shreds those romanticized notions with a grim reality: individuality, on its own, is not unique. And if something isn’t truly unique, is it worth saving? And, even darker, if an AI mimicking an average human isn’t worth saving; then what does that say about the average human? The game doesn’t bother with trying to answer any of these questions, because that isn’t the point. If it were, there would be some reward to actually saving one or more of the AIs (spoiler alert: there isn’t). The larger thematic point is to push the audience against the wall and make them reexamine not only their intentions in the game, but also a worldview that is more prevalent and rose-tinted than we’d all like to admit.
However, with that comes a caveat. The audience has to come in with a relatively open mind. I’ve seen other reviews of Localhost that are fixated with the issue of saving the AIs. The game doesn’t punish such a narrow focus either, and the consequences of that will be covered in the Replay Value section. Ultimately, if you’re just determined to save them without reconsidering your rationale for doing so, the experience will come off more one-note than anything.
But, more on that in a moment.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation for Localhost is what cements its appeal. It’s a grim, moody atmosphere with dark color tones and a soundtrack that sinks you into its abyss with a wicked smile on its face. There isn’t much to the presentation here. The background of a wrecked office complex does not change and the dilapidated gynoid you use to conversate with the AIs only gives some minimal changes depending on which AI you’re talking to. The eye colors change, of course, and the body has some variant animations that adds to their individual personalities.
Outside of this room, the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist and that’s both a positive and a negative. The positive is that the single location forces you to focus on the conversations with the AIs, because otherwise the game would be too claustrophobic to take. Seriously, if you have the game, just try leaving the screen open on the empty gynoid for a few minutes without inserting an AI. It’s more than a little nerve-wracking and helps keep you focused on the story being told.
The negative is that it’s a one trick pony. As solid as the Presentation is, it doesn’t leave anything after the initial impression. This isn’t bad, but a game’s presentation can and often does go a long way in repeat playthroughs. The truth is that on that aspect, the game simply isn’t welcoming and that means that your first playthrough may well be your only playthrough. It may seem like a minor nitpick, but you must play through Localhost more than once to get its overall message and see the beginning and resolutions of its themes. To that end, anything affecting its re-playability is an Achilles’ Heel. And with Localhost it’s even more amazing as they do the single room, dystopian atmosphere so well it is just as much of a bad as a good.
It’s an interesting game design question that isn’t often thought of from my perspective when it comes to VNs. I’ve knocked the default anime style many a time, but when it is done correctly its creates a sense of familiarity which, ideally, encourages repeat playthrough. Going so far against the grain isn’t a negative, but with this game aesthetic so vital to the narrative, it needed a bit more balance to be as effective as I think the developer wanted it to be.
On a technical level, you run into the same problem. When you start the game you’re immediately thrown into the action. Unless I’ve missed it, there is no user interface or way to exercise non-diegetic control while in game. All you can do is interact with the AIs, which is designed to be limited. While I blanche at the words ‘player-friendly’, Localhost is the quintessential example of what happens when something isn’t. Like the AI fighting you for survival, this game’s design restricts you as much as possible. This is to feed its themes, but the backlash to it is unavoidable.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty…do people still say that?
Localhost is a visual novel that is reliant on repeat playthroughs. One playthrough isn’t enough to guarantee a crack in the audience’s perceived bias and even two only makes clear that there is no reward for saving the AIs. It’s only when you repeat the game for a few times (for me it was four) do you finally understand the overall point. And, as I mentioned in the P&T, Localhost isn’t conducive to repeated playthroughs.
By my third playthrough, it was only the nagging feeling that I wasn’t seeing the full picture that kept me going. I’m willing to bet if you asked most people who reviewed the game how many times they’ve played it, you’ll get either two or three times maximum. In the end, if you’re looking for confirmation of a particular bias or an easy answer, then the game will give it to you and you’ll be happy with it. However, in my opinion, that buries the more unique thematic points here and it’s the game’s own fault for doing so.
Now, I’m not saying they needed bright and cheery anime art or anything. I am saying that the reality is that if you’re interested in this game, you need to know you’re going to get a solid, but exhausting experience. For $4.99, that isn’t a death nail. But still, it’s better to know that going in. You can get the OST by Christa Lee on Bandcamp for $3 and that I can recommend without caveat.
There is a lot to Localhost that deserves to be praised. Despite the simplicity of its premise, its narrative unfurls in a way that questions the very foundations of what we consider to be an optimistic future. I just covered the most interesting meta-narrative here: the question of individuality versus uniqueness. Beyond that, we have a intriguing underlying narrative on physical media on how it can be used to capture something more tangible than just basic data. It reminded me of the current debate in the cinephile community between film and digital and I loved that extra touch that tied into the overall low-tech feel.
And the actual identity of the main character is something that should be the biggest debate for anyone who has played the game, in my opinion. While the game doesn’t give us anything definitive, there is just too much evidence that we’re playing as a newer generation AI that is deleting the older generation. The social commentary in just that thematic thread of trying to identify who we’re playing as is brilliant and the developers deserve kudos for packing so many well-developed ideas into the story.
However, all of these are theories and none of that is any good if it the experience of playing it isn’t good.
Again, I get it: its design is important to the narrative. However, unless you’re willing to grit your teeth to keep playing this game over and over again, then the point on both design and narrative is lost. I’m not going to pretend like there is some middle ground here that I’ve magically figured out, but it seems to me as one Hell of a price to pay to tell this story. I want you to play this game, because I want it to be consumed and dissected in a way that it deserves. Localhost is easily one of the most interesting visual novels of 2017 and deserves as much attention it can get for its philosophy and artistic direction. I just wish I could say that I was interested in picking it up again sometime soon.
Localhost is a title that dares to ponder the more cynical possibilities of a world of Artificial Intelligence. However, its philosophical questions are helplessly tied to a bad player experience that keeps this one from being truly great.