In those early days following P.T.’s release, I remember the chaotic thrill of sensations pulsating through me as I wandered that endless hallway: tension, curiosity, fear, and — like many others — frustration. What little narrative was posed through the game through various photos, radio loops, and set pieces seemed to play secondary tier to the game’s cryptic puzzles. As far as I know, no one ever discovered a one-hundred percent foolproof method of solving it in the end and I imagine many stumbled into the game’s ending as I did — on accident.
But still, I found myself not only defending it for its cleverness, creepiness, and overall mental atmosphere (it really could have been its own independent release, instead of being shackled onto the ankles of the ill-fated Silent Hills) but also wishing that there were more games out there that could capture me so entirely, if not altogether briefly, as it had. That’s seemingly where Asemblance comes in.
Fresh off the presses and beamed onto Steam and PS4, Asemblance is the first effort from Nilo Studio. While the studio cites beloved sci-fi anthologies such as Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and The X-Files as apparent inspirations, it’s nearly impossible to find any reviews or commentaries that don’t put the spotlight on the game’s likeness to P.T. Asemblance, in short, is a kind of cerebral science fiction narrative set in a machine built to simulate memories. You play as a mysterious user of this machine trying to navigate through the various phases (assumably referred to as shifts) and, ultimately, escape the simulation.
While not as dark and blatantly terrifying as P.T., the inspiration is definitely apparent: the developers took great joy in dropping you into an environment without a single hint of what to do or what your greater goal is. Many functions of gameplay are hidden and discovery of these rely on the player’s sense of curiosity. A good rule of thumb is to press every button in sequence to become familiar with exactly how to play. Asemblance even climaxes with a seemingly impossible-to-solve puzzle.
Keep in mind, the puzzle is only seemingly impossible. After days of playthroughs, mashing every button at every imaginable moment, and theorizing in internet forums such as the game’s Steam community and Reddit, one user was able to solve the puzzle and spread the solution across the internet with his cohorts. But the game itself didn’t lend any support to actually solving the puzzle.
The game itself is beautiful: the environments are expertly rendered. Light reflects off surfaces and shadows darken down empty corridors as you wonder the simulation, and it is absolutely breathtaking. All for the better in a game that demands so much examination and reexamination of the environment from the player in order to complete it. The narrative, as sparsely spread as it is, is instantly captivating. If you can’t muster up enough wonder to try to piece together exactly what’s going on, perhaps this game isn’t for you.
For however many things Asemblance has going for it, it has just as much that can stain its reputation. Throw a stone in the internet and you’ll be sure to hit a disgruntled gamer who blindly walked into a game lovingly referred to as a walking simulator, and these folks are apt to be even more angry at Asemblance, which provides no easy route to the endgame. Similarly, the narrative is incredibly difficult to decipher, requiring constant lookout for letters, memos, brochures, and reports built into the actual environment with no easy methods to read (you’ll have to zoom in and crane your real-life neck just to make it work). I’m not saying the story needs to be spoon-fed to anyone, but a mechanic as simple as being able to pick up a sheet of paper for a moment would have worked wonders.
What’s more, the best moments of this game may have passed. One of my favorite parts of this game was diving into the community and watching the hivemind of internet users everywhere try to figure it out. Players shared hints, screenshots, videos, and commentary on cultural references found in the game in the short-lived struggle to crack the mysterious code. Much of this conversation has been obliterated since the moment that final puzzle was solved.
Still, though, for a fresh studio looking to get its independent legs, this is an elegant and wholly worthwhile first attempt. In their periodic interaction with players and press who were furiously attempting to solve the puzzle, one can be hopeful that the studio has picked up a few lessons and can walk into their next project with a couple of tricks up their sleeve.