AI: The Somnium Files is a new visual novel out by director Kotaro Uchikoshi, whose previous work on the Zero Escape series made it a buy-without-reading-the-reviews game. I’ve taken a little longer to get into this one, but it’s growing on me.
No spoilers for AI. Some minor spoilers for 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward.
Our protagonist in AI is horny (someone urgently needs him to duck and achieves that by shouting, “Look, there’s porn on the floor!” to which he responds “Where?!” and crouches). Sex humor isn’t new for Uchikoshi. Junpei had a flirtation with Akane in 999 and asked her to repeat a suggestive line (“It’s so hard!”) a few times. That felt character-driven and fun. Lotus from the same game was a mom and a computer programmer who was on her way back from a belly dancing class when she was kidnapped, and therefore half naked for the entire game. It was a running joke the men found her unattractive.
Aside from one token hyper competent half-naked MILF everyone finds inexplicably hideous per game, the other women characters in the Zero Escape series were fairly covered up. Lotus especially felt like a subversion of her archetype, part of the game’s overall theme of appearances being misleading. Lotus subverts her role as sexually aggressive eye candy the same way Akane subverts her role as The Token Girlfriend, or Seven as the meathead, or Clover as the bubbly ditz, or Ace as the mentor and sacrificial lion. Literally nobody is what they seem to be.
AI: The Somnium Files, so far feels like a step back for how women are presented in Uchikoshi’s fiction. It makes sense that Iris, a YouTube streamer and cosplayer, is sexualized. She’s a model working in a sexualized business. To some extent it makes sense that the protagonist’s AI companion is presented like a waifu, even if I don’t love it. Not every female character is for fan service (nerd Ota’s mom looks like Ota, so they’re both off-model). But at the same time, fan service in this game sometimes comes at a cost of not doing more interesting things in either writing or character design.
Take Boss’s design. Does this look like a middle aged woman in a leadership role over a violent crimes unit who uses a glib, distracted air to hide a hidden agenda?
I mean, it’s a perfectly attractive design, but it could be anyone. Perhaps her design is an homage to 999‘s Lotus and Virtue’s Last Reward‘s Alice! Entirely possible! But so far, not knowing how it all turns out, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
Does this look like a fanboy who gets in Twitter flame wars with sock puppet accounts he runs to impress a cosplayer he likes?
Lol yep. Nailed it. The boys’ designs are more varied, special, and personality-specific. It’s a shame because women make up more of the cast. It’s harder to get to know them.
That said, I am getting into it. This is a sci fi thriller that leans heavily into horror and multiple timelines which are meant to be read intertextually. These are Uchikoshi’s strengths. Unlike Zero Time Dilemma, he has a budget here, and the presentation is gorgeous. Lovely character design. Having an AI eyeball named Aiba (ha!) allows for comic-panel-like overlays for phone calls or streamed content or social media that only your protagonist can see. A few times this has been used to create tense moments. Cool stuff! It’s very hard in books to capture the constant overlay of a digital life over meat space, but this game captures it effortlessly through excellent design.
Another cool thing: the game alternates between real life and interrogations that take the form of puzzle-driven dream sequences. You can “solve” these dream sequences more than one way, and how you do it creates the story branches. You can go back to any unlocked branch point at any time and explore the other possibilities. I’ve not done this yet, but it’s a very interesting idea that how you get a suspect to get past their mental blocks determines what, exactly, you’ve unblocked in them.
I’m about as old as you can be and be computer and online native, so games are particularly formative. I was sending fan mail to Cyan Worlds over Cosmic Osmo and Myst at the same time I was sending Terry Pratchett fan letters. I really don’t make a distinction between storytelling in video games and novels. Uchikoshi may be one of my favorite living writers, period. I was worried, after he didn’t get the budget he needed to pull off Zero Time Dilemma, that he’d also not get it in the future. I’m glad that’s not the case.