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You know how in some sci-fi games when you come across some form of alien technology, the protagonist seems to know immediately how it works without any form of instruction manual? It's ludicrous, is it not? I don't care if you are the ‘Master Chief'; you've only just picked up that alien firearm and already you've blasted a whole enemy armada down with it, fried a couple of eggs with the heat from the scalding plasma discharge and then used it to satisfy an eight-legged, four-boobed gigolo from the planet Xaar. That just ain't right. Hours upon hours of studying the curvature of symbols, the nuances of language and the toxic fumes of science is what should go behind those little moments.
You can't just grab some exotic artefact and know how it functions; people have to research these things! They're crazy people mind, and they spend hours scribbling little notes on to paper, ignoring the calls of their housemates. "Your dinner's getting cold!" they scream. And the manic researcher continues to drown out their cries with the scratch of the nib as they mill over their alien discovery, eyes frantically moving back and forth between their notes and the glowing monitor. "Just a minute," they reply audibly enough to be heard through the thin walls, but not enough so that their giggle afterwards is picked up. The monotony of real life is just a joke to these people now; no one else can understand the gravitas of the situation at hand. This is not just obsession; this is evolution - how can we possibly go on with life as it is without bettering ourselves and hoping for more?
But before we get on to all of that, first thing's first - shift the desk slightly forward so you can reach down to get the ballpoint that fell down the back a couple of weeks ago. Sleeve up, arm down, tongue out and stretch! Stop fingering it with your tips and get a grip already...there we go. Right, now where's that notepad?
At first I was reluctant to be appeased by ASA: A Space Adventure‘s demands. No, I wasn't going to go back 15 years and use a pen and pad to work out its puzzles and secrets. I take the same approach to any game that demands an extra effort of me. Turn off the lights and shove headphones over my ears? Screw you. Find a friend to play along with me on the same keyboard? Don't you know that's why I have two hands?! Stubborn is what I am - refusing to show any form of weakness, especially not if it's an instructive sentence from a piece of software I've just started up. Not going to happen.
That didn't last long. Memory can only serve you for so long and, in this case, my own built-in capabilities lasted all of about 3 minutes until I was first touching pen to paper. It felt good. But I wasn't about to make a habit out of it. "Still," I thought to myself, "if this is just the first door and the first puzzle..."
"ASA will take you on an adventure across space, on to new planets and, most importantly, inside yourself."
ASA is a graphical adventure game, one very much like those you played back in the 90s. Does it prove to be archaic? In a sense, yes, but there's certainly some room for the experience providing you're willing to be lulled in. You can't be stubborn here; you have to do some serious thinking and for that you need scribbles, hundreds of them! Navigable only by you, from page to page as you mark little notes in the white corners that so far had been left untouched. It becomes a tribal tattoo. A symbol of meaning that only you can interpret. Your thoughts.
If I showed you a screenshot from ASA you wouldn't be able to see the blueprints of its puzzles. Underneath the cinematics and gorgeous environments is something you can only see when playing. Take off the shades and swallow the red pill and you'll see the world in code. This is what a screenshot of ASA actually looks like:
ASA starts off with the echoes of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - that should be obvious to almost everyone. Instead of the focus year being 2001, it's 2011. Instead of a mysterious black monolith, it's a cube. The game wants to continue this story and have the player experience thoughts they didn't realize they had. ASA will take you on an adventure across space, on to new planets and, most importantly, inside yourself.
It starts off simply enough, though it does lack a direct explanation. You watch as the nameless astronaut cuts the oxygen supply line out in space just to grab the black cube. As the air is about to be denied, the cube transports him to a distant location. In time you'll come to refer to this place as the Ark. But your first thoughts are more concerned with the thief who stole your precious cube, which you risked your life for, and now they have locked you behind a door that is operated with alien code. The clues to solve this dilemma are in the environment, and this is where my stubbornness passed and I began my scribble. It wasn't long until I was through the door and into the center of the Ark. It's here where the game expands giving you a freedom to explore and see some beautiful sights. But you're looking at them wrong to start off with - you're not here to see things, you're here to solve.
"But strangely, to you, the most important is that you have this Cube in your arms, and that you won't drop it until you're dead! It now seems so important and fascinating..."
There's no leeway at any point throughout the game. Hints are scarce. At no extent could I exaggerate the need to write down everything you see and learn and to analyze all of the components presented to you. Considering this, it may not be long before some get tired of the game's slow pace and high difficulty. But it serves a purpose, and it's one that doesn't emerge easily. As you make your way through ASA, you do so in the footsteps of a human aboard the Ark before you. This French astronaut (voiced by an American actor), Philippe.
Forte, leaves you clues as to how he was taught to be more intelligent and to understand how things work around him by a cube just like yours. He details how he is keen to study and learn and how he can enjoy becoming so much more knowledgeable. He also notes how he's not missing his wife, his child, or Earth more and more as he grows and evolves. Without your own cube, you must educate yourself by understanding the task at hand - to follow his path around the Ark and hopefully find the cube that was stolen from you. You have to ask so many questions in doing this. How does this work? Why is that connected to that? What's not working here? What is the point in this?
What is the point of all of this?
Suddenly I'm 21 again. A graduate who should have had so much hope in his future. But the job market is busy. Weight gathers around the waist. Love is abandoned. A lift of the hand to satisfy an itch and I discover my hair is thinning. I'm dying one day at a time and there's nothing I can do about it. Then those questions begin all over again. What is there for you in the future? What's the point of anything? Who would miss you? Why does nothing make sense any more? There has to be a purpose, some form of meaning, to all of this. How can everything suddenly feel so empty?
Never Give Up Those questions destroyed me before. I nearly ended it. I was driven to a form of madness, of sickness, during which nothing made any sense because I had lost my purpose. It was a task to even find motivation to crane my neck above the pillow so as to find out if I had awoke during daylight, or if it was night time once again. You can over think things sometimes, when given enough time to do so, or when you're at a crossways and unsure of where to go. But this time, when these questions came my way, I was driven to obsession, to scribbling notes just to understand what this game was trying to teach me. I was learning and success was rewarded with an uplifting heave of the chest and with a buzz in the brain.
"...you must keep chewing your pen lid, darting your eyes back and forth and eventually something will click in your head. You'll understand. You'll become something better than what you were."
ASA is a tapestry of numbers, co-ordinates and passwords. I've never put as much effort into learning a foreign language as I have with ASA. The Anterran tongue now resides within my own - I can read sentences written with these foreign letters. I had to. One puzzle required me to hack into a computer using DOS. Another had me trying to navigate the jump co-ordinates of a ship. I've created new colors, unlocked safes with birdsong, even re-purposed alien machinery. But it took hours of note taking, of going back and forth between locations long into the night.
Maybe I thought that solving each of these puzzles and getting closer to the cube would lead to that purpose I lusted after. It was all part of the chase. I needed answers, and the cube, this mysterious black shape, held the secrets just as the monolith seemed to. At the beginning, the character obsessed over this cube, and I didn't know why. Now, hours later into the game, I've embodied him and his strange obsessions. And I think I even understand how and why.
It hit me as I solved a particularly grueling puzzle, the satisfaction coursing through my body. Just like 2001, ASA is attempting to further you as an intelligent being; you're being shown the way to the next stage of human existence, figuratively speaking. The ending of Kubrick's film seems to be about the Star Child and how it's a being beyond what any normal human is capable of. It's the next evolutionary stage. ASA tries to show you how be that better thing by solving puzzles. It gives you a pursuit - this cube. It's in obsessing over this chase and being determined to hold strong against adversity that you'll become deserving of the cube. But the cube itself isn't the reward. It's nothing. It's you and the exercising of your brain that serve as the reward.
In this, ASA is successful throughout despite a couple of moments when pathways or sections of the environment you could interact with weren't clear due to obscurity or an unhelpful mouse cursor. Luckily these hiccups are only few, so most of the time the pieces you need to solve each puzzle are made quite obvious, rather than requiring you to meticulously hunt the same locations for them. You will get stuck a number of times, but you must keep chewing your pen lid, darting your eyes back and forth and eventually something will click in your head. You'll understand. You'll become something better than what you were. It's all so much clearer to me now. And I have the scribbled notes to remind me of how I over came each obstacle. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an enemy armada to blast down and some eggs to fry.