Loading Posts...

In depicting repressed, traumatic memories, fiction media such as David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive or much of the bibliography of author Haruki Murakami likens this self-amnesia to puzzles that must be unlocked with great effort. Characters retrace their steps and interact with familiar spaces to confront their inner anxieties outwardly. This focus on character-driven investigation and environmental exploration makes repressed memories a productive theme for the interactive nature of video game storytelling.

Games as diverse as Silent Hill 2 and Gravity Rush feature forgetful characters that must probe their environments for a hidden backstory. Simply manoeuvring through an environment and discovering clues from one’s past can constitute meaningful gameplay, allowing players access to a character’s inner world.

Asemblance, part one of a planned anthology series from developer Nilo Studios, takes repressed memories as its central theme. The game is a first-person walker in which an unidentified protagonist awakens without context in an empty test chamber. The centre of this chamber contains a small room that allows the player-character to revisit select memories via immersive, holographic images like a portal to another time and place. An AI voice prefaces each memory and guides the player through these virtual spaces, and it quickly becomes clear that these memories hide repressed traumas.

Asemblance is a psychological thriller. Its sparsely plotted narrative is difficult to sketch out, compelling players to search for clues such as a research document or a photograph as a way to clear the haze that shrouds the game in mystery and to trigger deeper memories. Uncovering the vague, unknown trauma of the player-character serves as the central purpose of the game: what exactly are these memories we’re experiencing? What is the nature of this research machine? Who is the character we’re controlling?

The game wears a number of influences on its sleeve, and in lieu of straightforward plotting, these predecessors can help shape our understanding of the game’s narrative. For instance, players visit an office and can find documents with ominous information about the research history surrounding these machines, evoking moral dilemmas and alarming side effects that give Asemblance the flavor of Black Mirror or The X-Files, two shows that Nilo Studios cites as influences. And while some have noted the game’s structural and visual similarities to first-person walker titles like P.T. or The Stanley Parable, perhaps even more evocative are the direct references the game provides within its environment.

Asemblance owes much to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, repeatedly echoing the opening image of its rising sun and channeling the deadpan yet sinister performance of Douglas Rain’s HAL-9000 in the game’s unseen, enigmatic AI character. However, it’s in the game’s reference to Stanisław Lem’s book Solaris that the game slyly reveals its narrative motivations.

Solaris is the closest narrative analogue to Asemblance, and a copy of Lem’s book appears in all three major memories that players will explore. Moreover, the game finds visual kinship with filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the book, as the cold laboratory corridors that contain the memory simulator here evoke the industrial hallways of Tarkovsky’s film.

Like Solaris, Asemblance overflows with a sense of lingering grief. Protagonist Kris Kelvin is tasked with investigating the skeleton crew of a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, as they have succumbed to personal crises exacerbated by mysterious planetary forces. Kelvin is mired with unspoken sorrow; Tarkovsky’s film in particular explores this latent trauma when he encounters hallucinatory visions of his late wife.

This meditation on human grief unites the stories and themes of Asemblance and Solaris, as both works hinge on the imagery of a ghostly wife haunting the memory of each protagonist. In Asemblance, players study the sleek interiors of an apartment, but upon triggering a time-jump by examining a clock, the event plunges the space in semi-lit darkness with a nightmarish mood heightened by the ominous hum of Kid Smpl’s droning score.

What was once a bright, inviting hallway now gives way to a darker corridor out of P.T., and rounding the corner to the bedroom reveals a ghostly silhouette in a flickering doorway. These visions of a mysterious spouse recall those early scenes in Solaris where the protagonist first arrives on the spacecraft and spies a female figure darting just out of sight. Both works toy with the faltering mental state of the character, blurring the boundaries between delusion and reality and questioning whether or not this wife is alive or dead.

In Solaris, a character calls these visions of Kelvin’s wife “the materialisation of your conception of her,” and later, “a copy, a matrix,” suggesting an unresolved trauma made manifest in external reality. Likewise, the developers of Asemblance note in an interview how the player-character is “trying to revisit past decisions, cannot escape them, no matter what science, reasoning, or technological developments they make,” thus rendering the character’s traumatic past as something that not only lingers but actively haunts.

To address this unresolved personal anguish, Asemblance tasks players with revisiting it directly. The memory simulator acts as a kind of talk therapy, accelerating the process of reducing negative emotions while accentuating positive memories. The convoluted puzzles that the game requires to unlock extended endings suggest a form of mental defence mechanisms that continue to repress trauma.

These obscure gameplay mechanics and precise actions needed from the player are so well hidden – indeed, completing the game essentially necessitates outside consultation in a written guide or YouTube walkthrough – that gameplay serves like a passcode to override the blockages that prevent the protagonist from seeing the past clearly. For instance, the last sequence demands that the player wait a specific length of time (down to seconds) and open a drawer before rushing to another part of the apartment in order to trigger a scripted event, and even then, the game frustrates total narrative clarity.

The title of the game is thus fitting: Asemblance is both “A semblance” of reality and truth, but also phonetically resembles the word “Assemblage,” referring to a collection of pieced-together elements like separate memories that form a larger whole.

The lingering questions that persist long after the epilogue of Asemblance assures the game’s ever-present, alluring inscrutability. By the end of the game, we’re never quite sure if the memories we’re experiencing even belong to the player-character or may be conjured from fantasy altogether. Like the protagonist of Solaris, the status of the player-character remains open to interpretation. Has the character found solace in the revelations made throughout the game? What comes after?

The ambiguity here isn’t simply another unresolved puzzle, but the culmination of a story that endlessly folds back in on itself, granting no way out other than total disappearance.

Miguel Penabella

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. His written offerings can be found on Unwinnable, PopMatters, First Person Scholar, and Medium Difficulty. He blogs on Invalid Memory.

Leave a Comment

Loading Posts...