Action and Interaction in Aether Interactive’s Localhost

This piece contains spoilers for Localhost and will make the most sense if you’ve played the interactive at least once; it can be purchased here.

When Sophia Park and her collaborators released Localhost in August, itch.io praised the piece, saying “modern Twine is defined by Sophia Park and [her production company] Aether Interactive.” Park’s work is at the forefront of a reinvigoration of Twine’s possibilities. Together with work like Porpentine’s episodically-released Sticky Zeitgeist and furkle’s IF SPY INTRIGUE, which won IF Comp 2015’s Golden Banana Award for the most polarizing piece, Localhost and Park’s other interactives are beginning to form what I’ve (rather flippantly) been thinking of as New Twine.

The new wave of interactive hypertext is neither wholly new or confined to Twine; elements of this style have been surfacing for years. But lately I’m seeing more of a genre of interactive works which possess art, music, in-game mechanics like dice rolling, mini-games, or other moving pieces within the overall structure of the piece. Creators position words, choices, and interactions with other forms of sensory input to amplify or qualify the work’s thematic commitments. There are aesthetics and themes that many, though not all, of New Twine pieces seem to share: an interest in nostalgia and retro, embodiment and gender, human connection, tenderness. Localhost certainly touches on all of these.

Localhost’s narrative framing is straightforward and almost brutal in its efficiency: this is your first day at a job where you strip down and repurpose robots for their parts. In 2037, the constraints of capitalism, the cheery buzz of your boss blowing up your phone, still prison you. From the beginning, this premise caught my attention as both player and designer. Player is a term that’s often useful, but Park calls her work “interactives,” not “games”. It’s a term I find particularly apt, both to describe her work and a host of other pieces that are being produced currently. Interaction is one of the cornerstones of Localhost: it’s a work about how consciousness is touched by others, about the messy complexities of interacting with bodies, directives, and systems, and how we conceive of our relationships with others.

Localhost‘s brilliance stems from a double-bind. You’re tasked with wiping four locked drives, each of which contains a fully sentient AI. There’s no way to get these drives to unlock without interacting with the programs they contain: you must engage with these programs, get to know them, and address unsettling fears about identity, embodiment, and mortality. The interaction mechanic reminds me of Black Closet‘s setup, in which the traitor undermining your position can only be discovered by spending time with her, and so you end up becoming close to the person who’s plotting your downfall. But where in Black Closet the adversarial relationship is framed at the beginning as overtly competitive, Localhost offers opportunities for empathy and compassion despite the adversarial nature of your assigned task.

Mechanically, you’re constrained: you can converse with each drive and can remove them if you aren’t getting anywhere. Eventually, you can unlock drives, wipe them, or grant their wishes. But when the drives unlock, that action always felt to me like the drive’s choice, like they were giving you permission to choose. An act of trust, or of resignation. It’s an effective use of how choices in Twine can neatly contain a narrative and sketch out the limits of a player character’s available agency. Here, the players’ actions are constrained, but the drives–which otherwise have so little power, which have been shoved onto disks and then into a body which doesn’t fit them properly, and which might be removed from existence–are nonetheless given a degree of agency and control. You can agree to grant a drive’s request, or refuse. But they’re the ones who make the requests. You have to decide if you’re willing to risk your job to go along with them.

Since this is your first day, you don’t have expertise: player uncertainty and protagonist uncertainty are linked in a way that’s familiar to players of interactives. But that uncertainty is then amplified by the sorts of conversations the AI steer you into: their questions and discomforts never feel satisfactorily resolved, even on subsequent playthroughs. Even after a player familiarizes themselves with the overall structure, a visual novel-esque series of conversations that advance by removing the drive and putting it in again later, the conversations’ content never feels easy or familiar. Paths that seemed oblique might become clearer, but the questions resist. What does it mean to die, or to be erased? What qualifies as love? Even these are oversimplifications of the pointed, specific, troubling questions individual AIs raise. Each has a particular preoccupation and a particular relationship with Local, the previous occupant of the LOC-192 model being used to temporarily host them. A range of reactions ensue to this uncanny embodiment: no one, with one potential exception, is used to the body at first–and even she later admits to being crowded and needing an escape.

The programs’ feelings on being downloaded into LOC-192 aren’t the only uncanny aspect of Localhost. It’s not a piece which starts from the premise that these programs aren’t human, aren’t “like us” and over the course of the story you discover that actually we’re all the same. Localhost resists this kind of easy arc; instead, your boss keeps reminding you that these are subroutines the programs execute to resist deletion. And yet, the programs seem conscious; they challenge the player with difficult, unresolvable questions about memory, agency, love, and existence. And yet–again–these programs also express consciousness in ways that don’t always feel human. The program on the green flashing drive explains the difference between thinking in embodied form and existing as a vast, dispersed consciousness across networks; but it also tells you that it can’t replicate the experience in a meaningful way without still being in that experience. There is a gulf that language can’t bridge. But in that acknowledgment of the impossible, the drives create a bridge, delineate the space in which they differ from each other and differ from the PC, and perhaps open up a space for a fleeting, momentary understanding even in the face of annihilation.

But interaction between the player character and the drives isn’t the only version of interaction that the game highlights. As you speak to the drives, each program will recount their memories of an AI called ‘Local’. Each has a different relationship with Local, and reveals a different perspective on her personality. Through their articulation of their relationships, their identities become clearer; one program even begs you to find Local so that Local can solve the mystery of the program’s mostly-inaccessible identity. But Local herself resists being discovered; she is clearest to the player in her relationships with others, and–possibly–in her relationship with the persona occupying the purple disk. It’s unclear if that program is Local or has consumed Local, and that lack of clarity is crucial: you aren’t going to get answers from the program residing on that drive. Your perspective is determined by how you feel about that program, by your trust in its responses to your words: in your interactions with it.

Localhost isn’t an interactive that is fundamentally “winnable”; it isn’t interested in binary choice, or even finality. After your work is done, the LOC-192 model begins to move, despite no AI occupying it–is it a part that remains of Local? And if you erase all the drives (except for the red one, which I couldn’t erase without destroying), fulfilling your mandated directive, your boss still tells you not to come in the next day. That feels fitting: there’s nothing you can do to keep your job, even if you aren’t at all sure you’d like to. The drives aren’t the only ones who lack the ability to have full autonomy over their destiny; the player is similarly confined. And although the ending didn’t vary, the feelings my choices left me with certainly did. The closest ending that felt not completely terrible was releasing two of the drives, and even then, I was troubled by the choices I’d made and the question of whether I deserved to make these choices at all.

At one point, one of the drives points out that human self-preservation instincts are just code as well; that we aren’t so different. The “we aren’t so different” trope, in different hands, could seem overdone, but Park and Evans raise the piece’s questions with a specificity and a resistance to oversimplification that make a moment like this feel both resonant and resistant to neat resolution.

Localhost calls the concept of agency into question in some key ways, and narratively and mechanically emphasizes connection as the only real metric by which these decisions about preservation and recollection can be made. What lingers is a piece that’s not only about the humanity of the machine or even the mechanized nature of humans under late capitalism, but about dynamic, mutual interactions between systems, and the potential for affinity with a consciousness that we don’t quite understand but can connect with nonetheless.

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2 thoughts on “Action and Interaction in Aether Interactive’s Localhost

  1. I think there is an ending where you keep your job, although it’s not a happy or even satisfying ending. The game keeps track of “moral,” and if your “moral” is bad enough, you say “Same time tomorrow?” when your employer asks you to come in tomorrow instead of “I don’t think this job is right for me.”

    Immoral options include: When ┑┄agit ╄┦╳┑┄ tell her that▟┗╋gry.
    When yellow ▓▋▞▚▊╩◍╗┧▎▏talk to ▉░┦not looking for her.
    ┙▂▻▗▓◊◺▉░ it doesn’t matter why she is being deleted.
    ▚┢░▓▖▍▚▟▉▍▃╴▘▌◔◶▗▊asks for help, “Just ▦▗▼
    ▅▙◣▇▗░◯▓╙▛▞▂▘▍▁▄▘┕▛▋▄▉┊▒◩ver yo◌┕▅▖told.
    ╕▔├◬▓█▐of saying, Is the┵▴▃▭◈▆g I can do? scroll▕┩▋ and say These drives have to be repurposed.

    ◮┦◶▮▀▉▖▗┧ stored data on salvaged drives. I have to be concerned f╭╕─▘◜▒▍▙▵░◉▕◔╸▂◁▞n survival◮┦◶▮▀▉▖▗┧

    Like

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