Hopeless. This is a word that can describe how I felt during most of my time with Recompile, a game by studio Phigames. Of course, this wasn’t the only emotion I had while traveling around its dark and intriguing biomes, all inside a “system” of unknown origin. There was genuine joy, discovery, even some laughs with some of the initial log files you need to pick up to know about the story. However, I haven’t felt so insignificant while playing a video game in years.
In Recompile, you play as a “program”/”virus”, represented in a human form, with a clear mission: infect a system, stop an AI called Hypervisor, and reveal the story behind a group of people working on a secret project. The reasons behind these objectives? Hidden. How harsh will the journey be? Extremely. Any chance to go back and disobey your creators’ will? Not found.
To complete these objectives, told by an enigmatic guide known as Janus, you have to reach certain locations, turn on power cores, jump across multiple platforms and delete enemy drones that serve as antiviruses. You can use different types of “guns” with unlimited ammo and sometimes imprecise but comfortable gunplay to destroy those threats, but the first moments are tragic. Your first weapon–a basic pistol–is pretty weak compared to the robots and the amount of damage they can easily deal. I found myself struggling in my first hour, dying from green lasers and virtual yellow bullets more times than I’m willing to admit.
Program your jump
Eventually, more powerful weapons are unlocked, which makes encounters against common enemies a walk in the park. However, Recompile is more platformer than action. Jumping from a black block to another one is a delight, partly due to its visual identity: the platforms are basically black geometric pieces scattered in big areas with only a distinctive color or two. This is backgrounded by a gorgeous aesthetic that only has a few elements. Every area is full of interesting details, striking visuals, and unquestionable originality; the TET Biome uses red as an indicator of danger, and is normally crowded with more enemies than any other biome. On the other hand, the OKT Biome, more focused on platforming and near impossible jumps, taps on yellow with touches of purple and dark blue to create a more relaxing environment. Although there are specific areas in which discerning where you would land is challenging due to a lack of color or an overly bright light generator, traveling around these places is a pleasure.
None of this wouldn’t matter if the jumping or traversal abilities felt unresponsive or lacked substance. Fortunately, it’s the other way around. Other abilities you’ll soon unlock keep this invigorating, like multiple jumps and dashes.
On the other hand, Recompile’s platforming is also nerve-racking: in some biomes, you are a tiny silhouette in a massive galaxy-like scenario. It’s hard not to feel oppressed by the enormity of the space around you, even if you’re in open areas most times. Every fall is a descent into darkness, only briefly interrupted by your own red light.
What’s more is that this title also has an unorthodox level design. You may know where to go or what to do thanks to Janus’ suggestions at the beginning, but reaching your destination is another story. Visual clues such as wires and other elements are sprawled on the map, but Recompile has a sense of verticality and freedom that might make you question where to go at first. However, its complicated design becomes rewarding once you start to understand its idiosyncrasies. After getting lost in its initial moments, a melody soon started to guide my steps, one that’s leading me to upgrades or to progress the story
Know your virus
Apart from its entertaining and challenging platforming, Recompile’s story has infected my own mind days after completing the game. This tale is gradually unveiled through logs placed across the levels. These files contain dialogues, packed with programming languages and sweet references, between workers and Hypervisor. What started as simple chit-chat with funny jokes and light-hearted comments between friends and acquaintances gradually becomes anguishing and maddening.
As we discover the motives of these workers, the AI will improve and become increasingly human. Hypervisor, after some updates, will start asking the workers about how they are feeling, and attempt to aid them if needed in a display of genuine empathy. In another stressful situation, in which the workers are desperate about what’s going on, the AI tries to take their pain away by speaking to them and finding a solution to their emergencies.
A certain log, including a reading of a metaphor, sent shivers down my spine. It showed a dialogue between Hypervisor and the worker responsible for the AI’s improvements, who was trying to teach poetry and interpretation to the virtual entity. Hypervisor not only succeeded in the task: it created a new poem that showed a sinister desire, one that isn’t normally associated with machines.
Recompile has plenty to say about both science fiction classic topics, like what differentiates ourselves from machines, and our daily lives via an existentialist and a pessimistic, frightening perspective. The horrifying answer seems to be that only harsh situations and the possibility of violence can shape our identity. This was the eventual plight of the workers, who I was soon filled with deep sorrow for, and I never saw even a picture of them–just a few dialogues here and there.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is how Recompile made me care about a virus, a real-life nuisance. But here it’s so small and insignificant, as it faced danger in every square and moving inside a hostile virtual world.
Recompile isn’t without issues. The bosses are weirdly impossible to overcome without an ability—slow motion—which you can easily miss while advancing in your journey. Technical issues also mar the experience slightly, such as the program being instantly destroyed when falling from high altitudes, but the distances are not that visible. And when you perform an inaccurate jump and fall to the void, you won’t be terminated until you reach the bottom, which means you can be free-falling for about ten seconds before the round concludes.
However, these problems are secondary to the mixed, complicated emotions I experienced–from the pure joy and satisfaction when finishing a challenging area, to more complex and bitter thoughts about our humanity–and our efforts to be better. Hypervisor provokes conversations not only about our daily dependence on technology, our increasing levels of anxiety around it, or the isolation bubbles created through social media, but how our imminent future could be made even worse. Hopefully, we can change this trajectory before it’s too late–if it isn’t already too late.