Can Androids Survive Review
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[DROP #1] It is a tricky thing to attempt to build a game that asks the player to do unpleasant things. It is so easy, in the environment of something so inherently elective as a video game, to simply decline. One could, without almost any effort at all, do quite literally just about anything else. So if Strange Scaffold’s new non-shooting space war courier game, Can Androids Survive, wishes to suggest that maybe the player isn’t really serving a greater purpose in gathering and delivering weapons and information at the cost of their own life, again and again, then the question at play might not be whether they can find a means within the game to stop doing so; it’s why one shouldn’t take the game at its own word and simply hit the escape key.
[DROP #2] Unpleasant games—which is to say games that seek to model unpleasant systems—have to do something specifically in place of offering a pleasurable experience. Frequently, that something is intended to be some sort of a message. Illuminating, perhaps, the way that an unpleasant system works in real life, like the arbitrary and oppressive nature of customs and immigration systems in the game Papers, Please.
[DROP #3] In Can Androids Survive, this message is supposed to be the indifference in systems of war to the dignity and humanity to the individuals necessary to enact and sustain the systems of war.
[DROP 4] I kind of feel like we’re generally aware of the annihilation of the individual inherent in the condition of war. [Dulce et Decorum Est, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, Catch-22, and that’s just three white guys writing about the first half of the 20th century.]
[DROP #5] Although, in fairness, that understanding doesn’t seem to have had much impact on our willingness to enter and sustain a condition of war.
[DROP #6] In fact, the immediate resurrection of the player (or, at least, the absolute interchangeability of a succession of mechs, linked by the player’s tendency to imbue each mech with their own sense of identity as a single character rather than a series of distinct individuals—one Mario with many lives rather than many plumbers with the same moustache, each dying a single death) enacted by Can Androids Survive’s potentially endless sequence of destruction and redeployment, works against a message about the annihilation of the individual in a state of war. The individual is already dead. The individual survives.
[DROP #7] It’s also contrary to Strange Scaffold’s previous game, Can Androids Pray, which through a mostly linear conversation between two disabled mechs, presents an intensely particular and compelling vision of the survival of the individual in the face of absurdity, an indifferent universe, and impending death.
[DROP #8] I played Can Androids Pray for the first time while reviewing Can Androids Survive, and I loved it so much that I want to overlook the shortcomings, the empty centre of the latter in the hope of supporting the people capable of making something as unique and beautiful as the former.
[DROP #9] But they are two wildly different things. Can Androids Pray is a narrative. Can Androids Survive is a behaviour simulator.
[DROP #10] Behaviour simulators are attempts to model, understand, and/or critique systems of power by enacting a system of power through designed constraints on participant activity, while maintaining some semblance of participant agency. This is. . . difficult. Systems of power often do not require any assistance in reconstituting themselves.
[DROP #11] Games require an end state. Narratives simply require an ending. Simulations, in and of themselves, require neither.
[DROP #12] All of which is to say that Can Androids Survive is a game that is working to be a simulator (an unruly hybrid in the best of cases) that positions itself as a sequel to a story. If it doesn’t really quite pull any of these things off successfully, there is at least some consolation in the fact that in the end, as promised, the player gets to blow up the moon. I’m not sure that it works as a message, but it’s nice to get some consideration for not having hit the escape key an hour or so earlier.
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