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Tech Support: Error Unknown Review — 404 Fun Not Found

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Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to work in IT support will know what a draining experience it can be. Trying to maintain a balance between helpfulness and efficiency is hard, especially when customers sometimes seem determined to be as difficult as possible. This is the experience that Tech Support: Error Unknown is aiming to re-create, and arguably it succeeds a little bit too well.

In Tech Support: Error Unknown the player is cast in the role of a tech support specialist working remotely for a company called Quasar Telecommunications. Presented entirely through the medium of a virtual desktop screen,  the player must interact with customers, check emails, and reference websites.

Interaction with customers is done by clicking on a selection from some set responses in an online chat. The problems you are presented with are procedurally generated, ranging from a phone that will not make calls, to cracked screens, or trivial issues like not being able to set a custom ringtone. The AI is where the simulation seems to fall apart a bit, as the customers are basically simplified chatbots, so it is possible for them to get confused or stuck in a loop, which does (somewhat) ruin the suspension of disbelief.

In fairness, when the chatbot AI works well, the customers can come across as fairly realistic, with typos and garbled text, in addition to explosions of expletives if the player is unable to aid them in the way they wish.

The canned responses provide another problem, as on occasion the player will find they are contacted by people who are not customers. This will include members of a shadowy hacker group who want to expose the corrupt practices of the company you are working for. Ostensibly, the player has the option of toeing the company line like a good little corporate drone, or passing along information to the hacker group. In reality, it is frustratingly difficult to talk to the hackers like a real person due to how limited the responses are. This could be commentary on how tech support workers are forced to stick to a script in defiance of common sense and logic, but it mostly just serves as another source of frustration.

Performance is mostly based on efficiency and how much the customer feels they have been helped, with success reflected in your pay packet. Screwing up often results in a sternly-worded email appearing in the inbox, and a string of failures will result in termination.  A variety of support tools are available to use, and these can even be upgraded by spending some of the hard earned cash in an e-shop. Though it is tempting to keep hoarding money, these upgrades become necessary further through the game, and are a wise investment, though the prices can be a bit painful.

The main driving force in Tech Support: Error Unknown is exploring its branching narrative, and experiencing the various endings it has to offer. Similar to other simulator titles like Papers, Please, Tech Support: Error Unknown offers a range of directions the player can go in, allowing the player the chance to explore and expose the truth behind Quasar Telecommunications. Alternatively, the player has the option of feeding information on both the hacker group and Quasar to an investigative reporter.

While the narrative is reasonably interesting, it lacks the human element and moral imperative that was such a part of Papers, Please. The stakes never seem that high, and it is very difficult to become invested in the fate of those involved. Perhaps this is due to the action being so far removed, since the player never sets eyes on a real person, with all communications handled through the sterile medium of online chat or email. It could also be that fixing someone’s phone doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as reuniting a family across a border. The personal stakes don’t seem that severe, either, since for the most part the worst thing to happen to the player character is that they lose their job. Earning money to pay for tech tool upgrades doesn’t seem as urgent as scraping together cash to feed your family.

Tech Support: Error Unknown manages to capture much of the drudgery and bleakness of the world of IT and tech support. This is an impressive achievement for developer Dragon Slumber, but the problem is that it succeeds a little bit too well, and ends up making something that feels far too much like a job, and not very much like a game.

As anyone who has served a stint in tech support will tell you, IT technicians tend to develop a kind of black sense of humour to cope, with jokes about customers, systems, and management flying freely. Since the player character in Tech Support: Error Unknown is working alone, that aspect is entirely erased. This is a shame, as it could have restored some of the fun that is missing from the narrative.

Tech Support: Error Unknown would have been more impressive if it had a clear message, perhaps about worker exploitation, or corporate overreach, or even the damage hacker activists can cause. Sadly, this aspect is either so subtle as to be undetectable, or missing entirely. What this leaves behind is an entirely too accurate simulation of the daily grind of a tech support technician, where the main interest lies in trying to find the end of each story branch, and fun is largely put on the back-burner.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC.

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Review

The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not

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The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 1

Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.  

One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.

The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.  

Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals. 

This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell. 

The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying. 

Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.

Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.    

The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.  

The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 2

So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.

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