The last thing you expect from a conversation between cyber-criminals before a deadly mission is a blush-inducing chat about synth pop, but Alex Zandra Van Chestein’s One Last Cup, one of the games being made by the Ikonoclast collective*, manages to subvert expectations in more ways than one.
It’s a deceptively brief game that sees you shepherd a conversation between four Shadowrun-style infiltration experts before their mission--Raechel, the muscle; Lucid, the techie; Blue, the mechanic; Zee, the charismatic negotiator.
Oh, and at least one of them will die. Their conversation over coffee determines who lives and who dies.
I was given a chance to play a demo of One Last Cup at GDC and even in its pared-down form found it to be layered and challenging. To set each conversation topic, you must type one in--almost always a single word--and each ‘costs’ a certain amount of time, measured in coffee. You begin the game with your group’s coffee meter set at 50; once the meter hits zero, the mission begins and you discover how it (tragically) plays out.
The seemingly open-ended core mechanic is overwhelming at first--it certainly helps one see the relevance of that GDC talk about the ‘illusion of choice’ I wrote up last week, which advocated a gentle herding of players into the intuitive logic of the game world.
I initially cycled through a whole range of conversation topics that were drawn from my sphere of interests--and because I’m frightfully boring at parties, none of them worked to spark a conversation with the runners. But I was assured by Van Chestein that some topics I favored, like ‘politics,’ would spark party chatter in the future; this is, after all, an early demo and many possible bespoke conversations with corresponding topics are forthcoming.
The artwork in the demo is already stunning; the coffee shop is atmospheric, the neon hair of the four party members bright against the shadows as they nurse adorably large coffee mugs. The music by veteran game composer Lena Raine (of Guild Wars 2 fame) is diegetic and can actually be discussed or changed by the characters over the course of certain conversations. It’s a powerful demonstration of minimalist game design in action, where a single image, some character portraits, and a score can bathe you in all the immersive beauty of the text-adventures of old.
It’s those classic games that One Last Cup seems to owe the most to, and the challenge here comes from not being presented with a series of all-caps options to choose from. Instead, you must divine them from getting to know both the characters and their forthcoming mission.
This is why I said earlier that the game is deceptively brief. A single play through will take about ten to fifteen minutes; I only took longer because I was scribbling notes throughout. But that first play through will almost inevitably end with all four characters dying horribly on their mission.
The trick is that how they die furnishes the player with conversational clues; in my case, they were all cut down by something called an AEGIS defense system. On my next try, I could input that name to get them talking and strategizing about how to deal with it, increasing their odds of survival.
The full sweep of the game is not a single ten minute cycle, but rather the iterative process of living, dying, learning from your mistakes, and repeating. I often pointed out that the sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow operated on a kind of gaming logic: Tom Cruise’s character died and reloaded from what amounted to a save-point, applying his knowledge of his death to avoid it on his next run, getting further and further each time. One Last Cup now takes that back and makes it, very openly, the driving force of its game, rather than an incidental consequence of its medium.
You’re a conversational spirit trying, perhaps desperately, to get to know these four people and save them from themselves as best you can by closely scrutinizing their mission strategy, their mistakes, and ultimately, their very lives. The beauty of this is that Van Chestein did not just make this about tactics for avoiding traps, say, but also helping each character resolve or address personal issues that may cloud their judgment at a crucial moment.
It effortlessly fuses the strategies of so-called “empathy games”--which require you to ‘get to know’ a character in the game world--with the strategy that goes into a successful RPG dungeon-crawl. You have to both puzzle out how to best infiltrate the mission objective and learn about the characters’ lives. You search for the right words, learn to respect and care for these people as something more than videogame characters, and try your damnedest to save them; conversation is the first and final boss.
There’s a beautiful futility built into this which curbs player power in just the right way. Someone will always die, no matter what you do. Part of the overarching puzzle is figuring out how to save the other three without the skills of the fourth party member--and it is possible to do this with all four characters.
It put me in the mind of Homura Akemi from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, (yes, bear with me), who lingers in the backdrop of her friends’ lives, constantly rewinding time in Sisyphean fashion, trying for years to save them to no avail, no matter how much knowledge she acquires.
In a sense, this is a game where you play as Homura; even if the player’s identity is submerged beneath omnipotence, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in this world with these characters--with Blue, Raechel, Lucid, and Zee--that you’re some cybernetic goddess trying to save them.
There is a lot going on under the hood here; 15 minutes can become hours of meditation and strategy. Van Chestein says that future iterations of the game will include a log book where you can track the conversation topics you’ve used, to better aid players in their strategizing. I can imagine this game being either too frustrating for certain players trying to play mortal-linguistic Jenga with it, and creating a population of die-hards with spider charts and precise theorycraft about how to save each character.
Far be it from me to say that a game needs to be “hard”--that’s an idea we should have dispensed with long ago--but One Last Cup presents a much needed original take on difficulty that challenges us in ways videogames usually don’t. To save these people, you have to learn their secrets, their fears, and try to heal them.
I’m ready for this, jack me in.
*Disclaimer: Ms. Van Chestein and I met for the first time at GDC, but I do know one of the other members of the Ikonoclast group fairly well. I have also promoted Ikonoclast’s Patreon on Twitter because I think what they’re doing is interesting.