Artificial intelligence could be about to change just about everything we know about everything. It can create (or at least remix) art, music and speech and looks set to disrupt entire industries. Flat Eye, a sim from the indie studio behind Night Call, seeks to explore some of the same issues. What if we can clone ourselves or alter our own memories? What if we can perfectly select the genetics of our own offspring?
What begins as an unassuming gas station simulator quickly turns into a fascinating look at how current, speculative technology could impact our lives. A short demo is available now, with the full release on Steam in mid-November.
A mix of resource management simulation and narrative story, Flat Eye puts you in charge of a remote gas station in Iceland. You start with the basics: restock shelves, call customers, fix the bathroom. Soon, however, your AI boss will give you access to a range of new technologies. A station that spontaneously generates food to users’ specifications, much like a Star Trek replicator (tea, Earl Grey, hot). A teleporter that can send your customers wherever they want (heed the warning, though! It’s a one-way ticket and Flat Eye™ is not responsible for unintended results). A cloning booth. These technological marvels attract premium customers, each with a story to tell. Your decisions in conversations with them and how to implement the mods determine the outcomes for them, and perhaps all of humanity.
A content warning before the start of Flat Eye sets the tone: it deals with heavy topics. As much as artificial intelligence and machine learning have the ability to actually improve human life, there is much apprehension about them. One of the most famous thought experiments in AI ethics asks us to imagine one whose sole purpose is to maximize paperclip production. A useful task, of course, up to the point where the AI decides that all matter in the universe, including humans, should be converted into paperclips. They even made a game out of it.
We don’t learn much about Flat Eye’s AI overlords in the demo. At first, they look a lot like an automated version of the kinds of things you can expect from business leaders today: prioritizing efficiency, building customer loyalty, maintaining brand standards. Soon, however, things take a bizarre turn that I won’t spoil.
The studio’s previous game, Night Call, was an homage to film noir and the city of Paris that featured a similar narrative device (it also reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (opens in a new tab), which if you haven’t seen it: go do that). In Night Call, you drive around the city meeting people, having interactions, and ultimately trying to solve a murder. His strong writing and willingness to tackle difficult topics with skill leaves me intrigued to see what kinds of scenarios Flat Eye will explore as he ponders how AI will intersect with capitalism and our daily lives.
I also enjoyed the management simulation aspects of the demo. I have to decide on the layout of my shelves, my crate and my bathrooms. Calling customers and stocking shelves felt like a comfortable warm-up for the more serious events to come. Flat Eye has a grid system to connect all of your tech to a power source and to each other so that the data you get from the smart toilet can inform the DoctorBooth, probably for…health…reasons. There’s always a small sense of satisfaction with happy customers – most are just flecks of gray that give you a smile icon after purchase, but interacting with the more fleshed out premium customers was fascinating.
Once I connected the MicroResto personalized food module, Hal walked in. Hal wanted a lembas wafer, which seemed timely, with Rings of Power on TV. But also strange. It was here that I was first introduced to the intentions of the AI, which didn’t seem sinister at all.
I mean, who doesn’t love an experiment? It’s always a good thing when an AI tells you to trust it, isn’t it?