I love metafiction, and I’ve shown my affinity in the past for games that make the player feel like part of the story. Games like Pony Island, Skylanders: Trap Team, and Pokemon Go all have that metafictional touch to them, and there’s no question that it’s part of why I like them so much. Acolyte is a little different, though, using a chat bot and ARG elements to involve not just the player but the real world internet in the mystery. That’s good for immersion, but not great for accuracy.
In Acolyte, players take on the role of QA testers at a company called Nanomax testing out a new virtual assistant program called Acolyte. As a QA analyst in real life who has spent a lot of time testing a virtual assistant program, I felt right at home. But even if you don’t have that same unique background, don’t worry; you won’t be working on QA for long. Secret messages and errors come along to lead players into the game’s main mystery. The gameplay itself takes the form of the virtual assistant program: the game window shows your Acolyte and provides a text box to communicate with them, as well as tabs for emails and other information. You play entirely by talking to the chat bot and investigating various clues; it’s about as immersive as it can be, and while it isn’t the first game I’ve seen like this, if it worked as the developers claim, it would be the most real-feeling.
Unfortunately, the real chatbot at the heart of Acolyte isn’t nearly as advanced or accurate as it would need to be to really pull this off. In-universe, the Acolyte is supposed to represent a new era of virtual assistants, but in reality it’s worse than Google Assistant. Very basic prompts like “OK” or “I agree” seem to confuse it, it gives canned responses in some sections that don’t change at all based on what you actually said, and it can be difficult to move from one area of investigation to another. At one point in the game, the Acolyte presents two pieces of evidence and asks which one you want to work on first. Once I made some progress in one, I couldn’t go back to the other one no matter what I typed in. While some bugs and errors are part of the story, this one is clearly not.
So the AI part might not shine, but what is really fun is the mystery. Figuring out a piece of evidence by looking at a website’s source data or decrypting image files makes you feel like a real sleuth, and the story builds on itself nicely. The only problem is that the game gives few hints. So when you’re trying to decrypt a piece of text, for example, the game isn’t going to spell out how it’s encrypted or whether it has a password. I had to use a walkthrough a few times, I’ll admit, but that didn’t make it any less fun. I’ll save you the trouble, if you intend to try the game: it’s a Vigenère cipher, and it does have a keyword. But like I said, despite these challenges, solving them makes you feel like a badass, so I can’t complain too much. While the story isn’t anything too original or breathtaking (in fact, it rips off some ideas from another game I love), it’s made much better by the player’s participation. Not to mention, the writing is very good too, with each character’s personality coming through strongly.
Acolyte doesn’t provide a perfect illusion of a futuristic virtual assistant, given that the chatbot seems to have a lot of trouble understanding things, but the mystery built around that concept is enough to make the game very engaging. Even though the story is fairly basic, there is enough to dig into and solve that it has enough depth to be satisfying. There’s a lot more that can be done with this idea, and I hope that developer Superstring improves on this with a follow up. But for now, Acolyte is worth a shot for anyone who wants to play amateur detective and be part of the story.
Elementary, my dear Acolyte
‘+ Engaging mystery
+ Real world puzzle solving
– Chatbot issues
– Simple plot