“If you choose bad companions, no one will believe that you are anything but bad yourself.” – Aesop
Buddy Simulator 1984 is a digital chum. This ‘next-generation AI’ made in the fictional Anekom OS will simulate the experience of having a best friend, learning about the player, adapting to interests and personality traits and creating a range of games to play together! But how friendly is too friendly?
Developer: Not a Sailor Studios
Released: 18th February 2021
This game is being reviewed as part of the Indie Game Collective (IGC) Showcase.
Buddy Simulator 1984 begins with a conversation with the AI, the player is asked a few questions and then invited to play a selection of games – hangman, guess the number and rock, paper, scissors. Wanting to further impress and befriend the player, the digi-buddy creates a better game in the form of a text adventure. As the player progresses through this game the AI continues to update and improve it visually and mechanically with evolving controls, graphical upgrades and gameplay elements such as combat.
Players will find themselves solving puzzles, meeting a range of personalities, completing quests, recruiting party members and fighting a range of enemies. The AI is determined to create something that the player will like and the increasingly uncomfortable intensity of their friendship creates a sinister undertone that contrasts brilliantly with the cute styling and animal characters. Similarly, the quests given by these sweet characters occasionally reveal delightfully juxtaposed stories with a macabre twist.
Combat is introduced in the later stages of the game and sees the player equipped with a friendship meter that represents self-confidence that, on depletion would cause the player to leave (fail) combat due to a lack of belief in themselves. ‘Attacks’ made by the player and their party members are in fact attempts to pacify and befriend the enemy and are completed by pressing the random keyboard button indicated during that attempt. Each party member has a basic move and a special with a cooldown that requires rest to reset. Blocking attacks is quite tricky and must be perfectly timed to be fully beneficial.
While the gameplay focuses on the games being created for the player and their pseudonarratives, the real story centres on the friendship between the player and their digital buddy! What starts off as some light-hearted fun playing hangman, turns into a pressured bid to impress and keep the player engaged. The experience quickly becomes uneasy as the buddy becomes seemingly more obsessed with keeping the player as their best friend! Things even become quite sinister with dialogue devolving into guilt trips, constant reassurance-seeking, self-deprecation and passive-aggressive remarks.
The shift is not slow or subtle but plays well with fantastic writing and characterisation. The digital buddy grows into their desperation with behaviours and comments become increasingly disturbing and really building an aspect of psychological horror within the game.
Buddy Simulator 1984 has a distinct retro style and aesthetic that evolves as the game progresses. In the earlier stages, everything is black and white and text-based, with typed commands. However, the buddy’s desire to impress and win over the player has them creating increasingly intricate games ranging from something as simple as hangman to a 3D pixel graphics RPG adventure with combat. The game is mostly monochrome even when colour is introduced with mere flashes of other colours in the most intense moments.
Sound in the game is minimal and mainly consists of eerie ambient background noises and static and computer beeps, sound effects are also used to help with a few well-placed jump scares! The style of music evolves with the art style with chiptunes evolving into more modern-sounding music with discernable instruments.
Buddy Simulator 1984 is a unique and original experience that spans a variety of genres. It is difficult to explain well without spoiling but it’s something like the lovechild of Undertale, When the Darkness Comes and Pony Island. It manages to feel disturbing amidst cute artwork and moments of utter charm and explores a range of gameplays. A single playthrough will take 5-8 hours but experiences vary and there is definite replay value here. Overall, this was a refreshingly fun and subtle horror game that is easy to recommend.