ERROR: Human Not Found is a murder mystery visual novel about a murdered AI. You play as one of the researchers involved in the AI’s development, and team up with another AI to investigate the mystery. It’s free and you can pick it up on Steam here.
As I’ve said in previous reviews, this is right up my alley. I’m a huge fan of transhumanism and emergent humanity, and sapient AI is a great topic for that. Unfortunately, the story is just a bargain-bin of cliches that adds nothing interesting to the conversation. The AIs are all just humans wearing robot hats, and the plot has all the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon.
What I found most unforgivable is that the writing is just so… YA. Both the main characters spend far more time bantering and cracking dumb jokes than actually investigating this incredibly serious crime, and their behavior is just… so teenagery. The human, Grace, is supposed to be an accomplished, mature scientist, yet she spends all her time whining about her mom and engaging in childish banter with her coworkers, who just as childishly rise to the bait. There’s even a stupid romance subplot with someone trying to hook her up and another character bragging about getting a date and it is just so stupid and unnecessary. Am I supposed to be investigating a murder or a high school clique?
The AI, Ada, in addition to getting in on the silly banter, just runs down a checklist of every robot cliche with no further nuance to it. She acts like a human in a robot hat rather than a being with a truly different way of experiencing the world. Early on, she’s briefly annoyed her prototype anthroid chassis doesn’t have wireless access to the station’s systems, but she does not go into any detail on how that actually feels or how it affects her perception. Surely that should be a terrifying experience, akin to going blind or deaf — but she just mentions it once to remind us she’s a robot, then never brings it up for the rest of the story. She mimics human emotion and behavior too easily and too perfectly despite supposedly only just learning how to do it, yet she expresses confusion over human metaphors and idioms even though those are far simpler to understand and we’re told she’s been around for a long time before this. She’s reduced to the quirks everyone always attached to AI characters. The other AIs are even worse, constantly railing against emotional behavior and how Ada has become “too human” all while striking dramatic poses and speaking extremely pettily and emotionally. They’re all just convenient, simple caricatures of AIs, not anything that actually examines what it would be like to live as one.
I’m particularly annoyed by Blue, who disdains humans for being “inefficient”. She claims that denying humans the ability to sit down while they’re working in her lab makes them more efficient, which makes negative sense. How does forcing humans to wear out their inefficient legs make them more efficient? (For additional stupidity, she’s frustrated that humans can slip and injure themselves while working in her lab — how does it not cross her mind that wearing out their “inferior locomotive systems” makes that way more likely?) It would make sense if she was just spitefully trying to make her lab as inhospitable as possible to keep humans out, but she never quite admits that. She also uses a cute cat as her avatar, which seems counterproductive to the goal of making humans ignore her. For a superintelligent computer she seems awfully dumb.
I’m honestly unclear why Blue does allow humans in her lab at all. It’s not clear if there’s anything she can’t operate remotely, and she spends the whole time complaining about humans contaminating samples and equipment. (This is of course portrayed as comically unreasonable, but uh… yeah? As someone who actually works with biological samples, avoiding contamination requires a labyrinthine pileup of procedures and equipment, the slightest breach of which can invalidate an entire experiment. If it were possible to cut humans out of the equation, I don’t think the robots would be able to complete a circuit before humans handed it off to them!)
Watson was my favorite AI, but he only felt the most alien because he was also the most childish. He displays confusion and ignorance about incredibly basic facts that an AI should be able to find with ease through the internet, which is just ridiculous. (Despite this, he also manages to be the only AI smart enough to back himself up before jumping into a body, because apparently the “wise” Alpha purposefully deleted all prior versions of himself after uploading himself into the highly experimental tech everyone was certain would go wrong in some way. Do the authors really not know that “moving” actually means “copy and delete”…?)
Even just taken as a mystery, the story is incredibly disappointing, and frankly reads like the authors had no idea how to write a mystery in the first place. You never have to solve anything yourself; every level is just you poking everything unrelated to the actual investigation until the plot decides it’s time for you to move on. Everything is abruptly solved at the end when it turns out the very first piece of evidence you picked up conveniently has the answer to the entire mystery, and said answer is so unbelievably underwhelming I just ended the game saying, “That’s it?” There is no tension at any point — no one is given any motive to do the crime, no one is falsely accused, and no one is in danger of facing any real consequences. Grace even says this explicitly at the start, the worst she and Ada will get is a slap on the wrist.
The way this kind of story is supposed to go is to give some reason why Grace can’t just let the police handle it — that the police wouldn’t take the murder of an AI as seriously as the murder of a human and would jump to the wrong conclusion or fail to investigate it at all, or something. Instead her only motive is that she’s too impatient to wait one day for the police to show up, and when they do they are by all appearances far more professional and motivated than she is. We’re given a handwave in the ending that the director apparently wanted Grace and Ada to investigate together to prove humans and AIs could work together, but the fact she’s willing to jeopardize the investigation of an AI’s murder to stage this weird morality play just makes her look like a hypocrite. There needed to be something more at stake — one of the humans is falsely accused, one of the AIs is falsely accused and will be punished without trial because AIs don’t have rights, the police already investigated/are investigating but they’re getting everything wrong because they’re not considering the AIs as suspects, something. Instead the protagonist just decides the rules don’t apply to her and she gets to screw with a police investigation for no reason. This game can’t even do cliche right.
One thing I’ll say is that the game is good on racial diversity. Grace is the daughter of a black man and an Asian woman, and there’s visible cultural diversity in the names and appearances of her coworkers. There are also a good amount of women; not only are the two protagonists women, so is the director of the station and several of the ruling body, and of Grace’s two parents, her mother is definitely more important both to the plot at large and her personal story.
It’s… less good on queer rep, though. The story is supposedly set 150 years in the future, yet the standards for gender and sexuality barely seem to have budged an inch. There’s a painfully awkward exchange where Grace assumes her male coworker is dating a woman, and he shoots back “Who says it’s a woman?” without further elaboration, and I just know the writers are patting themselves on the back for that even though it is the absolute lowest bar. That sort of dialogue would be just barely acceptable in the modern day; to imply our culture will be just as heteronormative in 150 years is actually pretty regressive. Think of how much our perceptions of gender and sexuality have changed since 1870, and how radical a shift of similar magnitude would have to be. Likewise, the language the game uses to describe these concepts is not updated or interrogated in any way; the male-rooted “android” is used to describe the bodies for all the AIs, even the ones gendered as female.
Speaking of, why do inorganic creatures have genders in the first place? Were they assigned genders by the programmers, or did they choose genders for themselves? If the latter, why? Was it a residual feature from the attempt to mimic the human brain through their neural network? All of these are fascinating questions that pierce at the heart of some of the most fundamental concepts of our humanity and identity, questions that should be asked by any SF story worth its salt. None of them are asked by this game.
And this is more minor, but for such advanced technology, Ada’s chassis looks horribly uncanny valleyish. What is up with that line splitting her face in half? It makes her look like she has a Glasgow smile. Her poses are also incredibly stiff and unnatural — her “wrists on hips” pose is physically painful for me to look at. Possibly the idea is supposed to be that it’s a prototype that was supposed to get aesthetic mods later, but they sure make it sound like the bodies were supposed to be finished.
So overall, there just… isn’t anything here. The story relies entirely on well-trodden cliches and stereotypes, and says nothing new or interesting about robots, humanity, science, or technology. The Fall did better at this and even that was a cliche storm. It disappoints me that people are so unwilling to break out of their preconceptions of what life has to look like and really think about how a different form of life would operate. And that’s really the entire problem right there, isn’t it? We love stories about “acceptance” and “friendship” and “breaking down barriers”, just so long as the Other isn’t too other. We lack the courage to forward a narrative where the Other is allowed to be truly weird and inconvenient and different and still be valid. We’re all for tolerance in theory, but never in practice.
The gameplay is quality, though. All the puzzles are based on real programming concepts, and work almost like an edutainment game. The concepts are elementary if you’re at all familiar with programming, but they’re still a lot more fun and relevant than most adventure game puzzles.