I’m so grateful to Patreon backer HarmoniousSpear for forcing me to play Vessels! I cannot believe I missed this last year, and am so relieved to have caught it now. This is a game about waking up in an airlock on a spaceship, having no memory, and being interrogated by crew members as part of a quarantine protocol. If you can’t answer their questions, they’re forced to blast you out of the airlock. Except, each time they do, you find yourself right back inside the cell, time seemingly having looped.
A mysterious voice talks to you while all this is happening. It’s guiding you, claiming to be you, as it encourages you to learn the information you need to answer their questions through repeated attempts. Responding in different ways causes the three crewmates to have different conversations, slipping in key information as they do. The first goal is learning your own name, for instance, but then after that, you’re trying to piece together the entire history of whoever you were before, in order to convince these people to keep you alive.
It’s such splendid use of a time-loop, to have it be primarily about information gathering, in order to manipulate your situation. And from the very start, there’s the strong, unsettling suggestion that either you, or the voice in your head, or both, have malevolent intent. This is certainly helped by its splendid use of sound, with a great score, but more importantly with such smart use of portentous sound effect.
Quickly, you’ll learn that by emotionally manipulating others, you can weaken their minds to the point where you can possess them, move them around on the other side of the airlock door, even have them talk to their crewmates to say what you’d like them to say. This immediately underlines the sinister tone of this whole game, one of coercion and control, but with the added complication that you’re doing it to literally save your life.
This won the IGF 2021 Student Prize, but as is so often the case with the award, it was widely ignored by the games press (including me). The developers even report on their Steam discussions that they weren’t able to find a PR company willing to help them, which is madness given the award success and the fact that it’s an immediately gripping game.
Even more interesting is how much more it does than it ever needed to. There’s a very workable version of this game where your character is just in that airlock, looping until you can manipulate conversations enough to achieve your aims. In fact, I’d love to play that game too. But this one goes further, letting you possess the crew mates, and as such, explore the ship, talk to the others, go into your possessee’s quarters…
Be warned, the game runs at your desktop native resolution, and fought all my attempts to change its size and shape. It’s impressive that it expanded to ultra-wide without breaking anything, but I would rather have played it in a sensible window.
This is a fascinating game, with more than one ending, but no matter how you play forcing you into some ugly situations. It’s so interesting to play this familiar setting from the side of the “infected” one on board, and to be confronted by the realities of your actions. (As such, anyone personally affected by coercive control might want to avoid this.) It’s such a smart idea, and far more complete than student projects often feel.
This came out in December 2020, and was completely overlooked. Let’s see that change now.