Imagine if I told you there was a new immersive sim – think Prey, Dishonored, etc – but made by a team of just two people. And then imagine I told you it was really damned good. And now stop imagining, because it’s real, obviously. It’d be a weird intro if it weren’t. Ctrl Alt Ego is a game about being an unattached ego, able to leap between various electronic items aboard a vast space station, and it’s consumed my week.
I want to get the room’s elephant acknowledged as early as possible, so we can get on with what’s important: no, this game doesn’t look pretty. Its art is functional, rarely attractive, and no screenshot is going to sell the game. But that matters for about thirteen seconds, and then you get on with the business of enjoying the game itself. And it’s a heck of a game.
You are, as I say, some sort of noncorporeal entity, capable of leaping between specific electronic items on a space station. This includes an awful lot of stationary items, from communicative CAT cabinets and wall-mounted monitors, to security cameras and destructive monitoring DAD bots. But crucially, there are also a bunch of mobile robots on board the ship, most importantly one called Bug 22.
Bug 22 is your constant companion (well, vehicle, really) throughout the game, capable of being “printed” at any number of Printing Stations, and given an ever-expanding number of abilities as you progress. The range of these abilities is extraordinary, unlockable in any order you choose, and dramatically changing how you can approach the game’s challenges. You could give Bug a weapon straight away, and take a far more aggressive approach to getting past the station’s angry security. Or you could pick the ability to levitate, and as such reach otherwise impossible passages and materials. Or you could pick Shift, and have a sort of telekinetic ability to move objects. Or you could…
It’s utterly incredible just how differently almost every situation in Ctrl Alt Ego can be approached, based on the skills you’ve unlocked, and indeed just your personal predilections. The game is designed to be experimented with, and techniques that feel like they might break the game have most likely been considered and accounted for. This means you have that Prey-like freedom to improvise, and the incredible satisfaction of discovering that your madcap approach can work!
This is all the more interesting for the way you aren’t Bug 22. It’s just a useful vehicle, but can also be completely abandoned for great stretches, as you leap between other mobile bots like the dog-like PUPs, spend a resource called Ego taking over defensive bots like DADs, and later mobile murder machines called MUMs, and explore vast areas just by jumping your consciousness.
There’s SO much detail here, with every possess-able machine offering unique messages, all manner of story pouring in from whoever is talking to you through the CAT cabinets, piles of goals to complete in each of the game’s vast sections in any order you choose, by any means you improvise, all with a phenomenal degree of freedom.
It’s mystifying that something so free, so open, is the work of two people, total. I have managed to break it a couple of times, through some outlandish actions, but the majority of the time I’ve just been delighted to find out my cockamamy plan has worked out. It also offers that most crucial of immersive sim elements: the bit where a great plan goes to crap, and you’re flailing to survive. It’s a joy that Ctrl Alt Ego rarely has me wanting to reload in such moments, but instead to scramble, to try to improvise my way out of a sudden and overwhelming jam.
There are so many elements I want to tell you about, little details that blew me away, discoveries about ways to get through situations, even core game elements, but I got to discover them all for myself, and you should too. This is a wonderful game to just dive into, deliberately opaque at the start, as you learn its systems for yourself.
It’s also a huge game, a solid 20 hours at least, constantly expanding and becoming more interesting throughout. I’ve not finished it yet, and can’t wait to see what it has to offer in its final hours. This is remarkably good, and importantly, would still be considered remarkably good if it had come from a team of 30. Honestly, if Arkane doesn’t immediately give its creators a job, then I don’t understand how the universe works.
This is in my GOTY list already, and I desperately hope that it can break through, get some wider attention, and not be unfairly held back by its more primitive graphics. You’ll be blown away.
Disclaimer: The main developer on this game is a backer of Buried Treasure’s Patreon.