Artificial intelligence might be on the verge of changing pretty much everything we know about everything. It can create (or at least remix) art, music, and speech and seems poised to disrupt entire industries. Flat Eye, a sim from the indie studio behind Night Call, seeks to explore some of the same issues. What happens if we can clone ourselves, or alter our own memories? What happens if we can perfectly select the genetics of our own offspring?
What starts off as an unassuming gas station simulator quickly turns into a fascinating look at the ways current and speculative technology could impact our lives. A short demo is out now, with the full release on Steam in mid-November.
A mix between resource management sim and narrative story, Flat Eye puts you in charge of a remote fueling station in Iceland. You start with the basics—restocking shelves, ringing up customers, fixing the bathroom. Soon, though, your AI boss gives you access to a range of new technology. A station that spontaneously generates food to users’ specifications, kind of like a replicator from Star Trek (tea, Earl Grey, hot). A teleporter that can send your customers wherever they want (mind the warning, though! It’s a one way trip and Flat Eye™ is not liable for unforeseen outcomes). A cloning booth. These technological marvels bring in premium customers, each with a story to tell. Your decisions in conversations with them and on how to implement the modules determine the outcomes for them, and possibly for all of humanity.
A content warning before Flat Eye begins sets the tone: it deals in heavy topics. As much as artificial intelligence and machine learning have the capacity to truly improve human life, there’s a lot of trepidation that comes with them. One of the most famous thought experiments in the ethics of AI asks us to imagine one whose sole purpose is to maximize the production of paper clips. A useful task, to be sure, until it gets to the point where the AI decides all matter in the universe, including humans, must be converted into paper clips. They even made a game about it.
We don’t learn much about Flat Eye's AI overlords in the demo. At first they seem very much like an automated version of the kinds of things you might expect from corporate leadership today—prioritize efficiency, retain customers, maintain brand standards. Soon, though, things take a turn for the weird that I won’t spoil.
The studio’s previous game, Night Call, was an homage to film noir and the city of Paris that featured a similar narrative device (it also reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth (opens in new tab), which if you haven’t seen: go do that). In Night Call you drive around town meeting people, having interactions, and ultimately trying to solve a murder. Its strong writing and willingness to meet tough topics with deftness leaves me intrigued to see what kinds of scenarios Flat Eye will explore as it questions how AI will intersect with capitalism and our day-to-day lives.
I enjoyed the demo’s management sim aspects, as well. I got to decide the layout of my shelves, checkout, and bathrooms. Ringing up customers and stocking shelves felt like a cozy warmup for the more serious events to come. Flat Eye has a grid system to connect all your technology to a power source and to one another so that the data you get from the Smart Toilets can inform the DoctorBooth, presumably for… health… reasons. There’s always a small feeling of satisfaction with happy customers—most are just kinda grey blobs that give you a smile icon after their purchase, but interacting with the more fleshed-out premium customers was fascinating.
Once I got the MicroResto custom food module connected, Hal came in. Hal wanted a lembas wafer, which felt timely, with Rings of Power on TV. But also strange. It was here where I first got introduced to the AI’s intentions, which seemed not at all sinister.
I mean, who doesn’t love an experiment? It’s always a good thing when an AI tells you to trust them, right?