Note: This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.
A screenshot from Ace Combat 7 (2019), illustrating perhaps the sort of derelict military spaces that AitSR is about exploring.
Alone in the Station Remnants by caro (@seaexcursion) is, a very interesting solitaire writing exercise/character piece; solitaire roleplaying games, in the form of journalling or letter-writing games, are fascinating to me as a writer and fan of fiction and I greatly enjoy trying them in their various forms. A modification of Takuma Okada’s Alone Among the Stars, a game of space exploration and painting expansive, dreamlike worlds, Alone in the Station Remnants brings the scale down to the intimate level, and adds an interesting parallel narrative aspect that absolutely sold it to me as good.
I like images of derelict, abandoned spaces, the imagery of the post-apocalypse. In video games the most impressive examples to me are things like Nier Automata or Horizon Zero Dawn’s robot apocalypse or the chilling anarchy of Bioshock’s Rapture – but there are no shortage of visually impressive images of modernity run into ruin across books, cinema, video games and anime. A solitaire journalling RPG about exploring and remembering a derelict space is an approach to post-apocalypse roleplaying that can be touched on in something like The Quiet Year (where there have been very good games set in post-apocalyptic settings), but it is the way Alone marries this to its genre inspirations that elevates it. Abandoned spaceships and spacestations, long-lost facilities and bases are the bread and butter of science fiction, especially horror. Alien, System Shock, Prey all come to mind for the obvious horror elements. Alone does not have to be about horror. It could be; it is merely a game about surveying and remembering a military outpost that has been abandoned, and it could very easily and interestingly be played as an emergent story about some cosmic horror or stalking alien.
But perhaps it would be more interesting not to make it a game about a current conflict, or an unresolved horror. The game’s own rules describe the end state as “you are tired of sifting through these remnants of your past life.” Immediately it is asking a lot of interesting questions you will need to explore through your emergent narrative. You used to be a soldier, and this used to be your home. It is now derelict. A lot can be done with that, and the rules recommend each section of the story reflect on a different aspect of this ambiguity. When I played Alone my combination of random rolls and events suggested a story of someone who left under bad circumstances, and in the process did not witness the tragedy that left the place derelict.
Each paragraph written for Alone has three elements to it; a card is drawn and a dice rolled. The suit of the card determines what the tone of the writing must be, building on the parallel narrative voices aspect. The value of the card determines what is being described. The dice roll determines if the memories your character has are good, bad or complicated. So what are the parallel voices I am alluding to, and why are they important? When you write a paragraph in Alone you either write it as a personal log, about your character’s intimate, private experiences – or a status report to send to the military about the base’s strategic value. Delineating these voices is the crux of Alone’s drama, because while a narrative might emerge in the private log, that is not appropriate for a formal report. So you have to be able to imagine trying to set aside what might be cruel, or sad memories of former friends to blankly report on whether or not their rooms are usable. Or try to set aside memories of the people who once used a barracks to count the number of guns that are left.
This works because Alone is a solitaire game; the player both plays their character and also, in a way, the audience of their journal. I don’t think a GM’d game, or a game with multiple PCs, could offer the same opportunities for introspection that are at Alone’s heart – there is often relatively less space for private internal monologuing in a game with a party to interact with. You could absolutely make a version of Alone that built on a party aspect – it would be a different game, but imagine playing it with a second player who takes on the role of the voice on the end of the phone – alternating between attentive operator trying to make small talk on what must seem to them a boring recon mission and voice of command demanding everything be accounted for and analysed. They could spur conversation and drive the narrative forward by asking questions.
But that is a house rule. Returning to the game as it is, I have described its fundamental mechanics but I feel it is very difficult to explain why it resonated so deeply with me. My love of urban exploration is one thing. But Alone is about more than urban exploration, and it is about more than wallowing in pity and nostalgia or even dredging up painful memories. It implicitly, through its mechanics, sets the single player in conflict with an unplayed force – the nameless, contextless recipient of the official report, obsessed only with productivity and what can be salvaged physically. The dehumanising effects of war are fertile ground for stories about mechanised or future conflict; it is almost a truism that in stories of vehicular combat it is the demolition of flashy equipment that is memorable, and the living bodies inside are downplayed. Alone reframes this; you must put aside whatever human emotions you have to try and rationalise whether or not something is useful. It almost feels like a game exploring grief, or at least the process of setting matters in order after someone dies. Grief must be set aside to do unpleasant, dehumanised business.
I’ve not gone much into what could be specific genre inspirations for Alone because it works very well as a simple character study. The whole point is you are a pilot no longer, you have no war to fight, you are reliving and revisiting your past. Consider it instead in terms of more general themes of post-fall society. But there is one scene in mecha anime that would work very well to get a player into a mindset that would work for Alone. There is a scene early in the OVA Aim for the Top! Gunbuster where the protagonist disobeys orders to explore a shipwreck in space, looking for answers about her family. The atmosphere there would suit Alone – as would the tension between what “should” be done, and what might offer closure.