Your job is to kill people. But, before you can, they have to agree to be killed. It’s the second part that’s going to cause you the most trouble.
This is the premise of Localhost, a five dollar indie game that explores a strange area of life where drudgery meets moral conundrum. It’s like Papers, Please but you’re making life and death choices about programs with varying degrees of self-awareness.
I guess they’re not people, not technically. Your task is actually to erase a set of four hard drives that contain code for different forms of AI. You put a hard drive into a stock body, talk to it for a bit and hopefully get it to agree to unlock the drive so you can erase it from existence.
It’s hard work; you can’t communicate with someone or something without beginning to feel some form of empathy. I even remember the DOS-based chatbots of my youth with some warmth, and as Turing Tests go they were more Speak and Spell than Replicant.
Your boss is always happy to remind you that these are just computer programs. Someone programmed them so they can talk and communicate, and any attempts to save themselves comes from their code, not any biological need to survive. Computer programs don’t have souls, after all, and they need those hard drives ASAP.
The game has only one setting, and you spend your time clicking on hard drives to install or remove them from the body floating in front of you so you can discuss oblivion with the program inside. It’s a heady idea, especially once the programs start to reference each other and the owner of the body in which they find themselves.
There’s also the question of what they think and feel in the hard drives between being plugged in. Some seem to suggest they only exist when they’re connected. Others hint that there is some form of formless existence in there.
There are layers to consider here, and the game can be “finished” in about half an hour, although you’ll want to go back and make different dialog choices if you want to see everything. Some of the programs want to survive, while others are more accepting of their fate.
While saying anything else would be a spoiler, although a light one since you can already imagine a lot of the possibilities of the story yourself, the experience feels hopeless and bleak across the board. You may want to try to save one of these minds, but what happens if you get fired and they bring in the next person who needs the money more than you do? Wouldn’t you just be offering a stay of execution in many cases?
You’ll also have to contend with the idea that a body means something different for these programs than it does for you. Erasure not only means they won’t exist anymore, it means they never existed. It’s unlikely they have any kind of conception of heaven or what lies beyond the veil. This is what they know, this is what’s being taken from them and different “personalities” are going to deal with that in different ways.
Localhost asks more questions than it answers, which isn’t a criticism. It feels lodged in my brain like a thorn. I find myself wondering how I would feel if a woman in a lab coat were to walk in and calmly tell me it was her job to put me down while getting the syringe ready.
Maybe that’s the secret of life: Your only job is to get your mind and soul to the point where, if that day were to come, you would be able to calmly sit down and find out what happens next.