Alter Ego MS-DOS (reviewed), Apple II, Commodore 64 Developed by Activision Released in 1986
We cover a wide array of games on this site, but as Stian recently remarked to me, we tend to stick around on the Playstation 2 an awful lot. That made me ask myself: “what is the oldest game I like that few people will know about?” The answer: Alter Ego.
The cycle of life
Alter Ego is the most advanced life simulator you could get back in the day, considering the next best thing was Little Computer People from 1985. It starts out, like life, with your mother pushing you out of her womb into the big, scary world. You have a pretty normal start in life: your mother and father are a happy couple with a dog, you live in a pretty normal house, and you are perfectly healthy at the start. All of this can quickly change as you proceed through the game’s many choices.
This is a very story-driven game, since gameplay is simply a long list of choice moments you work through. Each step you take you are faced with a small dilemma to overcome and you must select a mood for yourself and a response. After all, the same action can have radically different consequences if you are red with anger instead of smiling happily. The game then provides you feedback and often this leads to the next choice, forming a small story-line for you to work through. The way in which you handle this will upgrade or downgrade your statistics, so picking a fight with a bully will make you tougher whereas talking him down will make you more intellectual, which in turn affects future choices you make.
And wow, this game really has a lot of writing behind it and all of it is said to have a basis in actual psychology. Each choice can branch out in so many different ways and there are tons of situations for you to find, with none of them feeling like rushed inclusions to pad out the content. The writing is also remarkably witty and definitely got a few giggles out of me, though it does have a tendency to lecture you on some decisions and the mood system is often a bit pointless, as it will have many combinations that are deemed incompatible; why even give me a mood to choose when there are two options and two moods that only work with one of those options each?
As your character moves further in life more choices will open up to you. By hitting escape you leave the branching tree of choice moments to pick from and get to the menus on the side. At first you can only see your statistics here, but later on there is a romance menu, an education menu, job menu, all that good stuff. From there you make special decisions outside of the main tree, though some other choices may be unavailable based on whether or not you pursued a romance or hold a job at the moment.
However, as you progress the greatest weakness of this game also becomes apparent: Alter Ego is not sufficiently detailed enough to keep in mind what you have done. Some of the situations I tackled were really fun, like this one Chinese student at my school who I helped integrate and learn English, leading to us becoming lifelong friends! That was a really cool moment for me, but this lifelong friend is never brought up again. In fact, the game seems to just generate random people on the fly, as it brought up supposed “friends” that never appeared before. Your past is digested down into raw numbers for your statistics and all the details you might fondly remember don’t really matter.
On top of that, a few mechanics do feel shallow. Though you can get a job, finances count for awfully little, as nothing really seems to cost money. You have an “acquisitions” menu where you can buy specific items like a car, but these have barely any effect. In fact, the story had me in moments were I was driving my car, long before I actually got around to buying one, so this all seems completely disconnected. Another, somewhat unrelated pet peeve, is that the game is a tad too sexual. Especially around the young adulthood stage I ran into more choices that had an age warning than ones that didn’t, so I worry if you can even finish the game if you choose to avoid these.
Still, even these 18+ encounters were pretty fun and for the sake of keeping my experience proper I chose to deny every chance given, though I couldn’t resist to have my alter ego sneak some dirty magazines into his room. Overall the story and gameplay are really strong, though some weak points drag it down a bit. The amount of effort put into creating this many scenarios for players to engage in is much appreciated and I really found myself pondering over them as it grew complexer later in life.
Gameplay & Story score: 8/10
The beauty of DOS
This game is hardly something you’d call graphically sophisticated nowadays, but it has a simple and functional presentation. Progress is marked by a tree that branches out with various icons that represent different kind of choices (social, health, family, etc.) that you move your cursor over in order to start their respective scenarios.
One the sides you have additional menus that change as you move up in age and all these different icons are actually nice and clear. You don’t need to open the manual at any time to figure out what they represent, though it would have been nice to have an indicator on choices that are going to present an 18+ rating or just an option to disable these choices by default, just to make the game more accessible for kids.
There is no music or other pictures to speak off, so this presentation part is pretty short. Some noise would have been nice, though.
Presentation score: 9/10
A long and healthy life
At the start of the game it may feel like you are proceeding rather quickly. Your infancy and childhood stages are pretty short and those teenage years breeze past too, but after that the game slows down to a crawl that had me worrying if things were even working properly. Young adulthood takes particularly long and I was confused when I noticed my character was 32 years old and still in college. When the heck do I graduate? What am I doing with my life? I already had a fulltime job twelve years before that what’s my guy doing in school?
I was playing this game on The Internet Archive’s emulator and had to sit down a really long time because there is no save option. This game is deceptively long, but like I said before, you do get your money’s worth considering the amount of quality writing on display. A downside, then, is that the game isn’t that fun to replay, even though it sounds really appealing to see how a different attitude could affect your character’s life. In a game this heavy on reading and choices, you are likely to get bored replaying the much more limited early years long before you get to any pay-off. You can technically skip to any stage in life once you start a new game, but I found that doing so made me feel less connected to my avatar.
Extras Score: 7/10
Alter Ego is basically free, you can play it on The Internet Archive, download a legal copy from there to emulate yourself, or play the browser version that was made with Choicescript, though that one will keep bothering you to buy the premium version and has a more amateurish presentation compared to the simple and stylish classics. The point is: it’s free and really, really well written. If you only play it once you are certain to have an interesting time with it and that easily bumps the score here up to a 9, as most of the issues I mentioned only become really grating if you replay it quite often.