This is the one hundred fifty-eighth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our one hundred fifty-eighth random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has sent a faint pulse through our circuit. It’s Tessa’s Ark: Chapter 1 by Neutron Dust, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A Sci-Fi Puzzle/RPG game set in a future where human only exist in a mainfr…

Look out, Bezier. Here’s another game about humans living inside computers.

Tessa’s Ark largely plays like a visual novel, interspersed with some puzzles. There are some role-playing mechanics, in that Tessa and her allies can level up and gain boosts (more health, damage resistance, extra battery charges) that help with the puzzles, but this felt largely superfluous. Most of my time was spent reading through dialogue between the characters, and solving puzzles in order to proceed to the next part of the story.

First, let me say that the art in Tessa’s Ark is gorgeous. Its characters are depicted with brightly colored linework on dark backgrounds, reminding me of something in between a neon sign and a black velvet painting. It’s really distinctive, and I was tempted to take screenshots of every single still image. I was especially pleased when certain parts of the story (which I will not spoil) employed a different art style for contrast. The art and themes mesh really well.

The story is, as the tagline suggests, about humans who are actually just simulations on a computer. Or are they? Tessa thought she was living a normal life on Earth when she suddenly wakes up in neon vision and a floating spark explains that she’s nothing more than an electrical impulse on a wire, in danger of being snuffed out. The writing can be a bit awkward line-to-line, with some hints that English is not the author’s first language, but the imagery is great. There’s talk of internal parsers, non-compiled code, voltage interlocks and the like, all of which is wonderfully evocative of entities living within a computer, trying to find their way to the root directory before security protocols flag them for deletion. This is especially strong in the opening, before other characters are introduced who talk less like computer programs and more like people.

By that point, however, I was enjoying the larger themes at work. There’s a lot of exposition, of course, but the story of how the simulation came to be, how it works, and whether that’s how it should work is compelling. That’s assuming that it’s even real, of course. Is Tessa just dreaming? Some scenes that lean into this last question are highlights, and I wish there were more of them. Especially since, as the “Chapter 1” in the title implies, the story of Tessa’s Ark is not complete. I can’t find a mention of a Chapter 2 anywhere, so it’s unclear if Tessa’s story will ever be finished. What’s here feels like just the beginning of a much longer tale, so hopefully it will continue at some point. If not, however, it’s still an interesting opening, that’s worth checking out.

But enough about the story, let’s talk about the puzzles. Periodically throughout the adventure, Tessa and her allies must bypass parts of the computer system, which means solving puzzles. These are presented as a circuit grid, tasking players with converting the current voltage into a target voltage without overruns or underruns, and without using too many of the teleport nodes which drain health. Tessa’s (or her ally’s) spark physically moves around the wires (controlled with WASD, although there’s mention of touch controls which suggests the game was also available for mobile devices) to interact with different elements and adjust the voltage. Often, the circuit is just one entity with a single voltage that can be adjusted up or down, but sometimes there are directional beams that must pass through gates that adjust the overall value in sequence.

I love the thematic framing of these puzzles, but it was soon clear that they’re just glorified math problems. Most boil down to turning one number into a different number by a series of additions, subtractions, multiplications or divisions. Each can be used only once, which could add challenge, but in practice it usually doesn’t. There were lots of puzzles that I solved without even touching most of the components, using maybe two out of eight options. Sometimes this even ignored whole parts of the puzzle that are accessed via teleport nodes. It made me wonder if Neutron Dust simply did not notice a simpler solution than the intended solution.

Puzzles with light beams are more interesting, requiring rotation of different operators in order to change the math they apply to the voltage in sequence. So for example, players might need to pass a beam through three gates with numerical values, and decide whether each will add, subtract, multiply or divide the signal before passing it on such that it reaches a target voltage. This requires more maneuvering around the circuit too, so mechanics like health and battery recharges become more important. Sometimes, puzzles feature both the standard circuits and the light beams, but these were honestly confusing, making it unclear where the start of the light beam path was and how to connect the two parts of the puzzle.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the puzzles, however, is that they’re all based on color coding. Each node’s color indicates what mathematical operation it will do, and these are explained up-front in a tutorial and then never mentioned again. Do you remember if that green one is add or multiply? What about purple? I had to look back at the tutorial (thankfully, it’s always available from the menu) several times before I had the operations memorized. The color coding also means that colorblind players will be unable to solve the puzzles, especially those unable to differentiate red and green (which is, statistically, up to 8% of males and 0.5 % of females). This is frustrating, because it’s such an easy issue to resolve: just give each node its own symbol as well as color.

Tessa’s Ark has some rough edges too. Finishing a puzzle doesn’t automatically move to the next puzzle or story scene, players must manually click on the “next” button in the top right corner of the screen. This is made even more confusing by the fact that the target voltage changes after the puzzle is solved, for some reason, which made me think I was on a new puzzle with the same layout. Clicking on most interface elements feels sluggish, with a slight delay before the action happens. On the level up screen, the on-screen prompts told me to select the boost I wanted and then to click on the arrow, but there was no arrow on the screen. In fact, it was impossible to level up by clicking, I had to select the boost I wanted and then hit the enter key on my keyboard. There’s also no way to quit the game, aside from the generic ALT+F4 kill command in Windows, which might be a holdover from mobile platforms where people usually close apps at the OS level. And of course, there are the occasional awkward lines of dialogue, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

These issues are easier to forgive because Tessa’s Ark is offered completely free, without even the option to pay anything. Some players will still balk at the simple math puzzles and various awkward bits, but if the premise of navigating a computer simulation while trying to determine if it’s actually real sounds interesting, Tessa’s Ark is worth a look. What’s on offer in this first chapter is pretty short, but it has its charm, and the art is really something to behold. For fans of math and existentialism.

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