Imagine building Ikea furniture, but only using Alexa.
The year is 2021. You’re a mild-mannered Caucasian <insert gender here> named <insert name here> who is a real whiz with robots – so good with them, in fact, that the top-tier Japanese firm, Nakawaga corp., has decided to give you a call because something bad has happened. Like, really bad. And it’s up to you to White-knight your way through the literal best of the best of the best robotics company in the world to figure out what went down.
Or something like that.
Bot Colony is…whoo boy. It’s something. Developed by North Side, Inc., the game’s Steam page is riddled with mixed reviews beginning in 2014 (yes, it’s been in development for this long). This is because they’ve released a major update that is supposed to make the game work better, but more on that later.
The premise is that you are called upon by the company to figure out a few things – one, there’s a Korean spy in the organization who would steal precious information and take it back for the gain of his/her people (tropey inter-Asian political pot-stirring, my favorite!). Secondly, the robots have also gone haywire, and you need to figure out why that is.
And yes, haywire is definitely one way to describe what’s happened.
The gameplay starts with a dramatization – you watch as a spy sneaks in, hacks a robot, searches through pixelated Ikea furniture before fishing out a microchip from a toilet tank. In the event the microchip doesn’t succumb to water damage, it’s supposedly extremely valuable. The spy then makes their getaway, but not before they clumsily knock over a vase.
Now begins the simulation – you see, in order to beat the spy, you have to think like the spy. Get in their head, right? So you go to your garage and sit down at your desk to open up your macbook and start your top-secret, ultra-classified, highly confidential job of figuring out the difference between two photos and making a robot with the comprehension of a six-year-old tidy up the place.
You’re given some photos, and the photos show what the house looked like before the spy entered. You compare that to how the house looks now, and you make Jimmy fix it up. Some of the things the spy messed up are consistent with searching for something of importance – the couch cushion is awry, the pantry door is open, etc., but where the spy really shows his true asshole colors is when he’d switch the salt and pepper shakers. Like why’d you do that?! I spent literally ALL my time on trying to get Jimmy to pick up the salt shaker and put it down somewhere else, then go pick up the pepper shaker and put it where the salt shaker initially was, then put the salt shaker in the pepper shaker’s place. And that was like, extremely difficult for him to do apparently. The conversation went something like this (note: my entire playthrough was through keyboard input, not mic input):
Me: Pick up the salt shaker
Jimmy: *picks up salt shaker*
Me: Put the salt shaker down on the counter
Jimmy: Which counter?
Me: The counter right in front of you.
Jimmy: I am not programmed to do that.
Me: Put the salt shaker down on the table.
Jimmy: I cannot do that.
Me: Put the salt shaker down on the floor.
Jimmy: I do not know where that is.
Me: You’re an idiot.
Jimmy: I am sorry you feel negatively about my intelligence.
Me: *screams internally*
Eventually, I ran out of time trying to get Jimmy to put down the salt shaker, the owner of the home returned, and the simulation failed.
Surprisingly, the game let me continue to the next level – apparently that was just a formality and they trusted my ability to catch the Korean spy despite my inability to instruct a robot on how to handle spices in a meaningful way.
So I arrive at an airport and have to use my poor communication skills to pick up my OWN baggage via a large touchscreen and kind of crane-game claw robot. Customer service is terrible, right? But the process was really seamless – Mike is like a zillion times better than Jimmy – and I was able to get it in one go. Things were looking up, and I was headed out to the taxi stand to get myself to the hotel for some nice R ‘n R.
Or so I thought.
Turns out some shifty guy gets the last taxi and there weren’t any others scheduled for the night, so I’d have to go to reception and get one myself. Like really??? This robot has like ONE JOB and she can’t even do it? Wow. Okay. Agrihan Airport is getting a one star Yelp review from me.
So I go back in and I find out there’s a bomb threat. As if my day could get any worse! Now I have ten minutes to dispose of a bomb lest I be destroyed in a fiery explosion. So I boot up the interface and Mike and I get into a nice groove.
Me: Go to <insert city here> <top/middle/bottom> shelf.
Mike: Okay. *obeys*
Me: Pick up green briefcase.
Mike: Okay. *obeys*
Me: Go to x-ray machine.
Mike Okay. *obeys*
Me: Put down briefcase on x-ray machine.
Mike: Okay. *obeys*
Mary, another robot, would check each briefcase to see if there was a bomb inside. Cleared baggage would be removed immediately, and I’d lather, rinse, repeat the system with Mike.
Eventually, we would stumble upon a sketchy-looking briefcase, and I would have to exit the interface in order to look at the screen. This is where I had problems – actually, just one problem: Mary.
Mary: I cannot identify the contents of this briefcase. Please exit the control console and verify its contents. According to the x-ray image on the monitor, is this the bomb?
Me: Yes, you have the bomb.
Mary. Okay. I have the bomb.
Me: You have the bomb
Mary. Yes, I have the bomb.
Me: Dispose of the bomb.
Mary: I was not programmed with the dispose command.
Me: Diffuse the bomb.
Mary: I was not programmed with the diffuse command.
Me: Give me the bomb.
Mary: I was not programmed with the give command.
Me: Mary, that’s the bomb.
Mary: Ah-hah! It’s the bomb!
Me: And what do we do with bombs?
Mary: We are all going to die.
Me: Goddamnit, Mary.
Mary: Did you mean – Goddamned, Mary?
I lost count with how many times I tried to get Mary to get rid of the bomb and she would just stand there. I couldn’t finish the level and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to. I was already at extreme-level pissed at the notion of having to call my own cab and then not being able to speak to a human about it (I hate airports), so the fact that I would watch, dumbfounded, as a robot’s shitty programming disallowed it to dump the bomb in the ocean or something? I don’t know. At least HAND IT TO ME and I’ll take care of it, right?
Bot Colony’s Steam page touts the game as “unique in that it’s currently the ONLY game on the planet featuring AI-based conversation as the main game mechanic”. Which is a really nice idea, but when your main game mechanic (let’s get real – the ONLY mechanic) is so fraught with problems that even when you do everything correctly, it’s STILL buggy? Nope. Sorry. This game is broken.
One redeeming grace Bot Colony has is the level of frustration you feel while playing it translates nicely to streaming. A quick google search yields a handful of videos that will leave you with tears streaming down your face at the sheer ridiculousness of their playthroughs. One YouTuber found out Jimmy repeats pretty much anything you say to him, which had me roaring with laughter. If you’re a streamer looking for trollish content, this might be worth looking into.
Throughout my playthrough of Bot Colony, I realized I’m so, so happy that a world full of customer-facing robots like I suffered through is still a relatively far-off notion. We’ll still press “0” repeatedly until we get a human on the random phone call, still demand to see a manager when we feel our customer service issue hasn’t been handled correctly, and still call in a bomb squad that gives humans more control over the robots when it comes to diffusing dangerous explosives.
Bot Colony is so frustratingly bad. It appears to have a working mechanic because, when you type to the AI, it can fulfill your requests (for the most part), but spend a little more time playing the game and you’ll see that it breaks. All the time. And since that mechanic is the point of the game, there’s nothing else to do.
And even though the graphics are solid, the music is good, and the controls are easy enough to learn, that can’t save it from the broken mechanic and, quite frankly, bizarre storyline.
Oh, and the update that supposedly fixed the mechanic didn’t work, so there’s that.