Technology can be a marvelous thing, finding ways to improve our daily lives in ways we never thought possible. It can also be a total nightmare. It’s hard not to feel like we’re quietly slipping into a sci-fi dystopia, where privacy is nonexistent and every aspect of our lives has been commodified.
Flat Eye, the latest game from Night Call developer Monkey Moon Studio, grapples with that tension. The management game has players running a gas station that’s filled with futuristic machines that are one CES away from being breathed into existence. I went hands-on with the game during GDC and found a grounded sci-fi game that resists the urge to crumple into cynical techno-despair — even when it’s presenting a plausible dystopia.
The age of smart toilets
The slice of Flat Eye I played began simple enough. I’m looking top-down at a mostly empty gas station. There’s a register, some shelves, and a restroom. My first day begins simply enough as I refill the shelves with inventory and start ringing up customers.
This isn’t your usual Mobil station, though. The shop has been essentially co-opted by a tech giant that’s turned it into a one-stop-shop for gas, snacks, and cloning. The game loop quickly presents itself as I build new machines and link them up to my power grid, all while juggling my usual clerk duties. Like any good management game, it quickly becomes a complicated juggle where I need to build more machines, keep a fresh stock, repair modules, and check out impatient shoppers at once. A stress meter at the bottom of the screen tells me how well I’m balancing it all.
The fun (or terror) of the whole experience comes from the machines you build. Flat Eye riffs on a number of futuristic ideas, many of which feel dangerously plausible. One of the first machines I build is a smart toilet, something that I wouldn’t be surprised to discover actually exists (oh, it does). The developers are a bit coy about how it works, but you can probably guess how it gathers a user’s nutritional data.
Some of the tech in the game is so close to reality that it has the team rushing to get the game out before fiction becomes fact. During the demo, the developers explained that they had included a “suicide booth” in the game (perhaps best known as a running Futurama gag), but were shocked to find that a real-life one will be tested in Switzerland soon. Other tech in the game, like memory erasing ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, isn’t far behind either.
Other machines are a little more far-fetched, and that’s where Flat Eye digs into philosophical territory. On my third day, a customer comes in asking about an experimental machine that could grant them immortality. After a conversation where I explain how it works, I’m treated to an unnerving cutscene where an A.I. robot outlines the tech’s destiny (in this case, the forecast isn’t so good).
Flat Eye isn’t just trying to offer up satirical gloom and doom like Black Mirror. It’s a more grounded experience that investigates the ways new technology slowly becomes ingrained into our lives until it becomes second nature. It’s dystopian sci-fi to me on paper, but for my customers, it’s all mundane. Just another day at the pump. The point was accidentally driven home once the demo ended. In real life, I got a burrito from Chipotle and went back to my hotel room, only to open my laptop to a targeted Chipotle ad on the first page I loaded. I live with needlessly invasive tech every day and it barely registers anymore. Flat Eye’s smart toilets hardly feel like a stretch.
I’m curious to see where the full story goes. While shop management makes up the core gameplay loop, this is a narrative-driven game with story beats delivered via conversations with “premium customers.” Those chats seem to form the backbone of the experience, allowing the game to dig into the moral implications of tech that seeps into every corner of our daily lives, for better or worse (I’ll go out on a limb and guess it’s the latter here).
Aside from the philosophical waxing, Flat Eye simply functions as a well-oiled management game. After even a brief snippet, I could feel how much my gas station could expand down the line and how I’d be able to make it run like an automated machine. The potential satisfaction is high, so long as you can handle the existential crisis that’s bound to come with it.
Flat Eye is set to launch on PC sometime this year.