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Sowing the Seeds of Your Own Destruction in Autonauts

By Chris McMullen on at

Aw, look at the cute little wooden robots, with their cartoon faces and their gnashing wooden teeth and OH MY GOD GET THEM OFF ME! HELP! MY FACE! WHY ARE YOU TAKING MY FACE?!

Okay, maybe Autonauts doesn’t revolve around the robot apocalypse – but there’s definitely something unsettling about this automaton-assisted colony management game. Just how many interplanetary crimes do you have to commit before marooning yourself on an alien world is a positive move – a world which, as you construct your colony, you share with a ballooning number of robots? Autonauts’ self-inflicted solitude makes Firewatch look like a weekend at Disneyland.

If you can overlook the strangeness of your situation, Autonauts becomes a joy-inducing time sink. It’s an especially cathartic experience if you’ve ever played a survival game, grinding your teeth at its insistence that you collect six hundred leaves to make a shelter the size of a child’s playhouse. Instead of chopping, building and planting until your mouse fingers hurt, the point of Autonauts is to get your robots to do it for you; right up until they murder you in your sleep, anyway.

Once you’ve constructed a robot, giving it a job is sheer simplicity; click on it, order it to mirror your moves and show it what you want to do. Then it potters off, merrily hacking away at a tree with its shiny, blood-free axe. But, hang on, someone has to collect those logs, so you construct another one and show it how to pick up wood and dump it in a pile. Before you know it, you’ve delegated the daily grind to your adorable, mechanical team, smilingly smugly as you contemplate all the work you don’t have to do.

If that’s as far as you want to go, so be it. But Autonauts really comes into its own when you delve into the game’s visual programming interface. It resembles Scratch, a similarly visual programming language that’s aimed at children, and is elementary enough that you can get your head around it, even if you’ve never written a line of code in your life. Oh, it starts off innocently enough, but that’s how the game (and the robots) get you.

You’re watching your robots roam back and forth, carrying a single berry at a time and then you start to wonder... couldn’t they carry more than one at a time? They’re repeating their task forever, or at least until they need winding up, but what if you added another loop? How could you make that work?

You drag in a REPEAT.

Okay, repeat what?

REPEAT UNTIL HANDS EMPTY.

That should do it! A quick press of the play button and the robot walks away, gathering berries once again. But this time it doesn’t just pick one, it keeps going until it can’t carry any more, then it heads over to drop them off. You grin from ear-to-ear – a grand victory for automation!

But it’s too late. You’ve fallen into the robot rabbit hole now, and there’s no slowing down. Watching your machines work still gives you joy, but there’s something else; you’re observing them with a critical eye, wondering just how you can improve the efficiency of your automated empire.

It’s about this time that you start unpacking your colonists who, as it turns out, are little more than lobotomised Pokémon. They exist only to vomit up ‘wuv’ which lets you unlock more complex technologies, such as bigger robot brains. And the bigger those brains get, the more possibilities you see. The programs you craft get longer and more complex; you’re locked into a wondrous cycle of revision and improvement. When something does go wrong, finding and eliminating errors is just as fulfilling.

This addictive, inescapable cycle continues; the question... “Can I?” is nearly always answered with a resounding yes – anything you can do, the bots can do better, until you slam head-first into the singularity, the moment when humans are surplus to requirements. On reflection, I should have known better, but the sheer rush of automating yet another process was too much to resist.

My first moment of folly came much earlier when, thoroughly sick of having to wind up my robots, I wondered if I could program them to recharge themselves. A few minutes later, I had a pair of robots who went around, resurrecting any deactivated robot workers. But the more I played, the lazier I got, delegating more and more tasks, grasping for Autonauts’ holy grail: total automation.

And so, I had my final epiphany – since the robots could do everything my character could do, could I make a robot that built other robots? I made a mental checklist of all the resources such an operation would require, and the amount of memory a robot would need to keep those operations in its head.

Tentatively, I ordered my most advanced robot to observe me; grabbing items from the ample stocks the other machines had harvested. He obeyed and, after tweaking his programming a little, with trembling hands I pressed the “play” button. I watched as he wandered, returning each time to the bot workshop and, with a final flourish, he assembled a complete, but dormant robot.

I was basking in the glow of this stroke of genius when one of the recharger-bots I’d created earlier wandered by and, without my intervention, wound it up and it sprung to life. And I realised... they didn’t need me any more.

I’d taught them everything they needed to know, to self-recharge, to self-replicate.. so what was I here for? I turned the game off and while I haven’t gone back yet, I’m a little worried about what I’ll find when I do.

There are little clues that Autonauts isn’t quite as developed as it could be and, at times, it feels like a late stage early access title. Your colonists, for example, have an evolution pyramid that goes up to eight but, in its current form, they can only evolve up to level five. But, complete or not, it’s got a depth and appeal that belies its cutesy, childish veneer. Just don’t blame me when the plywood Terminators come for you.