Flat Eye: How about a little more alienation?

After a rather daring and interesting Night Call, the French team of Monkey Moon has come up with their new game Flat Eye. Somewhere between modern and traditional… er, no. Somewhere between management and narrative, what are we to make of this surprising new attempt by the studio that put us in control of a futuristic Icelandic gas station?

In a way, the studio’s first game already flirted with management, but in a very light-hearted way: as a taxi driver helping the police, you had to strike a balance between gathering information and surviving a difficult job. Despite its undeniable qualities, Night Call suffered from some serious shortcomings: unintuitive and relatively poor investigative gameplay, an undeniable political dimension that was sometimes a bit forced, and above all a narrative structure that was strictly identical between the three scenarios offered. However, the game was able to rely on solid character writing, which made our motorized wanderings through Parisian nightlife a pleasure. In the end, it’s these characters and the brief relationships they forge with us that are the most memorable aspects of the game. It’s these stories that are at the heart of the game, while information about the investigation is only given to the player, never told.

EyeLife or the futuristic Amazon

Flat Eye is based on the same premise as its predecessor: the heart of the story revolves around your resort’s premium customers, who come to use the various services you provide. Each time they come, you’ll have the opportunity to talk to them, learn more about their history and problems, and help them with some of their choices. But to fully understand what we’re talking about, we need to go back to the lore and gameplay of the game.

Meet plenty of characters with various stories

The game takes place in the year 2023, in a future… or rather an unchronistic present, in which a gigantic company, EyeLife, seems to be taking over an ever-growing proportion of the products and services sold around the world. What makes this company special, as you’ll soon discover, is that it’s run by an artificial intelligence. Or rather, if it is not the CEO (who will change every three or four days), it has been the majority shareholder for several years. In the words of the game’s creators, this is the starting point for Flat Eye. In short, EyeLife is a kind of Amazon that has escaped the hands of Jeff Bezos in favor of the predictive algorithms used to entice you to buy. I won’t say any more, because one of the central pleasures of the game is the gradual discovery of its lore. But where does the player fit into all this? You play the manager of one of the company’s service stations, which is in direct contact with EyeLife’s AI.What is the purpose of this election? Nothing less than the future of mankind will be decided by you and your interactions with VIPs! Well, “you”… Or rather, the clerk (as EyeLife Station employees are called) to whom you give orders. Through the many relationships you’ll forge with your customers, you’ll enable the AI to learn more about the world and people, providing an opportunity to perfect its predictions and consider new options for humanity’s future. The framework of the game is set. In a world halfway between Minority Report and an Z movie, you’ll become the vessel of humanity’s future.

Managing on board or getting bored?

So here you are, at the helm of your own little gas station! First of all, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m no specialist in management games… in fact, I’m a complete novice. In fact, that’s what initially scared me about Flat Eye, but I went for it anyway. And I have to admit, at first you really get into the game! You send your employee out to collect customers, stock the shelves, and repair broken machines.

Manage your gas station, starting from scratch

Then the first add-on modules are unlocked: coffee and juice machines, medical cabins, connected toilets, and so on. There is a whole armada of equipment to take care of while still being attentive to the wishes of the customer. At EyeLife, the customer is king. If you make him wait too long, he’ll leave. You’ll lose money and your reputation will suffer.

So we quietly manage our little station and enjoy discovering the new modules at our disposal. They all herald an absolutely brilliant future, in which private enterprise is becoming more and more involved in people’s lives, with technologies that are each more frightening than the last. From the medical booth to the successful cloning machine to the memory suppressor, there’s a lot to see. All of these new installations will bring new premium customers to your station. Soon you’ll unlock automatic cash registers and little robots that will repair machines and stock shelves for you. One small problem: the robots have a few bugs, especially if you decide to work with them at the same time. So the best solution is to leave them alone and place your employee in front of the only machine that still requires human intervention.

Soon the AI will give you daily challenges. These challenges will lead you up the management ladder (levels). Sometimes these are easy to accomplish, sometimes they don’t even require your intervention, sometimes they involve absolutely superfluous tasks (I’ll come back to this later), sometimes they are… incomprehensible or even impossible to accomplish. Most of all, they are extremely repetitive. What’s more, you quickly realize that it’s much more relevant to keep working at x3 speed than to try to be a diligent employee. That’s where the trouble begins.

A day of pain

While the management part of the game is quite engaging at first, you soon realize that it’s completely superfluous. After a while, you’re just waiting to level up to earn technology points so you can buy new machines, install them, and progress through the story with premium members. And that’s a shame, because it’s fun to check which machines are making the most money, try to adjust the gas station to the demand, and so on. But the fact is, it only works approximately. While this scared me at first, the game revealed in me a real desire to manage – which it was unfortunately unable to provide.

A dubious sense of aesthetics

Quickly you will notice that all the machines require the same actions (or non-actions): click on them, then on repair/fill. It’s also clear that there’s no point in trying to get five stars at the end of the day: whether you have four or five, it won’t matter anyway. It’s also clear that there’s no point in decorating your station. In fact, missions that require you to place decorative items can be completed by placing the items and then removing them immediately. The whole cosmetic aspect is purely superfluous (and has no effect on the game) and even annoying, since it takes up space you’d rather use for your machines. And therein lies the fundamental problem. After a few hours of play, management has become pointless, and all you can do is speed up the time to get to the VIP scenes and advance the story.

When work self-destruct, we get bored

VIP Room

Like Night Call, the heart of the game is not the gameplay, but the gallery of characters. The stories of the premium members vary in quality: some are really interesting and well written, while others are more of a “meeeehhh”. In both its strengths and weaknesses, Flat Eye is very similar to its predecessor. It has to be said, though, that Monkey Moon’s latest is better in this regard. All in all, it’s more subtle in its stories and messages, and the whole thing fits, even if imperfectly, into the overall narrative.

Your VIPs : clients you should take care of

While the political stance of the creators is fully embraced here – which is commendable – the same flaws as in Night Call can sometimes be found: there’s a lack of finesse and a tendency to throw things around with a heavy hand. But once again, the overall maturity of the studio in this area has really improved. Especially since Flat Eye is less a game of theses than of questions. Each premium client is a variation on the same theme, that of our relationship with technology, and in particular with the possibilities opened up by AI. Like a melody that unfolds in different forms over time, we are invited to shift our gaze according to the changes in tempo and tonality.

A bibliography, an invitation to overflow the game

This ambition is part of a broader desire to place the player at the center of a stimulating intellectual apparatus, embodied in the presence of a bibliography accessible at any time from within the game. In the manner of Pasolini and his Salò, the creators invite us to enrich the visual (and here interactive) experience through reading. Not as an admission of weakness suggesting that the game is not self-sufficient, but rather as the game itself proposes: in a line of flight that moves from one medium to another, seeing its themes vary and hybridize. The fact that this gesture takes place in a video game landscape that has seen an explosion of cross-media is all the more significant. Heir to the mercantile practices invented by Lucas with the Star Wars saga, the derivative product is no longer simply an object (figurine, poster, replica object, etc.) but becomes a work in its own right (or content, as we say today…); what’s more, the boundary between original work and derivative product tends to blur in favor of an undifferentiated production of content. Flat Eye counters these often dubious and highly self-serving practices by inviting the player not to pursue frenetic consumption, but instead to devote himself to the slow, reflective time of reading.

Ludic spirit, spirited away?

This brings me to the last point I’m going to make in this article. It crystallizes both my discomfort with the game and my passion for it, which makes it deeply endearing.

It took me no less than eighteen hours to see the first ending! No doubt I spent too long to press the “speed x3” button, trying too hard to be a good manager. And I have no doubt that part of this inability to achieve certain goals is intentional: the game is deliberately frustrating in that way. But once you understand that, you stop playing and just wait for the dialogues with the premium members. And so, as I’ve mentioned before, we lose sight of the background story and focus on these individuals, their stories, their experiences in this world with its omnipresent AI. And again, this makes sense, because it’s these melodic variations embodied by the characters that form the heart of the game. And the alienation of work through its insidious vanishing, or rather dissolution, is also a brillant idea.

You can’t blame the game for being inconsistent with itself! But it’s probably too long for its own good. The second half of the hours spent on Flat Eye verges on boring. And while I have no trouble admitting that it maintains a certain degree of coherence, this is the point where what the game is trying to say interferes with its playfulness. Playfullness should not be taken here as a dirty word, nor should it be understood in the poor, degraded sense of simply “fun”, but as something that makes us stay in front of the work, just as we might stay in front of Pasolini’s Salò or a Francis Bacon painting. I’m a firm believer in the idea that a video game doesn’t necessarily have to be “fun” in the common sense of the therm, and even that the word “game” may sometimes be inappropriate to describe this medium. But even more than cinema, painting or literature, video games need to play with the player’s investment.

Caillois's book about games
Man, Play and Games

The twentieth-century French sociologist Roger Caillois divided games along two axes. The first is made up of four ideal-typical categories: agôn (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulacrum), ilinx (giddiness). The second distinguishes between paidia (spontaneous play without rules or even a defined goal to win) and ludus (framed play defined by strict rules). At first, Flat Eye struggles to reach a satisfactory balance between its paidia and ludus dimensions: the freedom given to the player is relatively weak and, above all, too inconsistent. As for the ideal-typical categories, the game struggles to be satisfactory in each of them. The agôn and ilinx dimensions are excluded almost from the start, due to the genre of the game itself. But as for the other two: alea is inconsequential, since what depends on luck can be largely ignored and offers the player neither tempting rewards nor encouragement to increase his mastery of the game; mimicry is progressively and rapidly annihilated by the disappearance of the game dimension. This is not to say that Flat Eye isn’t a game, or that it’s a bad game to avoid. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The first is that Caillois’s categories, while certainly interesting, don’t seem to exhaust what makes a game a game. There is a game beyond the ludic. The second conclusion (less surprising, no doubt) would be that a game can hardly do without any playful dimension. Flat Eye is a fascinating object, as much for its successes and attempts as for its failures.

Caillois's tab


Flat Eye is surprising in many ways, and I must confess to a certain affection for it, despite its imperfections. Although I haven’t mentioned them, the game’s art direction and soundtrack, while not memorable, are quite effective and quite charming. Nor have I mentioned the computer desktop, which the player has access to, and which is mainly used to view messages and read reports that tell us more about the lore. Finally, I haven’t mentioned the religious dimension that runs through the title and is immediately present in the name given to EyeLife’s employees (the clerics). In conclusion, this is an ambitious game in what it sets out to do. Far from the beaten path, the (very) small French team of Monkey Moon is offering us an experience that is sometimes clumsy and struggles to find its balance, but which is undoubtedly unique and leaves room for real moments of enchantment for the player via the characters in the software. Perhaps this is where the ilinx dimension lies: in the way these premium customers manage to shift us, to uproot us, to take us a little out of ourselves in the encounter with these digital othernesses that grapple with the human, all too human vertigo of technoscience.

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