It was recently estimated that there are nearly seven billion human beings alive today. Incredible. The most remarkable aspect of the human condition, however, is not simply how many of us there are. What is truly astounding is that each individual is unique, a single and unduplicated combination of nature and nurture that can never be replicated or replaced.
Now, imagine what it would be like to be stripped of that individuality, to be just one of an army of identical workers, a cog in the machine, undifferentiated by any special ability or trait. There might be a certain satisfaction in such an existence. It could be nice to be able to abandon the search for meaning, to know without hesitation exactly who you are and where you belong... or, at least, that's what you'd tell yourself. But what if, one day, you had the chance to stand out? What if you, among all your identical peers, were called upon to perform an important task, and perhaps even take on a position of leadership and power? Such an opportunity might be irresistible even to your own humble heart.
In Dead Like Ants, a sublime piece of interactive fiction by C.E.J. Pacian, this is precisely the situation you find yourself in. You are an unnamed female ant, a simple worker. You and your thousands of sisters labor ceaselessly in the service of your colony; an unexciting, if productive, existence. Today, however, is very different. Your mother, the Queen — whom you have never before laid eyes upon — has requested your presence! She has a very special task for you. Every spring, it seems, five dangerous creatures come to the colony and threaten the safety of all therein. When this occurs, the Queen sends one of her daughters to negotiate with these monsters, thereby averting trouble for another year. This spring, you are the chosen emissary. What an honor!
Of course, you're not sure what to do when you actually encounter these creatures. Your mother didn't really specify. Still, it couldn't be that hard, right? You wouldn't dream of turning down such an extraordinary gesture of trust and esteem from the Queen. Best of all, your mother has hinted that if you succeed you may earn your wings, just like her own graceful pair. Best not to try her patience and keep her waiting...
Analysis: The premise of Dead Like Ants seems straightforward enough: resolve the conflicts posed by the five dangerous creatures threatening the colony. This could easily become an epic quest, but Pacian chooses instead to go down a simpler, more poetic route. The game's main goal is not so much to present a steep intellectual challenge as it is to tell a story and offer a thought-provoking experience; on those counts, the game succeeds brilliantly. Pacian possesses real talents in the realms of language and characterization, and the game's insect cast in particular benefits from his (or is it her?) skills. A snail becomes a snooty, aristocratic lawyer, a butterfly a coquettish damsel-in-distress; these quirky portrayals make perfect sense within the story. Also, despite the game's somewhat serious and sometimes dark mien, there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.
One benefit to Dead Like Ants' story-centric approach is that, to those new to the wonderful world of interactive fiction, the game will be relatively accessible and unintimidating (particularly when compared to sublime but exponentially more difficult games like Varicella or Anchorhead). While there is plenty to discover within the game's framework, the commands/actions needed to simply reach the end are fairly straightforward. Pacian further increases the game's user-friendly quotient by including an instruction and hint system within the game; simply type "About" and you'll find all the help you'll need.
There is much more that I'd like to say about this deeply clever, poignant and sweetly macabre piece of interactive fiction. However, like the wonderfully enigmatic point-and-click adventure Bars of Black and White, a large part of the enjoyment derived from playing Dead Like Ants lies in the thrill of sudden, unnerving understanding; despite what one might assume, you will find that this is a game with, to say the least, an unusual goal. It's time to leave safety in the pursuit of greatness. Steady your heart and straighten your spine!
Download Dead Like Ants (Mac/Windows/Linux, 1MB, free)
To play this game, you'll need both the game file and an interpreter. Download Dead Like Ants from the Interactive Fiction database followed by an interpreter for your OS: Gargoyle for Windows, Zoom for Macintosh and Unix.