One of the first gaming pieces I ever wrote, for one of my favourite games of all time. This was originally intended for Eurogamers retro section but they never really got around to sorting it out once I had finished the piece so I uploaded it to Resonance instead.
I’ll get the greatest thing about Alter Ego out of the way first: It has stood the test of time. That may not seem like a huge achievement, but Alter Ego is not only as enjoyable to pick up and play today as it was over two decades ago, but nothing has ever trumped it. Even most diehard retro fans believe that sequels of huge classics like Doom and SimCity brought at least something the table. Alter Ego has never had a sequel, a spiritual successor, or a clone. It’s very easy to compare it with the Sims, but in terms of depth, Alter Ego makes EA’s blockbuster look like a paddling pool. And all this when most games where still mostly dodgy arcade ports.
The game allows you to play through an entire “life”, from birth to death, and everything in-between. This sounds like a rather massive undertaking, but Alter Ego is deceptively simple, at least on the surface. The game presents you with a scenario based on a various aspect of your life, and then lets you choose how you would react to that situation. These situations vary wildly, mostly depending on your age. You could be experiencing your first interaction with another child, dealing with teenage peer pressure or finding solutions to problems you are having with your own children. On the other hand you could be worrying about what practical joke to play on your parents, Alter Ego has a tongue in cheek attitude that contrasts well with its seriousness.
Most of the time you get to choose an emotion, and then an action. The game then shows you the effects of your choice. If the choice was important, it will affect your physical or mental attributes which makes up exactly who you are. The game is text based, and admittedly the interaction is very limited, but the lack of graphics in Alter Ego gives it the ability to provide a choice and freedom that it wouldn’t otherwise have achieved at the time. If there’s one game I wouldn’t have to get a graphical overhaul, it’s Alter Ego.
Much like real life, the scenarios get more complicated and have greater ramifications the older you get. One of the very first choices you make is still in your mother’s womb – do you come out quietly or do you make a fuss? It’s an interesting decision to have to make, but it’s hardly a dramatic one. Things quickly become more serious, and the game is always throwing different things at you and forcing you to think on your feet. While in a childhood stage it will describe things a child might see or experience them, which can totally throw your superior adult brain. While still in the childhood stage there is a chance of being abducted by a pervert - which leads to your thankfully vague death - if you make the wrong choices. If you make the right choices however, you can end up assisting in his capture and gaining an intelligence bonus. The game presents real life problems and solutions, so you start to think in a real life way. Alter Ego’s questions and reactions are nearly all logical and fair, but it has a certain retro harshness about it, and it won’t babysit you.
Although the above example does present an obvious wrong and right way to answer certain questions, the true excellence of Alter Ego is that most questions don’t have harsh penalties or great rewards. Much like in real life very few individual decisions majorly affect you as a person, but your attitude to each event as a whole builds your personality and how others see and react to you. Make more honest decisions as a child and your parents will trust you more as a teenager. The same systems stops you from doing something incredibly out of character, so you can’t spend your entire life being selfish and deceitful and then expect to be allowed to give all your money to charity. It may sound restricting, but it works better than simply being able to change who are every single event.
Alter Ego gives you a freedom of expression and self that modern RPGs have been trying to reclaim for years. Somehow, a game created the year IBM released the first laptop computer has been able to find that middle ground between ‘pure evil’ and ‘pure good’ that cutting edge RPGs today still struggle with. Sure you can certainly attempt to become good or evil in Alter Ego, but just like in real life, these ideals are much harder to achieve then they at first appear. Few people are genuinely evil in every way, and even fewer are totally perfect.
It’s hard to put into words why Alter Ego can engage on such an emotional level without any of the graphics or sound we rely on to enforce immersion in the industry today. There’s just something about reading of your death in the final stage of the game (if you get that far) after playing through a lifetime of different experiences that makes you feel so much more connected to your Alter Ego than you could ever be to any enforced RPG persona. It’s here where you really see how poorly modern games have compared. The Sims has enforced a memory system that lets you keep track of all the experiences your Sims have had in their lives, but in Alter Ego it’s simply not necessary; you remember them by yourself. Your first virtual party, your first virtual kiss, the first time your virtual kids say virtual words. Providing you invest your time and some amount of imagination, watching your Sims dance about in a nightclub or bake a cake doesn’t really compare.
The game is so simple on the surface that the only big issues with the game aren’t to do with what’s already included, but with what isn’t. Both male and female versions of the game are available, with different varying scenarios, but girls have to marry guys and guys have to marry girls, there’s no opportunity for same sex experiences. In fact, most of life’s ‘extremes’ are missing from the game. You can’t become a murderer; you can’t become addicted to drugs, and so on.
These would have been welcome additions, but it may be a little unfair to criticise Alter Ego for not including every scenario available in the real word. Perhaps the only genuine criticism you can level at the game goes back to my introduction; living life may be timeless, but 80s American pop culture references are not. Most annoyingly, occasional ‘general knowledge’ rounds to improve your intelligence rating are almost unanimously about America. I’m not particularly concerned who the 23rd president of the United States was, and it’s annoying having my game stats affected by my lack of knowledge about a country I don’t live in.
Still, these are minor issues that don’t have any great effect on game play, and even those intelligent sections can be beaten by a five second stint on Wikipedia. Ignore the occasional Americanism and understand that the game has its limits and you will experience one of the emotionally connected and replayable games ever made. I’ve come back to Alter Ego time and time again since I first played it, and every time has been a different and interesting experience. What’s more, it’s now available in an updated and improved version for free on the internet, so there’s no reason not to give it a go.