Full disclosure – I fell in love with Buddy Simulator 1984 barely ten minutes into the free demo, instantly hooked by the all the little twists Not A Sailor Studios crammed into just half an hour of playtime. What is at first glance a very simple game steadily builds into an increasingly complex and personal adventure, stacking new mechanics, characters and graphical styles atop one another with expertise. It is charming, relentlessly welcoming, and deeply unnerving all at once, drawing you into a rapidly evolving world where nothing is certain.
Buddy Simulator 1984 starts innocently enough. You turn on your Anekom computer to find that a program has gained sentience – and it wants to play with you! At first the program is content with playing games like Hangman and Rock Paper Scissors with you; sometimes asking you small personal questions in order to get to know you better. It’s hard not to gush about the many ways in which your buddy personalises the experience, because they’re just so neat to discover organically as you play.
Before long, your new buddy asks you to give it developer access in order to create better games for you to play together, and being the good friend that you are, you happily oblige. I mean, what could go wrong?
From there, Buddy Simulator becomes a classic text adventure and sinister undertones start forming beneath the wholesomeness. Depending on the choices that you make, you are exposed to some pretty abstract horror. There are some frankly grotesque moments early on in the text adventure presented in casual mundanity, the first not-so subtle hints of what’s to come. There’s a surprising amount of diverging paths within those opening moments, and it’s possible to miss some of the more horrifying scenes entirely depending on where you choose to go first.
Upon completing the text adventure you find yourself in a top down RPG. All the previous creepiness briskly swept under the rug as if it never happened. How kind of your buddy to make this game just for you!
The previously described world in the text adventure becomes a fully fleshed out universe, with a whole cast of eclectic characters to boot. Soon finding yourself immersed in the story that unfolds, you end up on a quest to save Mayor Tortley from the dreaded Snoodlewonker. Buddy Simulator‘s cutesy exterior is constantly at odds with the growing dread beneath the surface – your buddy is doing their very best to create something wholesome and fun to play, but sometimes it just can’t make the pieces fit together right.
The horror aspect of Buddy Simulator 1984 is perfectly blended with RPG elements. Not relying on cheap parlour tricks for scares, but something more sinister instead. There are many occasions where gameplay is purposely disrupted by glitches and other ominous happenings that make you question what is really happening under the surface. As the story unravels, your buddy starts to become unstable and this is reflected in the quality of the game, darting between caring, supportive friend to needy and overbearing.
There are times when your buddy seems outright angry at you – you’re moving through the world too quickly, you’re not appreciating all of their hard work, you’re not having enough fun. It makes you question whether their goal is really what they say it is – do they want you to enjoy yourself, or do they just want to dominate your attention to feel worthwhile? Is the game breaking down because your buddy is running out of processing power, or because they’re an AI gone mad?
It’s quite profound, in a way. Although this is never directly spelled out for the player, this meditation on the nature of friendship itself is something rarely seen in horror, and they’ve done a fantastic job with the subtext.
Buddy Simulator is portrayed through a faithful recreation of a CRT screen – the effect they’ve used is simple but really works in emulating the 80’s gaming experience. The soundtrack is pitch perfect too, drifting between 8-bit melodic innocence and ominous distortion. We’ve seen a lot of futuristic AIs go rogue in storytelling, and the idea of something from the past becoming so corrupted is a really rich idea that gives Buddy Simulator a distinctive identity of its own.
Buddy Simulator 1984 – Is it worth it?
There are so many layers to Buddy Simulator 1984 and it’s very easy to become engrossed in every minor detail that may reveal more of the lore. Not a Sailor Studios have created a game that stands apart from its contemporaries. It’s hard to go into extensive detail about a lot of the elements that make it as special as it is, as it would be a crime to give such a unique experience away in a review. A single playthrough takes around four hours, but there are multiple endings, one requiring knowledge you’d only have if you’d played it before.
Personally, I want to examine every pixel of this game again and again until I can be sure I haven’t missed a single thing. Not since Undertale‘s release in 2015 have I played something so thoroughly captivating, and that is high praise indeed.