There’s not a single sci-fi fan out there who hasn’t read a story about a robot that was too smart for its own good. Whether its an android advanced far beyond its initial code, a ghost in a shell, or a sentient all-seeing Cloud taking over our homes one Alexa at a time, Sentient AI has been a sore spot for futurists for decades. With a recent bout of books that contend with Murderbots, machine rights, expansive ship systems, and Artificial Friends, I’ve dug up a few games that are sure to get you in the mind of the machine.
Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells
At this point the world is divided into people who love Murderbot and people who are missing out. As one of the people firmly in the former category, I devoured Fugitive Telemetry and immediately went digging for games to suit our not-a-real-boi murder machine who only wants to be left alone with their serials and a gun to clean. This installment takes place on an orbiting station above an independent planet where someone shows up dead, and nobody is really sure what the hell just happened. I would be deeply remiss if I didn’t recommend Orbital immediately. Besides the general setting, this game focuses on melancholy, the struggles of neutrality in the middle of a war, and how people need to work together to create a life apart from others.
Now, we love Murderbot, they’re wonderful, and I have three games if you just want to Be Robot but also struggle deeply with your humanity, or… whatever it is that you have inside your fragile meatsuit. First we’ll go for a new release from Adam Vass, Diagnostics, which allows you to dive deep into your psyche, er…your system, and figure what the hell fucked you up. If you want to replay the early years of Murderbot’s initial realization of independence, check out An Orb, where you struggle with your thoughts vs. orders. It’s a dark game, but takes on the various understandings of free will, questioning resistance and trying to find the balance between comfort and a calling.
Machinehood by S.B. Divya
In the near future, robots and AI have taken over most of the menial work in the world, but when the first sentient AI starts a revolution, bodyguard Welga Ramirez is drawn into the mystery of the Machinehood cult. This book explores the divide between robots and humans, and asks, when does a synthetic being become sentient? Does it matter? (If this is all you need to grab a game, check out Galatea’s Mirror, a LARP about a group of synthetic AI and humans trying to pass a checkpoint established to destroy all robots.) This is, of course, a perfect book for the indie TTRPG scene. That’s without mentioning that Machinehood touches on labor rights, takes on big pharma, and social media obsession. This is fertile territory for games, folks, and I’m here to deliver some bangers.
Let’s start with Ramirez. If you’re into shadowy organizations, moral questions, and big sweeping adventures within a strange sci-fi world that’s not quite cyberpunk, but definitely cyber-minded, pick up Extracausal. This game takes the Trophy: Dark framework and creates rings out of different levels of a control system. If you’re more interested in being part of the Machinehood, Titanomachy is the game for you. Play as the un-corpse of a robot raised back to life by the Machine God and take advantage of a city in economic turmoil. Last, Void Warranty is about a robot freed from human control. Now, in a commune, you have to learn…what now? What will robot society be? Will it be better than human society? Different? Or, perhaps, doomed to repeat their mistakes?
Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
By far the most Space Opera-style book on this list, Nophek Gloss follows Caiden in the aftermath of the destruction of his home planet, leaving him with no choice but to join up with a ragtag group of aliens and a semi-sentient spaceship. This book is ambitious, covering eldritch beings, slavers, a corrupt capital, and everything you could possibly want from a found family sci-fi. Because of this, I’m going to recommend Galactic, a wonderfully easy to pick up game about rebellion and friendship. Sure, it’s based on the seminal sci-fi movie franchise, but it’s still got Nophek Gloss written all over it. There’s also a Galactic Game Jam going on right now, so new materials from indie game authors are already available to customize your game.
If you’re just here because you want big intergalactic spaceship fights, I get it. Pick up Storm Furies, a combat add-on using the Paragon system. It allows for quick fights and some good solid crunch without too many dice to break your teeth. If you’re here for weird ships, I’m recommending Ghost Ship where you play as a spaceship’s uploaded sentience. Figure out why you’re sticking with your crew, and what part of you is really you. This is a slant recommendation, but I can’t let an opportunity pass to scream about When I looked on you for the final time you asked me to love you with my whole chest. This solo RPG puts you in the scene as a mechanic fighting to save your ship from an unknown alien entity that is changing your mind and body while you struggle to keep your vessel going…or…what if you don’t? What if you just…don’t?
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Perhaps the most esoteric sentient AI book I’ve ever read, this book is about an “Artificial Friend” that’s waiting for someone to purchase her and take her home. She’s constantly watching the world, the customers, the people coming in and out of her ‘boxes’, and the strange, bizarre, emotional moments reveal something strangely personal to everyone who reads this book, which is ultimately about what it means to be in love, what it means to be alive, and what it means to have intrinsic value. It’s only fair that Virtual Assistant gets top billing, as it is a game about humans and their sentient Alexas falling in love. It’s also about connection, technology, and loneliness, but also the desire to smooch your phone. What’s not to like?
Beyond Reach is about a mech pilot and the AI embedded within that mech, but it’s easily adapted into a user/assistant interface. Dealing with themes of self determination, duty, and sadness, Beyond Reach is an asynchronous letter writing game, which fits in well with Klara’s attempts to communicate with her would-be buyers, sending love letters to unknown recipients. This is a sad gay game, and it’s meant for gays who want to have a sad gay time, says Caro Asercion in their review, which is just too perfect not to copy here. Last, Pythia is a game about creating an AI, finding your memories, and revealing them one by one. It’s a game about your sense of self and determinism, and is a genuinely strange and wonderful piece that fits perfectly with Ishiguro’s techno-mythic prose.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.