Gnosia Struggles Between Compelling Story and Flawed Gameplay

Raqio is screaming again.

This is my fifth time, so I know exactly what this means. The game wants me to survive this “loop” of its Werewolf-esque game of suspicion, and keep Raqio safe as well. As the Guardian Angel this is theoretically doable, as I can protect one person every night from being killed by the Gnosia, the hidden threat of this scenario. It also means Raqio is the Bug, and by protecting them I’ll lose the game. That’s ok. By this point, winning and losing mean very, very little besides how much exp I get for a given run.

But there are plenty of factors outside of my control. Last run, I was randomly killed by the Gnosia. I can protect another person, but not myself. On another run, I was put on ice: we vote every day to put one person into cold sleep, in an attempt to stop the Gnosia. For basically no reason, suddenly half of the room decided I couldn’t be trusted, and froze me. But this time, Otome has promised to work with me. She’ll argue hard to keep me safe, and I think this could be it.

“I can’t trust Raqio,” says Setsu suddenly.

“Raqio is actin’ weird, and it’s buggin’ me,” agrees Chipie. One by one, the other members of the room suddenly turn on Raqio. I push back, arguing hard that there’s no reason to distrust them. I lose the argument. There is a vote, and Raqio is put on ice. I sigh. This run was a waste of time. I’ve seen every line of dialogue a dozen times, and for no fault of my own I’m not getting any new info this time. The rest of the loop is a haze. I get killed? I win? I’m frozen? I don’t even remember. I have tuned out: it doesn’t matter at all.

Recently released in the US, the Switch visual novel Gnosia achieved cult hit status on its original release overseas. It’s not hard to see why: games like Mafia, Resistance, and Werewolf have long been popular social experiences, and the recent surge of Among Us only added more enthusiasm for imposter games. Gnosia’s ambition to take that multiplayer game about group dynamics and trust and convert it into a replayable single player game is striking, and its underlying visual novel storytelling dangles an extra hook that’s almost irresistible. For all this, Gnosia is a mess of a game, and its charisma is darkened by an equal measure of tedium and frustration.

The premise is simple: you’re on a ship in deep space, and it’s been infected by the Gnosia. What are the Gnosia? That’s a mystery the game delves deeply into over its runtime, but for now, let’s say this: they are antagonistic to humans, they can be detected via careful scans, and if left unattended, they will kill everyone on the ship. Thus, your goal is to read the intent and behavior of the rotating cast of characters in order to catch the Gnosia in your midst, and freeze them so that the ordinary crew members can be kept safe.

At least, that’s your objective at first. Like Mafia, over time more roles are layered in, adding complexity. There’s Guard Duty, a pair of people who are GUARANTEED to be human that run, so that you know you can trust them. You could be the Engineer, who can run a scan on one person a day to determine their identity. The Doctor checks whoever was put to sleep the day before to see if they were Gnosia or not. The Guardian Angel picks someone to protect, the AC Follower is a human who nevertheless wants the Gnosia to win, the Bug is a third faction simply trying to survive until the end of the game, in which case it’s THEIR win. And, of course, there’s a chance you could be the Gnosia yourself, aiming to stay undercover while killing off the crew.

Nearly all of this style of games are multiplayer, because they rely on your ability to read other people and their behavior. To make this work in a single player context, Gnosia relies on stats which you level up as you play. High Charisma makes people listen to you, high Stealth keeps attention off of you, high Intuition gives you a chance to detect when others lie, and so forth. Given how many times you’ll be replaying these Imposter Scenarios, it’s hard to imagine a better solution, but that doesn’t make the stats particularly gratifying. 

When you randomly get a successful Intuition check and know that someone is lying, you can’t even call out the specific lie, you can just give a vague “I don’t trust you.” Sometimes if your Stealth isn’t high enough you’ll just be killed in the first round without having done anything. And while in a game of Mafia or Werewolf you would at least be able to continue watching the game after you were “killed,” in Gnosia if you’re frozen or iced (so to speak), the game is simply over. 

What’s more, it is truly just a dice roll: the script is VERY limited, and so there are no animation or textual clues that someone is lying. When asked to state his humanity, Jonas will say “Yes, I am HU-MAN” exactly the same way every time regardless of the truth. Your only clues are the ones the game chooses to give you by random chance. You could try to work based on the allegiances- who is arguing for and against whom, and so forth- but the NPCs are so arbitrary and never explain their logic, so it’s a crapshoot. Is Comet covering for Shigemichi because they’re both Gnosia, or is the ordinarily very insightful Comet simply being a complete moron this run for no reason?

It’s a hard problem to solve, because people naturally give computers less benefit of the doubt. Humans can be arbitrary, or stupid. I can’t tell you what an experience it is to play Among Us with Bottle Crow Reborn cohost and friend of mine Nick. He has a sixth sense for the wrong argument: even when he’s not an Imposter, he’s the Imposter’s best friend. His accidental talent for confusing everyone and obfuscating the truth is astonishing. Playing with Nick is hilarious! I know he’s not doing it on purpose, and even when I get annoyed it’s amusing. But when a computer acts arbitrarily, we can’t stomach it. Game design has all manner of solutions for handicapping computers beyond the limits on human players to make it feel “fair,” because we’re predisposed to lose our temper with AI.

To be frank, if it were simply a game of randomized, single player Werewolf, Gnosia would have quickly overstayed its welcome. The repetitive script and unsatisfying AI would relegate this to an interesting but failed experiment. The part of Gnosia that has me hooked despite all these flaws is the storytelling. The repeated cycles of the game are canon: you are experiencing a time loop. Setsu, one of the NPCs, is also experiencing these loops, though desynchronized from yourself. Why are these loops happening? How can they be stopped? When the writing engages with these questions, as well as questions about the nature of the Gnosia and the characters around you, it’s fascinating. The rare scripted events are a delight, ranging from mundane moments of Shigemichi boasting of his gaming talents, to Yuriko bending the nature of reality with seemingly otherworldly powers.

It’s also an excellent choice to let the events interfere with the imposter game. Sometimes you’ll start a loop by having a conversation with Setsu, and then you’ll exchange role info for that loop. When Shigemichi challenges Jonas to an arcade battle, he celebrates his victory by crying “that’s the power of Gnosia!” and then is immediately frozen for this ridiculous slip-up. On one occasion, I got to the end of a loop without catching the Bug. By the rules, this meant that I lost, and the Bug won. However, the particular character who had the Bug role that time was a very kind soul. They expressed their guilt at their role, and froze themselves before anything could happen. These moments help the game feel real in a way it otherwise suffers with. Interruptions and twists add vitality to sometimes stiff proceedings.

That isn’t to say it’s all good writing, though. As much as I enjoy it, there are scenes and reveals that rubbed me the wrong way. Raqio is non-binary, but the game felt it necessary that I have a scene where I bump into them in the shower, so I could learn their birth gender. That sucks, gang! And the insistence that Jonas is “insane” hasn’t led me anywhere fun, it just seems to be a gross misunderstanding of PTSD. There are a few reveals I’m waiting on a true conclusion to that I am anxious about as well. One ending ended with a mass murder by someone who wasn’t Gnosia for no clear reason, and as shocking as the moment was, I’m really not looking forward to the game’s eventual answer as to why it happened.

I haven’t beaten Gnosia. In fact, I’ve stopped making progress altogether. Raqio keeps screaming, and then either they or I don’t survive the loop. The end of the game is in sight, but it’s reliant on the NPCs to play along, and they simply refuse to do so. I’m grinding for exp to be more convincing, more trustworthy, more charming. I need to know the answers to this game, and I’m so close, even with how far away I might actually be. Years from now, some incredible games will come out, and the creators will cite Gnosia as a key influence on their work. It’s that sort of game: ambitious, brave, fascinating, and broken. You owe it to yourself to see Gnosia. But if you really love yourself? You’ll just watch a Let’s Play. The slog of pointless loops isn’t worth the effort.