Interactive fiction has a long tradition of exploring difficult and interesting topics where the player's agency is part of the narrative. LOCALHOST not only achieves this but builds on it with eerie music and graphics designed to reinforce the game's dark and challenging theme.

The task you are given in LOCALHOST is to convince a set of programs hosted on modular drives to unlock the hardware they reside on so it can be wiped, deleting (perhaps "killing") the program so the hardware can be reused. You achieve this by plugging each of the drives in turn into a physical body so that you can talk to them.

The drives vary in both their personalities, desires, and responses to your task. As you switch them in and out, learning new information about each, you can build up a more coherent picture of the context in which they existed and operated, and use that information to choose how to deal with each of them - all while your boss insists and reminds you of the job you've been given.

The subtext of this macabre task is the player deciding whether or not these programs are people - and therefore whether it is morally acceptable to kill these things that act like a person. The main character has reservations that are revealed through dialogue options, and the programs certainly resist the idea, though the character is told that they are programmed for self-preservation (and that therefore their attempts to appear more human or related to the main character are simply manipulative responses).

The worldbuilding that is hinted at through the dialogue reveals a world that must regularly grapple with ideas and ethical conundrums that are - for the moment - still in the realm of science fiction. The question of how to distinguish an AI from a person, whether there is a meaningful difference in these terms, and the ethical implications of that question have been a core theme in sci-fi since the days of Asimov, if not before. The game world appears to have reacted in a predictably capitalist sense to these questions: those in charge appear to have no qualms about owning and controlling programs (even sentient ones), designing them for tasks, creating bodies for them, refusing their desires, and ultimately deleting them as necessary.

Ultimately the character is a cog in this machine, which raises further issues. Knowing that someone else will be hired to perform your job regardless of your compliance puts a difficult spin on the questions of ethical responsibility. Might they in fact have a responsibility to society to prevent the programs from getting what they want? To what degree does the character's (and indeed player's) ignorance of both the issues and the specific history of the individual drives absolve them of their actions, and how does that change as we find out more about the drives and the world they inhabit?

The way the game introduces these issues is provoking and does a good job of framing the ethical conundrums. In particular the set of responses the main character is able to give are often emotive and empathetic, forcing the player to engage with the problem with less detachment. The drives are distinct and have both their own personalities (evoked through the art as well as the text) which encourages the player to consider different perspectives and different questions.

If there was one thing that LOCALHOST is lacking, it is a lengthier experience with greater depth, more time to investigate, and more challenge in convincing the drives to unlock themselves to be wiped. As it is, the game ends having only allowed the player to begin answering the questions it raises.

Nevertheless it manages to be an unsettling look into the ethics of treating AI as property, and the role of humans as owners of sentient beings. Arielle Grimes' art and Christa Isobel Lee's music combine with the writing by Sophia Park and Penelope Evans to produce a cohesively eerie experience that begs for more exploration. The game is available for $4.99 on itch.io and is a thoroughly recommended experience.