There’s a sort of mindset that the structure of visual novels impose, where the player is merely an observer watching events unfold. Sure, every now and then there’s a decision to make, but these choices often just move the story to another route, and ultimately the narrative remains intact.
It’s this structure that Gnosia takes advantage of, lulling the player into a routine before completely upending their understanding of the game and what’s possible in it. Part visual novel and part social deduction game, Gnosia experiments with both genres to see what’s possible, and manages to create experiences that feel unique despite their similarity. What starts as a game of Among Us with AI transforms into one between close friends, where the stakes aren’t who gets the best hit of dopamine but rather which of these characters that you’ve grown to know and care about can—or should—be saved.
Gnosia begins by throwing the player right into the action with them being informed by a character, Setsu, that either her or one of the other two crewmates on board your spaceship is actually a gnosia. The gnosia are briefly explained to be an indeterminable alien species hellbent on the eradication of human life that can infect and control hosts, and it’s up to the crew to suss them out.
It’s at this point that one would expect an investigation or evidence gathering phase. But instead, the player is immediately thrust into a debate on which crewmate is the gnosia. Each of these debates ends with one of the crewmates being sent into cryogenic sleep with the hope that they are the gnosia. In between debates, the gnosia can pick off a crewmate. This introduction ends when either the gnosia is put to sleep, or there’s an equal number of the aliens and crewmates left.
Regardless of this outcome, the game loops right back to the beginning, with the added bonus of more characters on board the ship. Each subsequent loop sees more characters join the crew and different roles—some on the side of the crewmates, another on the side of the gnosia, and even one renegade that seeks to destroy everyone— introduced. Before long, there are 15 crewmates about the ship, all of whom are better at debating than you are.
Like, way better.
I was practically a bystander to the game for nearly 20 loops, unable to get a word in without being labeled the gnosia. Each debate in Gnosia only lasts five turns, during which the player can choose to doubt another character, cover for them, or let someone else talk. When others talk, you can also choose to agree with or rebut what they’re saying. It’s a massive reduction of the social deduction genre, boiling it down to its core aspects of pointing fingers and shifting blame away from yourself. But the latter is nearly impossible in the early game. Talk too much, and your crewmates will literally tell you to shut up and cast their ire upon you. Talk too little, and you paint a target right on your back.
It’s a lose-lose situation, but the game does afford you one advantage: leveling up. Every loop nets you experience points based on how close you made it to the end. You can dump those points into six different skills, each of which drastically improve your character’s conversational ability.
This leveling grind came off as unwarranted and slow going at first as I sat around waiting to be selected for cryogenic sleep. But by the time I was on equal footing with the rest of my crewmates level wise, I was also familiar with each crewmate and how they acted. Behind Gnosia’s deceptively simple five turn debates is a complex network of character interactions, and seeing everyone at each other’s throats gives you just as much of an advantage as the skills do.
Depending on the loop’s settings, there’s also a chance that a character event will take place in between debates. Some characters, like the bubbly and charismatic SQ, will teach you new skills to use during debates. Other times, you’ll get tidbits of a character’s backstory. A character may clearly be the gnosia, but also willing to spill their heart out to the player during the loop. Deciding to see a crewmate’s story arc through may mean throwing a game and actively working against yourself, but the quick nature of these loops—easily under 15 minutes a pop—makes it worth debating. These random events are the highlight of Gnosia, and playing the game becomes just as much about them as it does the actual gnosia ousting.
On my 28th loop I managed to survive to the end and prepared for a results screen that would either show a happy crew or gnosia takeover. Instead I was greeted with the sentient dolphin, Otome, stripping down to willingly enter cryogenic sleep. She admitted to me that she was the bug—the rogue role that seeks to eliminate everyone else. If either the humans or gnosia win, but the bug is still around, the universe is destroyed and the bug wins.
Yet here was Otome, at the end of the game, telling me that she didn’t want to destroy the universe despite being the bug. What followed was Otome telling me that she had felt off and realized that she was the bug early on, and was unsure of what to do. By the end, she had come to the conclusion to freeze herself forever to save the universe. What I thought would be a cutscene where I would discover I had been deceived all along turned out to be a moment where a dolphin was more human than I would have ever given her credit for.
Gnosia is full of these moments, where the player gets to learn about both characters and the world they live in through bold actions that routinely break the boundaries and structure of the game. 60-odd loops in, and Gnosia has maintained a firm grip on my attention with ease. Its elegant yet simple debate system offers a surprising level of strategy for players to chew over, and its characters add a splash of unpredictability to every loop. Where other social deduction games grow stale after enough playthroughs, Gnosia wraps itself in a narrative that keeps you coming back for more.
Gnosia was developed by Petit Depotto and published by Playism. It’s available for the Switch.
Nicolas Perez is a freelance writer and opinion co-editor for the New University. He’s rambling about videogames or something on Twitter @Nic_Perez__