'Holovista,' a game about the ouroboros of social media

This trippy sci-fi adventure suggests you take a break from your phone.

Have you ever been telling a friend about a new kitchen tool you bought or a new flavor of La Croix you tried, then in the next hour you serendipitously receive an ad for seltzer water on Instagram? And then an ad for a cast-iron skillet on sale on Google? Holovista is a social-media sci-fi thriller that demonstrates how social media algorithms deconstruct our various choices and experiences and feeds them back to us in alluring ways. Philip K. Dick, eat your heart out.

The game is played entirely through an imaginary Instagram-like social media app. You play as Carmen Razo, a young architect who is interviewing for a job at a high-status firm, and posting about it on social media. You’ll be spending the lion’s share of Holovista exploring uncanny, detailed spaces and photographing items to share. You can use the iPhone’s accelerometer to make it feel like you’re actually taking pictures of a virtual space in your hand or — as I did, once I no longer felt like constantly twisting my body and neck — pull the screen around with touch controls. Or go wild and combine the two schemes — who's gonna stop you?

Philip K. Dick, eat your heart out.

The game itself is no more challenging than a puzzle in Highlights magazine, but the items you search for are re-contextualized again and again to give them different meaning. Many items that may seem minor in the opening scenes of the game become richly symbolic as the narrative progresses. After each scene of exploration, you can “chat” with story-centric followers like your fitness-focused sister, best architect friend, or potential love interest. These portions proceed like visual novels, with important story beats meted out, and we learn plenty about Carmen through her conversations with her friends and her personal reflections in the chat.

Flotsam and Jetsam.Holovista

The story progresses internally and through the day-glo heterotopias you’re inspecting. These spaces are by turns inviting and visually stunning, and unnerving and cold. Every surface has a glossy sheen, and the lighting always has a surrealistic, impossible quality to it. Many scenes have an almost abrasive tackiness to them, which the game is aware of and which Carmen will comment on in her posts.

The items pop out of their neon-lit backgrounds with stunning clarity. It brings to mind Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon in how it masks internal trauma and mythology with crass dreamscapes. In the narrative, Carmen is experiencing these spaces as examples of the possibility of design and futuristic architecture, so they do look seductive and desirable at first. It reminded me of the gorgeous yet unlivable dystopia of Blade Runner, which has you thinking, “I want to live there,” while at the same time you know conceptually that it would be an absolutely awful future.

Marked as read.Holovista

The narrative also probes the demands of the workplace and how employers can survey large swaths of our daily life. Surveillance cameras play a big role in Holovista, and serve to show that the promise of safety can often be a thin disguise for imprisonment. Without going into too many spoilers, Carmen is imprisoned both literally and metaphorically by the self she chooses to externalize on social media. Her employer knows this, and uses it to compel her to keep working for them. It’s also revealed that a lack of access to affordable healthcare has irreversibly propelled Carmen and her sister onto the path that they are on.

Holovista takes its sci-fi premise seriously and tries to fill out its narrow, small-scale vision of the future with as much detail and speculation as possible. Social media is the focus, yes, but we also learn other snippets about near-future, slightly cyberpunk New York City. It’s ambitious and specific in unexpected ways, given that we’re only seeing the world outside through the lens of the app.

Thirst trap.Holovista

Having said that, the game is rather short and the ending comes too suddenly. There is a big twist halfway through the game, and after it feels like it rushes to end. I would have loved to see an epilogue with these characters, but no such content is provided.

The presentation as a whole is immaculate and hyperstylish, and Holovista is an example of a seamless fusion gameplay concept and form. The UI of Holovista is a buttery smooth marvel in itself, and it’s a blast to scroll down through its faux social media tool. In any case, while it would be trite to say that you really feel you’re using your phone to enter another world, it’s a really unique and clever spin on the adventure game format.

Like something out of a music video nightmare.Holovista

The music is synth-heavy, glitched-out electro and disco. The tracks are great, and oscillate between clean, pristine, beats and crunchy, discordant clashing. There is an awkward pause when a song ends and the loop restarts, and it would have felt more seamless if the tracks looped infinitely.

In a year when most of us are confined to small, bespoke spaces, Holovista asks us to look around at the rooms and lives we’ve assembled for ourselves. Are these things I’ve collected a reflection of who I am? Or are they a reflection of a version of myself that was conceived by an algorithm and sold back to me? It also asks us to consider how we tie our memories to material items and our posts. In the end, Holovista seems to suggest, they’re all just weight tying us down to our past. It never explicitly says to “Log off,” but it does seem to say, “Log back on, once you’ve gone to therapy.”

Holovista is available now on Apple's App Store for $4.99.