HoloVista is the first release from mixed reality storytelling platform Aconite, founded in 2016 by Nadya Lev and Star St. Germain. It’s currently available on iOS and late last year, I spent two dark evenings roaming my Manchester flat as Carmen, the junior architect hired by enigmatic firm Mesmer & Braid to photograph a dreamlike mansion in a near-future world.
The experience was immersive, unique, and can’t be recommended enough. Somehow, Aconite captured the high-stakes feeling of games you might have played as a child if you are as old as me — strange, puzzling games in a time of no Internet, when getting stuck meant trying harder, differently, rather than looking up a solution. Simultaneously, the game is incredibly now, taking full advantage of both technological and cultural advances.
It’s hardly controversial to say that HoloVista’s visuals are stunning. The vivid palette is particularly breathtaking against our current same-same lives but in a way that feels gently, tenderly optimistic. There’s a nostalgia to it reminiscent of the glow surrounding your best memories, the ones so palpable they make the air thick. Dimly lit clubs, the hush before a beloved band comes on stage, giggling lipstick touchups in a public bathroom that would normally terrify you, a first date waiting for you back at your table, the promise of possibility. Is it strange to be nostalgic for possibility?
HoloVista takes you to bars and bedrooms, the lobby of a mysterious architecture firm and the house you’re tasked with photographing. It’s a mixed reality game, so you can walk with your phone or tablet, turning it up towards the ceiling to capture chandeliers and spinning around, decadently. Or, you can use your finger to scroll.
Perhaps the game’s most compelling point is the characters — friends and family of Carmen you meet scrolling through her social media feed. You can tap into profiles, see their photos, and occasionally talk to them, though the chats are prewritten. This isn’t The Sims, where you’re an omnipotent force steering your characters through their day. Instead, it’s got an enticingly voyeuristic feel: you’ve somehow hitched a ride in the mind of a real person, been given a weeklong glimpse into their private, beautiful, sometimes painful world.
If you prefer sandbox games, this might be frustrating, but I don’t. A linear approach allows for impeccable storytelling, the type of tight narrative where literally everything is there for a reason. So while you might not play the game again in search of a different ending, you’ll come back to see what you missed the first time around.
Something I didn’t pick up on was the semantic usage of colour. (As much as I love a visual, I’m ultimately a word person.) In a recent interview with Auxiliary Magazine, HoloVista co-director Star St. Germain describes how each character has a specific colour associated with them:
“The clothing each character wears, the photos they take, the objects they own, and even the UI of their social media posts all reflect their color. Carmen is blue, a reference to blueprints, as well as the ultramarine shade that painters traditionally use to represent the Virgin Mary, a nod to her beliefs as a Catholic. Carmen’s mentor Jazz is green for envy, because Carmen thinks she has it all. Carmen’s BFF Vlad is red for love, because Carmen is crushing on him. Carmen’s younger sister Inez is aqua for water, for reasons that I will redact because I don’t want to spoil the story for you!”
HoloVista drops you into the middle of an insular friend group, the narrative guiding you through interactions with sisters, friends, and crushes. I can’t not mention the attention paid to diversity, which was clearly so deliberate but not tokenising. There’s a trans character; the fact that he is trans isn’t a plot point. And narrative designer and writer Whitney ‘Strix’ Beltrán called on her own lived experiences as a Mexican-American when dreaming up the game’s protagonist Carmen, who is Latina. As a non-binary person who grew up speaking a language that wasn’t English at home, this was just… utterly cool.
Also cool was the dialogue, which progressed the haunting storyline while also occasionally being downright hilarious, like this exchange between Carmen and Jazz.
If this is Aconite’s first effort, I can’t wait to see what’s next.