I made a bit of a New Year resolution this year. I play a lot of games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Half Life, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, that all involve violence and combat. They’re fun and in many cases, quite artful.
But my life as a gamer began with the sedate and cerebral Myst and Riven so I’m going to spend the next month or so reviewing a number of adventure games I’ve picked up in the last couple of years.
So I resolved, having been given a gift card for Steam, that no matter what other games I spent it on, I would buy at least one non-violent adventure game. Steam sales being what they are, I picked this one up for a song. In fact I got a double whammy: Syberia, and its sequel, Syberia II.
Syberia was released in 2002 by European developer Microids, and features Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer. She has traveled to the sleepy Alpine factory town of Valadilene, famous in its day for producing clockwork ‘automatons’ for work and play. Kate is there to arrange the sale of the over-the-hill factory to a big American toy company, but the owner, the elderly Anna Varlberg, has died without issue. Kate investigates and makes the surprising discovery that there is an heir: Hans, Anna’s brother. Though developmentally impaired by a childhood brain injury, Hans is a genius of clockwork and automaton design, and is not, as was believed, dead, but missing. Kate must track him down to close the deal. She follows a trail through many strange towns and other places, each of which have been touched by Hans’ genius as he pursued his lifelong dream: to find the legendary island of Syberia, the secret last refuge of mammoths.
What drew me to Syberia, apart from the creators evidently being archaeology/palaeontology nerds like myself, was that it shares Myst’s clockpunk/steampunk aesthetic. Like Myst it is also geared around solving puzzles to advance to the next step of the game. You progress through a series of themed lands – towns mostly – discovering secrets in each that contribute to a larger tale.
First off, the game looks great. The graphics probably looked a bit retro even at the time of production; the characters in particular look plastic, and their emoting (mostly in cutscenes) isn’t amazing. But the creators rolled with it by going for cartoony elements. Kate’s eyes are unrealistically big and she can store multiple papers, books and even a narwhal tusk in her jacket somehow; Ivan, the venal villain from the second game has an impossibly big nose, the circus ringmaster has an enormous head and hands, and the mammoth-worshiping Yukol people look like Inuit Hobbits. As a pleasant surprise, Kate isn’t designed for the male gaze. She’s quite tall, willowy and flat-chested, and sensibly dressed with it.
The environments are a work of art, I must say: combining clockpunk and steampunk elements with classic European architecture and scenery, and with fantastical and imaginative designs for fictional creatures and cultures. The game’s advertising makes especial use of the massive mammoth statues at the entrance to Barrockstadt – the second ‘level’ in Syberia I. I’d go so far as to say that this game is better looking than the original Myst, though not quite up to Riven or Myst III. But what is?
The main downside to the graphics is the way you interface with them. Moving Kate around is awkward, since the ‘camera’ tends to maintain a distant, wide-shot perspective. You don’t act as her pilot the same way you do in third-person games like Arkham Asylum or Mass Effect. Rather, you steer her around the environment from afar, in a state somewhere between Dragon Age: Origins and Age of Empires. You have a nice view, but at that scope, figuring out where you can and can’t go can be hard, and sometimes collectible items are extremely hard to spot. I was occasionally reduced to waving the cursor in a search pattern around the screen hoping for the ‘move this way’ or ‘pick up item’ signals to appear, and even then I missed some. Although the environments are big and beautiful, it’s easy for exploration to become frustrating because Kate moves maddeningly slowly.
I’m ashamed to say that I looked at the walkthrough about two dozen times between the two games. Sometimes I confirmed a hunch and spared myself a lot of backtracking, other times smacking myself in the head that I hadn’t spotted the solution. But there were a couple of instances where I can’t imagine how I was supposed to have figured out the answer by myself without hours of trial and error. It’s the blight I’ve heard associated with puzzle games before: that the puzzles only make sense to the people who designed them, not to anybody else.
I get the feeling the developers themselves got fed up with this by Syberia II because the puzzles become a lot more intuitive toward the end of the game – mostly. The puzzles, like many adventure games but notably unlike Myst, require you pick up various sundry items which can be used to make progress elsewhere: keys are common, but punch cards, and even firewood and fishing lures come up at various points. Exactly how they will be useful and where varies – sometimes it’s in the same room, other times you might carry it around half the game. That said, they disappear from your inventory once their job is done, so you don’t end up lugging around dozens of items whose purpose you’ve forgotten.
The trouble with the different levels in Syberia, I find, is that they’re all one step more complex than they need to be. Most of them are based around doing a series of quests or puzzles to get free and clear to move from one town to the next. In talking to people and looking for tools to do this, you find out more about Hans and Syberia at the same time. It does deserve props for a story that unfolds as a consequence of undertaking the gameplay. But it was an ongoing issue that you’d be told to aim for a particular objective and, having achieved it, be told you can’t proceed until you fulfill another objective the game never mentioned until now.
Barrockstadt, the second town in Syberia I, is the worst. You have to open a complicated canal lock, then do a favour for the university to get the funds to pay a barge captain to tow your clockwork train into position to wind up so you can move on. After figuring out and executing all the various steps to get to that point…you then have to go to a new character and do a quest for him to get your exit visa!
That said, I never got frustrated enough to want to give up, partly out of stubbornness but mostly because I genuinely wanted to see what happened.
The story didn’t always make it easy. There are elements that could be pure whimsy, but that also smack of inconsistent tone. For the most part, it’s a clean, non-violent puzzle game, with a magi-tech aesthetic, but by Syberia II we have out-and-out spiritual magic, some strong language – the villainous Ivan calls Kate a whore at one point – and then Kate indirectly kills him by leaving him to be – and I’m really not kidding – eaten alive by penguins! In the Northern Hemisphere!
It also struck me that the creators could not seem to make up their minds what time period they wanted the game set in. Hans and his family made their fortune by making wonderful clockwork automatons and other mechanisms, such as the full-scale windup train you travel on. But Kate has a cellphone! It just doesn’t ring true that a distinguished clockwork workshop would only be closing down in the age of the SIM card, or that an American toy company would want to buy it.
As you move eastwards following Hans’ quest, you encounter people mourning for the glory days of the Soviet Union – although they seldom use the name – as if the Berlin Wall just fell. Yet there is still a wall in Barrockstadt protecting against enemies from the east, but these are described by one character as coming in the form of cossack cavalry!
If they’d set the game, say, right after World War I or in the Depression, it might have worked as a kind of fantasy alternate history. As it is, it is a very strange stew of anachronisms, and that’s before we get to the mammoths!
Speaking of that cellphone, my heart sank a little right at the start of Syberia I because I found some of the dialogue really clunky, inefficient or just boring – so much that I often skipped it once I figured out how. The game has a crude dialogue tree that’s a bit of a slog and the conversations sometimes don’t sync, with one character responding to a choice of words the other character didn’t use. Possibly a translation issue since this game wasn’t originally made in English.
The biggest issue for me was that, in Syberia I, Kate periodically gets phone calls that are, universally, incredibly annoying. Her boss yells at her to get the papers signed and get back to New York, blaming and threatening her over the unforeseen complications. Her mother and workmate witter inconsequentially about their love lives and pester her about coming home. Her fiancee guilt trips her for having to be away longer than five minutes – a massive red flag for emotional abuse. Kate begs, pleads and moans like a put-upon sitcom character in response.
As the game progressed, however, it slowly dawned on me that I was supposed to think that. I went into Syberia assuming it was story-driven like Myst, but it turned out to be character-driven, and this was the starting point for Kate’s arc.
At the start, Kate is a straightforward, no-nonsense woman with all the boxes ticked: upwardly mobile career, nagging mother, chatty best friend, cookie-cutter husband-to-be. The American Dream, in short. However, as the game progresses and she learns Hans’ story and gets increasingly captivated by the quest for Syberia, she gradually realizes that the world is bigger, more magical and wondrous and full of fascinating people. At the same time, she becomes more independent from her mother and more assertive with her boss. Finally, after her fiancee and her airhead friend cheat on her, she breaks it off – with surprising kindness – because the world they represented didn’t fit her after all.
That element has been accused of being a slur on American culture – although as a Canadian I can’t say I mind – but both games share a more general theme against narrow-mindedness. The just-business behaviour of Kate’s boss, her clingy fiancee, the greed of Sergei and Ivan and the fanaticism of the Patriarch are contrasted against Hans as the unshakable dreamer and builder. Kindness is a key theme too – the first game subtly vilifies the use of the word ‘retard’ to describe developmentally disabled folks like Hans.
Some of this doesn’t completely add up. Kate’s boss is cast as villainous in Syberia II for sending a P.I. to chase Kate down and make her come back to New York, but it comes across more as looking for a missing person or employee gone rogue. Especially since Kate’s mother is worried sick – not enough to answer the phone if you call her, admittedly. If, say, Kate had tied off the contract, resigned, and then headed off on the quest, and the law firm had still insisted on hunting her down, or if her bitter ex had been on their case instead of her mom, that would have made me think of them as an enemy. As it is, Kate can come across as a bit irresponsible instead. In any case, the P.I. never manages to catch up, so their threat is somewhat hollow.
As her character develops, the other main characters become dear to you as they do to her. Oscar, the automaton engine driver, while a bit of an anal coward reminiscent of C-3PO, is kind of sweet and surprisingly tragic. Hans is adorable; physically about 80 but mentally 12 with the patience of the Dalai Lama. You really feel like you would do everything you could to make sure his dream came true. As his health declines throughout the second game, there’s a real sense of fear that you might not make it. I grew quite fond of Yuki, the fantastical dog-creature Kate adopts. Kind of reminds me of Naga from the Legend of Korra.
The sense of wonder and mystery is sold really well as you progress, however sluggishly, through a rich variety of interconnected environments. You start to realize that Hans has been slowly building and inventing his way across Eurasia en route to Syberia for decades, and the sense of wonder he leaves behind him is vaguely Messianic. Or, since we’re heading for the Arctic, like Santa Claus.
For all the clunky gameplay, corny dialogue and kinks in internal logic, I’m really glad I gave Syberia a go. It has a good heart: thoughtful character arc, enormous imagination, themes of respect and liberation of the spirit, all held up by lovely environments and music. I found myself genuinely moved by its finale. It’s almost cool that the game ends quite smartly, because it allows you to imagine the next step. Personally my headcanon is Kate becoming a bestselling travel writer and professional adventuress. Although a new game is apparently in the pipeline, so we’ll see. As much as it served to remind me I’m not necessarily intellectually well-suited to them, I was glad to affirm my roots as an adventure gamer, and to have enjoyed a good story too.