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Adventure Game April: Syberia

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.

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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.

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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Video Game

 

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Dragon Age: Origins: A Study in Roleplaying

Like comics, video games are a community in which I dabble but have never broken into in a big way. I take the good experiences where I can, however. The point has been made often enough, by Yahtzee Croshaw among others, that when a game is story-driven, with you as the protagonist, it can create an emotional engagement that is unique.

I’ve been reflecting on this sadly ever since the dust-up over Mass Effect, but I got a crash course in the concept via one of my Christmas presents: the first game in BioWare’s other flagship franchise: Dragon Age: Origins.Dragon-Age-Origins

Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age is a Roleplaying Game, but whereas ME is a science-fiction graft over a fantasy roleplaying dynamic, Dragon Age just is the fantasy roleplaying dynamic.

The basics are simple enough: a quest-based story featuring a group of characters with abilities representing the RPG class trinity of warrior, rogue and mage. In the age-old tradition of fantasy, you also choose your race: human, elf, or dwarf, with different impacts on your backstory and particular abilities.

Regardless of how you start out, the setting is the Kingdom of Fereldon, and it is under attack by an army of corrupted horrors from beyond called Darkspawn who will consume all things good and wholesome if not destroyed.

I decided to buck the obvious trends to play as, say, an elf prince. So I began the adventures of Sereda Aeducan, daughter and military officer of the dwarven king.

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Yes, I know she’s not exactly attractive. Seriously though, the default female dwarf was absurdly dainty-looking. A dwarf ought to be robust, male or otherwise.

Sereda has to spend her life negotiating the knotty political plotting that characterizes dwarvish nobility. When, in the flush of a victory against the Darkspawn, she’s framed for the murder of her brother as part of a power-seizing scheme, she’s exiled to die in the Deep Roads, only to be found by her allies in the Darkspawn fight, the Grey Wardens, and she joins them.

From here, the story melds with any of the several I might have started with: crisis strikes as the Grey Wardens are betrayed by the usurper Teyrn Loghain who wants to concentrate his power in the kingdom to make it a bastion against Darkspawn or neighboring powers. As one of the few Grey Wardens still standing, you must pull together various fugitives and free agents, and travel the country to raise support to restore order in Fereldon and drive back the Darkspawn.

So: dragons, evil armies, usurpers, finding allies, quests, and the double trinity of race and class. On the face of it, Dragon Age is the least original game one could reasonably ask for.

Despite that, I found myself getting quite caught up in it. Part of it, I think, is that the writers developed an effective set of politics and social structures following semi-historical lines, that keeps it original enough, but left the world itself in a basic fantasy setup so that learning about it didn’t become too intricate and dense a process. They do just enough to freshen it up and no more; the Darkspawn and their fall-from-grace origins replace staid old orcs and goblins; elves are an underclass a bit reminiscent of Romani (at least as they appear in literature); dwarves are Machiavellian instead of Viking-esque by nature.

The gameplay is quite interesting. You can zoom in on your character and follow them in a third-person combat style or zoom out to a bird’s eye view of your character, support characters and enemies, deploy your forces, and turn it into a small strategy game! The graphics are on the low end of BioWare’s quality, which is still agreeable, if a bit plasticky. I kept noticing how ludicrously big the swords are in this game. As a novelty, since I played a dwarf, I must say it took quite a while before I was able to get Sereda a decent axe.

The game suffers from classic RPG clutter. Enemies drop items like potions, but there are so many kinds for situational things like cold resistance that I quickly just discarded them and stockpiled health potions instead, and every trip to the market was spent selling off the vast amount of second-rate armour and weapons I’d picked up. You accomplish quests with three comrades (drawn from a pool of nine) and can control one at a time, with the others handled by the computer. You can program the others with tactics so that they’ll automatically do action X if situation Y arises in battle, but at a lower difficulty anyway it’s just an exercise in micromanagement.

Mass Effect had side quests that might involve navigating a negotiation, or racing against time to defuse a bomb. In Dragon Age, almost every side quest centres on combat. I often got fed up with finding a dozen cultists hiding in every last broom cupboard. I played through the first half of the game on standard difficulty but after a while I dropped to easy because I was tired of having my combat prowess challenged at every turn and just wanted fun hack-and-slash action instead.

The roleplaying aspect is necessarily diluted: in Mass Effect, you’re always Commander Shepard. Decisions just dictate what kind of person Shepard is. In Dragon Age, you can be a whole range of possible characters. Among other things, that means that you can’t have a voice. You just pick a dialogue option and then get a response. Recording full dialogue for that many possibilities would be impractical.

The dialogue system itself is a little confusing. The custom in RPGs is to have three options for replies in conversations: a friendly/positive response, a blasé/neutral response or a badass/unfriendly one. That basic dynamic is in here but sometimes there are as many as eight dialogue options. It’s great as far as range of choice goes but it also means it can be hard to predict what reaction you’ll get. Since your relationships with other characters are dictated by what you choose, it can be a little challenging to make up your mind.

In a way, though, that’s part of the brilliance of Dragon Age. Mass Effect was very good at this, but in that series the way you behaved was measured by its effect on you. In Dragon Age, your interactions with characters changes their ‘approval’ level. Get it high enough and new powers are unlocked, along with conversations as your friendships deepen and maybe even blossom into love. But some of them have motivations that mean their approval can be hard to buy with a clear conscience. In short, your game experience is shaped directly by your effect on other people. Combine that with the deep, witty, if sometimes pedantic writing and the superb voice acting for the other characters and a simple mechanic engages you and makes these characters into real people who you begin to appreciate through your character’s eyes; care about, find funny, get mystified by…

Your own self-image evolves as you go through this too. My earlier description of my character, Sereda, is just the game’s own bare-bones breakdown of who she is. Through the dialogue options, there’s a kind of intuitive process as your imagination sculpts them further. Sereda, I thought, was proud and kind but blunt and resented the dishonesty and politicking she was expected to practice. Her quest was a discovery of the range of people in which she could find nobility, and the finding of a place where she really belonged.

While it has been said that the main story of the game is pretty much the same after playing your character’s specific starting mission, the different little nuances of banter, approval shift and other little moments stand to give it a variation that should keep it fresh. I often agonized about which party members to bring and how to combine them based on what little character touches might shake loose, given what I knew about them and the situation.

One thing I’ve learned to accept in RPGs is that you will never have a perfect play through. You’ll always make one out-of-character choice because you want to see what happens down that path, and if you get really into it like I did here, deliberate with yourself as to whether it was the ‘right thing to do.’ If you’re interested in characterization and plot, then it’s a neat tool for exploring the process in a prepared setting.

So Dragon Age: Origins has been a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting a by-the-numbers fantasy game, and while it was built on one, the experience is one of depth, character-driven story and the great emotional engagement that a well-written roleplaying video game can offer. It’s a great exercise for the imagination, offering a range of choices and paths to try out, but they share a common focus and it doesn’t become an open-ended time sink, a quality that has always turned me off the big open-world RPGs like Skyrim.

Even if you only play it once, if you allow yourself to immerse in it, you’ll find it a satisfying experience, despite any issues of mechanics or difficulty. But I suspect that, if you’re anything like me, every little dilemma or doubtful call you made will compel you to try and refine your approach the next time. I look forward to my next run at it, and proudly, but wistfully, bid farewell to Sereda: Grey Warden, hero, lady and officer!

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Video Game

 

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