Game: Syberia (and a bit of Syberia II)

I’ll admit, I’m kind of a spazz in some situations. Oddly enough, in real-life danger I’m alright, but the first time my character in a computer game gets shot at or has to complete some sort of timed task, I tend to lose coordination. I’m also a very story-focused gamer; anything that doesn’t have a point beyond completing the tasks (Just Cause 2, for example: “Why are you storming that base?” “Just ’cause!” [joke stolen from Yahtzee]) seems, well, pointless. This means that I tend to enjoy adventure games like Myst more that many other gamers because the entire point is to discover the story and world that you’ve been dumped into. It doesn’t bother me too much that your choices tend to be set on a single course that you must follow or stop playing, unless said course is illogical or uninteresting.

My personal preferences aside, Syberia (not a misspelling) is a very enjoyable, pretty, and interesting game with pretty much no violence whatsoever. If you just want to shoot people, this is not the game for you, but it’s aged reasonably well and doesn’t suffer from many of the problems of adventure games.

Gameplay: Two of the common problems of adventure games are out-of-place puzzles and its cousin, insane troll logic. This is the sort of thing where you need to solve a Rubik’s cube to open a door, or when the only way to talk to someone is to disguise yourself as someone with a mustache, which means you have to pour maple syrup on a cat’s bed to get hairs, and then steal some honey from the restaurant so you can attach it to your upper lip, but in order to get into the restaurant you have to give the sous-chef a pair of pliers, and so on. That description was based on an actual puzzle from an adventure game. The article describing it is hilarious by the way. You should read that. Go on, I’ll wait.

Anyway, Syberia doesn’t really have either of these issues. The puzzles are usually something along the lines of “Person A wants Object B, so you need to find/trade for/steal/buy/fabricate Object B so that Person A will give you information/object/action C.” For example, to get somewhere high in the mountains, you need warmer clothes, so you go to the local shopkeeper and ask if he has warm clothes, and then you get them. Hooray for simplicity. Most of the puzzles are harder that that, of course. but they’re generally logical and use items that you either already found or can get once you realize you need them. There is also a commendable lack of “pixel hunting,” which is an annoying tactic used to make the game harder that involves making whatever you need to pick up either incredibly small or only interactable on a few pixels.

The game generally happens in third person, switching to first person if you need a close-up of something. The camera is fixed and the controls are intuitive: if you want the character to go somewhere, you click there. If you want to interact with something, the cursor will change in a pretty obvious way to indicate what you can do. The only time the game gets a little tedious is when you occasionally have to do something on one side of the town and then trek all the way to the other side to see what effect it had or to do the next thing. The scenery is nice the first few times, but after a while it gets old. Don’t forget that double-clicking  = running = your friend.

Story: You play Syberia as Kate Walker, an attorney from New York who has come to finalize the sale of an automaton (think “clockwork robot”) factory in the French village of Valadilene. As it turns out, the owner, Anna Voralberg, has died, so you must track down her brother Hans so that he can sign the papers. You’ll repair a clockwork steam engine and its engineer, Oscar, to move from town to town until you find Hans. Each town has its own unique character, from the sleepy Valadilene to the bright, mechanical university to a disquieting Communist rail station, and each has its own puzzles for you to solve before you can continue.

Kate is (initially, at least) a pragmatic businesswoman in a dreamlike, provincial world, but she is by no means an automaton (come to that, the automaton Oscar has a pretty sophisticated personality). She often echoes the player’s goal of “just wanting to find Hans so he can sell the factory and she can go home,” but she and the player and eventually drawn into the “bubble” of the game world and she becomes focused on finding Hans for his own sake. The calls on her cell phone from her boyfriend and employer are a great expository tool for fleshing out Kate’s character and showing her development, as well as furthering the plot. The story is quite emotional and really captures the appeal of going on an adventure in a way that many of today’s gritty action heroes don’t. (Hint to game developers: it’s nice if, once in a while, a protagonist actually wants to go out and do heroic things instead of being forced to by the death of their parents or something.)

I don’t want to give anything else away, but as I mentioned before, “Syberia” isn’t a misspelling of “Siberia,” despite the fact that you end up in Russia.

Atmosphere: This is another area in which Syberia really shines. As mentioned before, each of the places Kate visits in the game has its own unique atmosphere and visual aesthetic, and it’s a refreshing change when you move from one to another. I’ll admit that some of the towns themselves can get a little old after a while, since you’ll be moving around them a lot, but they all have a mixture of the real and the fantastic that’s very fun to see in a game.

One of the motifs of Syberia is melancholic decay; the fading of old dreams, the desertion of once-booming industrial towns, the aging star’s wistful memories of her career. Kate, the cell-phone-equipped, high-powered lawyer, is the embodiment of the conflict between modern technology and ideas encroaching on the old ways of life. The sale of the factory (which will probably close) is the end of an era, and she can’t help feeling a little sad about the changing times. All of the places she visits are relics of their former glory. It’s not a particularly happy story throughout most of the game, and Benoit Sokal (the game’s creator) seems to come down a little on the anti-modernist side, but in the end, the story is less about the loss of one’s old life than the pursuit of one’s dreams. The adventure, the game tells us, is the real goal in life.

Sorry for that pretentious digression, the game will do that to you (make you melancholy, not pretentious). Seriously, though, the atmosphere is fantastic. The game seems to take place in an alternate reality where steampunk was actually viable technology for a while, but now the real world is closing back in.

Sequel: There is a sequel to Syberia, and it’s…well, it’s not as good. The puzzles are a little harder in a frustrating kind of way, there are actual villains (and they’re not very convincing), and the payoff at the end is cool, but still a little disappointing. I can’t talk about the plot without giving away the ending to Syberia, but let’s just say that you end the first game set up for a grand and glorious adventure and it turns out to kind of suck. Not the gameplay, which is still pretty good, or the visuals, which are still very pretty (although, sadly, most of the game takes place in wintry environments, so you get to see a lot of snow and ice; it’s nowhere near as visually diverse as the first game). It just doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, in my opinion, and it left me wondering if the whole adventure was really worth it because everyone is worse off in some way than they were at the end of the first game. (SPOILERS: Kate has probably lost her job, her boyfriend, and basically her purpose in life, Hans is crippled and, let’s face it, pretty much insane and probably going to die soon, and Oscar is dead. All that’s happened is they found an island with mammoths on it.)

Bottom line: Syberia is, even now, one of the best adventure games in years, certainly one of the best of the last decade, and worth checking out for adventure game fans, newbies, and anyone looking for a change of pace from their regular dose of blowing dudes up.

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