FBT thought this would channel the spirit of LucasArts. Oh boy…
In the near future, Richard wiles away his time in a comfy prison until Alice, a new inmate, arrives in the opposite cell. As she describes life outside, where an environmental disaster has caused an endless snowfall and the breakdown of society, they try to figure out the nature of their strange prison, their reasons for being here and each other’s secrets.
Split into two parts, we control Richard as he fumbles to build a relationship with the prickly Alice while trying to make sense of their incarceration, and in flashback, we’re Alice trying to survive the apocalypse with her impossibly adorable son, Barney.
In many ways, it’s better that this recalls the 90s golden adventure game era with its basic blocky graphics and text dialogue. The look is so retro you fall into a comfy, safe place and then the story creeps up on you - like when Alice discovers chained-up bodies in the house she and Barney are squatting in, where it's implied they were being traded; maybe for food, before being left to starve. It’s not exactly realistic but it hits so much harder, it’s not what you expect from an aesthetic that reminds you of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Had it been some hyper-realistic Last of Us it would have been anticipated and felt heavy-handed, but here the desperate and sinister goings on get under your skin. Knowing Alice is alone creates a tension you’d not expect looking at it's visuals. Where's Barney?!
In Alice’s story there’s a The Road vibe about it, with Alice and Barney standing in for Man and Boy - no real destination, just trying to keep going, while in Richard’s plot there’s the suspicious nature of the prison itself – why would a cell have a leather sofa, TV and its own shower, why would the inmates be slowly encouraged to be self-sufficient, have a computer where they can email requests to the never-seen guards? And then there’s the question of what they did to wind up here. Alice claims she’s in for murder, while Richard says he’s an Army deserter, but their stories don’t always ring true. I’m playing two unreliable narrators?
As a point and click game, we’ve done this before. Click on an item to make them use it or admonish you for suggesting it. You’re trying to solve whatever hardship Alice is up against, then figure out how to move Richard’s narrative along before the next day starts. They’re pleasingly straightforward and reminiscent of puzzlers of old – in one, we need oil, there’s a can of it frozen in the snow, we find a battery lighter with no batteries, find batteries, thaw the oil. Not mind-blowing or frustrating, just pleasing problem solving.
At about three hours it is short, but long enough. Much more and it would have become exhausting dealing with either the world dying or being in prison. It’s a bleak, brutal story and you know it’s not going to end well. Often there’s multiple dialogue options or actions - that means we’re looking at different endings, which invests you in those little blocky characters. While the end reveal is a bit hokey, I just hoped I’d reach an okay ending for them - but I’m guessing none are a ‘good’ ending.
Although this was released in 2013 a lot of its themes seem relevant now, in the age of Covid – life on hold, isolation, distrust, survivor guilt, conspiracy theories, as well as environmental themes and government’s intentions toward the population. All of that as well as a moving story about a woman and her kid, presented in a way that reminds you of your childhood? Seriously messed-up. But a seriously good game.