Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Developer: Centauri Production
Release Date: 11/03/2010
Platform Reviewed: PC (Steam)
Intel i7 @ 2.8GHz
Played with Controller or Mouse and Keyboard? Mouse and Keyboard
Difficulty(ies) Played: High
Time Played: 8 hours
Concept and Execution
Abandon all hope, ye who point and click here. From the description of the game per the developer, Centauri Production:
Classic point&click adventure game based on the original sci-fi/cyber-punk script which is composed of a number of shorter stories that lead us through the lives of individual characters as well as the fictional world of the future.
Sounds like a great concept. It’s good to know that they recognize that the “world of the future” is fictional because it hasn’t actually happened yet. That’s why you don’t see many history books that are centered on the civil rights movement of the year 3245. The problem is that none of the quoted portion above is true, besides the fact that AlternativA is a point and click adventure game. There is nothing original about the script, and there aren’t really shorter episodes with an overarching plot. There is an overarching plot in AlternativA, although it is fairly threadbare. This is the largest fault the game has because every adventure game relies heavily on narrative, as they “lack” gameplay besides in the most basic sense.
You play as Richard, a lower-class, less-than-exceptional former employee of Endora Industries. He has been recently sacked from his job, and feels that his termination wasn’t justified. He lives with his roommate Andy, and both characters have a different perspective on labor. AlternativA had the potential to make a potent statement on labor politics in a futuristic society, but the opportunity was wholly missed, as no real philosophies or politics were explored in even a shallow sense.
The game begins innocuously enough, with Richard at the gates to the corporation with androids barring the way. Being turned away from the gate, your first goal is to get a metro pass to return home. Richard, on arrival, has a long, sprawling conversation with Andy in his apartment. The conversations in the game, while attempting to affect an air of emotionality, flop badly due to bad dialogue, poor voice acting, and the beyond-cliché nature of the plot itself. Anything a character in the game would have to say is first, of course, filtered through the plot and the theme of the story. Since the plot is so lacking and there is no theme, the dialogue suffers heavily.
In the opening of the game, Richard meets with Andy to discuss joining the “Resistance” to fight the “Establishment”. The government in the game is a third faction, and they are called the “State”. They are actually called the State, the Resistance, and the Establishment. Through a series of mind-bendingly irrational character interactions, Richard is eventually allowed to meet the supposed leader of the Resistance who, originally enough, is called “NoName”. NoName is later revealed, in a very obvious twist, to secretly work for the State. NoName’s role in the game is pivotal to the plot, but it is never truly revealed who the character actually is: he shows up for a large majority of the game, including repressed memories delivered by flashbacks from Richard’s perspective. However, the point of his character in the game is as informative as his name.
The narrative gets worse as the game progresses. I have played many adventure games in my lifetime, from the venerable Myst to the Agatha Christie serials, and I have to say that this ranks at the bottom of the list. This is a potent statement, but it is also a statement that is only taking the game’s concept into account. The mechanics of the game, and the overall ability to be entertained by it, suffer from the same severity of pitfalls as the narrative.
Concept and Execution Score: 6/25
The game mechanics in AlternativA are fairly standard for the genre, from a user interface perspective. There are adventure games where you simply navigate the game world and sometimes interact with text boxes for dialogue, and some, like AlternativA, where you are tasked with combining items that you’ve picked up to make something new, to solve a puzzle, or both.
Navigation in the game is fairly straight-forward. You can double-click to make the character run to the location you’ve chosen, and each small area is self-contained with a fixed isometric view. Hitting the tab key will highlight area transitions or interactible aspects of the playing field. Areas have transitions to the next, and each have their own loading times. For a 2D sprite-based game with a few 3D flourishes, the loading times in AlternativA are surprisingly long. They range from fifteen seconds to almost forty-five seconds, even if you are simply returning to an area you had just loaded.
This problem is compounded by the developers artificially extending gameplay length by forcing you to re-visit areas for very little reason. This is always a grievous error in development, but Centauri Productions have made this error into an art form. There is one instance in the game where Richard is in the lobby of a building, speaking with the desk clerk. The clerk gives Richard permission to enter the elevator as long as he’s willing to go to the bottom floor to retrieve a camera. This seems fairly harmless, part of a normal narrative, but it quickly breaks down into an exercise in monotony as Richard has to return to the clerk a total of six times before fetching the item he needed, interjected with hideous dialogue and reasoning that actively avoids all logic. Long load times between these conversations simply frustrated me as I wanted to move on to something that would hopefully be more compelling, although that hope eroded over time.
Faults in gameplay are not always connected to artificially increasing the length of playtime. Most of the faults in the mechanics are from Richard being a cross between MacGuyver and cocaine. That is the only (polite) way I can describe the “combination” portions of the game, where you retrieve an item from the game world, and have to combine it with either another inventory item, or an interactible element in the playing field.
The only source of difficulty in the game is attempting to think like a person who is in a world where normal laws of logic and sometimes even physics do not apply. Your goal is to role-play as someone who would, as an example, pick up a ping-pong ball and naturally think to combine it with a potato in order to figure out the combination to a safe. This is the type of logic required to succeed in AlternativA. Normally in adventure games, there is a clear point and purpose to every item you pick up. An item will either be combined with another to solve a puzzle, or will be used to directly interact with the game world. While AlternativA does not break this tradition, it does break the logic of what makes a reasonable puzzle. The screenshot below shows an actual interaction in the game that is necessary to proceed.
Perhaps it is unfair to put this screenshot into the review out of context. Richard came across a pebble. Upon picking up the pebble, Richard made an exclamatory statement about how exciting it was to find this shiny pebble, although he also said that it would probably serve no purpose. I agree with Richard, because I am the player, and I have to rely on his observations to guide my thoughts about the logic within the game. I then began to question why I had to pick up the pebble, what the point of the pebble was, if it would serve no purpose. Was Richard merely an unreliable narrator, or was he secretly some kind of mad genius? I have a pebble that Richard tells me has no purpose, and I cannot drop it.
However, there is a homeless man (his name is “Homeless”) living in a slum within a slum, who likes to exchange goods and barter.
It turns out that you have to “combine pebble and homeless” in order to get a jar of rotten fruit. I cannot even begin to divine how the developers thought that this would be an intuitive process to someone who is well-versed in adventure games, but particularly to a player who may have never picked one up before. This is not even scratching the surface of the overall problem of the puzzles in the game, being that they carry no analogous real-world logic and hence make no sense at all. While it’s likely impossible to build an adventure game that every player will intuitively understand, it would behoove a developer like Cenaturi Production to at least make an attempt to base the logic of the game in something a human being could comprehend without the gratuitous usage of street drugs.
The items themselves often offer no hint as to their purpose, although a few are accompanied by audio cues from Richard. However, when Richard says “this will come in handy” when picking up a bent twig, the player will probably not register that they’re going to have to use it to clean out a lock that has a broken key inside of it, which actually happens. Richard breaks a rusted key into a door that he needs to open, forcing the player to interact with the door multiple times even though, while playing the game, that doesn’t seem like the logical thing to do. It is also quite unexpected per genre conventions, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is no precedence or even reason presented for a player to seek out repeated interactions with the same object. So the player tries the door again, after figuring out that they need to try the door again. It won’t budge. He pulls out his pliers and manages to get the key out of the lock, but lo and behold, the lock is dirty. What would be the reasonable action to take here? Centauri Productions can’t answer that for you. They’ll only tell you that you need to clean out the lock with a twig. I don’t even know how the mechanics of that would function in real life, or why I would ever think of cleaning out a lock with a twig.
These are actual puzzles in the game. These are not made up to give an example of the logic of the game because there is no logic in the game, and I doubt I’d be capable of making this up to begin with. This is the only game I’ve ever played, in over twenty years of gaming, that punishes the player for being at least slightly intelligent and cognizant of how reality works.
Mechanics Score: 2/25
The best thing that can be said about the game is that the environments have some variation to them. They’re colorful, vibrant, and show a hint of personality that you won’t find elsewhere in AlternativA. Richard and company find themselves in semi-futuristic slums in the once-beautiful city of Prague, then moving on to airports, laboratories, and even a Mediterranean island. These areas, however, suffer from some pretty nasty pixilation due to the aspect ratio being very small. The game does not scale well at all with monitors running a high-definition resolution. The game is framed in black borders. It looks as though it was designed to play on a tablet computer, where the playing field is restricted to a rectangular shape, and the rest of the screen is draped in black. This is a limitation of a sprite-based game, but it became off-putting at times, particularly when a cutscene would occur and black bars would appear on those as well, making the entire playing field appear very small. Animations are sparse in the game, as it is mostly a motionless 2D affair. The character animations are done well enough to not distract from the narrative, which ends up actually being a weakness. Any distraction would have been welcome.
The musical score is composed of fairly typical western European techno, and while it doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t make any kind of impact, either. That honor is left to the voice acting, which is easily the worst I have ever heard not only in the realm of gaming, but also in film and television. Richard is, thankfully, the most tolerable character in the game in terms of voice acting, which isn’t saying much because his delivery is almost comical, although his voice actor at least put in some bit of effort. Richard is the most prevalent character, and thus has the most vocal role, which is some small respite from the mediocrity of the rest of the cast. I was sorely tempted to turn the volume off altogether but the text in the subtitles often doesn’t match what is actually being said in the game. It isn’t uncommon for subtitles to contain grammatical errors, spelling errors, or simply not representing what is actually said. Even in big-budget titles such as Mass Effect, these inconsistencies are present.
Normally I would not knock a developer, particularly an indie developer, that was operating outside of their native language. Centauri Productions is based in the Czech Republic, and odds are that the localization of the game was outsourced by the publisher. However, inconsistencies between the presented text and the voice-overs, and writing like the “Establishment” and “Resistance” cannot be chalked up to simple bad or literal translation. Due to this, I spent much more time wondering why the game was presented as it was, than I did thinking about the narrative itself.
The game gives you a PDA to carry around which will automatically update with notes on objects that you’ve picked up, areas you’ve visited, people, and also entities such as the Establishment and Endora corporation. The first few entries in the game gave some optional exposition into the game world, but this quickly breaks down into only getting information about such incredibly-fascinating items as “Rod with stuff”.
There are many points in the game where what little atmosphere present is completely shattered. Such instances include NoName asking you to do something incredibly dangerous for him, without offering any reason why, and telling you that if you fail, he’s going to shoot you in the head. Homeless makes a deep analysis of one of his neighbors in the slums, where he tells you that a girl is in fact a “little bit retarded”. A member of the Resistance Godwins the game at a point where instead of Nazi gold, the Establishment is after Nazi radium, and that both the State and the Establishment have set up the entire nation in a manner that is worse than a Nazi concentration camp, an absolutely unforgivable comparison under any circumstance. Presenting the player with an egregious affront to morality and human decency is not a way to get them engaged with the atmosphere.
There is also the issue of vocalized asides spoken by Richard when he sees something, or notices something going on, which the developer uses to give information to the player. Sometimes these bits are delivered by audio cues, sometimes by spoken dialogue, but it never really makes sense. In comic books, this is done via caption boxes, in novels it is done via internal dialogue, and in the realm of gaming it is done with spoken asides that are deal-breakers for atmosphere and immersion. AlternativA is hardly the first offender in this regard, but it is simply bad writing. There are exceptions to every rule, but this game surely isn’t it.
The atmosphere-breaking asides, the repetition and backtracking, and the lack of logic in the puzzles makes for very little reason to want to play the game a second time, or even to finish it a first time. The game is only eight hours long, and while I’m grateful for that, it would have been better served as a truncated version without repeated sections, with lower loading times, and a comprehensible mechanic for solving puzzles. Creating an atmosphere of frustration and oftentimes sheer boredom is the surest way to lose a player’s interest, and that’s before insulting everyone who suffered during the holocaust.
Atmosphere Score: 3/25
When we started NLGO, we decided on a rubric for reviews that would be fair, objective, and thorough. When we created the “entertainment value” category, we did not account for a game like AlternativA which has neither value nor entertainment.
There is barely any semblance of a plot, much less a theme or even a motif. The dialogue is, to put it mildly, bad, and the voice acting leaves everything to be desired. There are two difficulty levels, “High” and “Low” and there was no perceptible difference between them. The worst part of it all is that the game is presented as a serious effort at a narrative which has reflection, analysis, meaning. It doesn’t.
My dissatisfaction with the game does not stem from the principle of not getting my money’s worth, but rather, a much deeper principle of what a game should and should not be. I truly believe in the potential of video games as a narrative medium, and it is something I take seriously. It is easy for me to say that I take it seriously, but it is impossible to say, after playing games like AlternativA, that I honestly think games deserve to be taken seriously. There comes a time when we, as gamers or developers, need to start evaluating the games we play critically and to begin asking hard questions. AlternativA is a great place to start. The first question I would pose is this: does AlternativA perfectly reflect how not to make a game? And my answer to that would be yes, for all of the reasons provided in this review.
If we are to take games seriously, they must be made seriously. Had Centauri Production provided an end result that fit the game’s description, then that would have been a great starting point. A sprawling cyber-punk narrative presented in episodic sequences, culminating to a single point of dramatic conflict that demands a resolution between two of the greatest ideological factions in the world. Interesting characters and puzzles that will engage the player, not requiring them to think but encouragingly committing them to doing so. Short load times. Not using a comparison to the Third Reich! None of this happened. What happened was the Resistance fighting the Establishment, twigs can be used to clean door locks, and Homeless loves shiny pebbles. If, by design, puzzles are chores, character interaction is punishment, and the narrative is a ham-fisted collection of clichés, what’s left in the game? Nothing entertaining and nothing of value.
The real shame of AlternativA is not in what it is, but in what it could have been if someone had actually cared enough about the game to make an effort. As it stands, you do not play AlternativA, you endure it.
Entertainment Value Score: 3/25
Overall Score: 14/100 (F-)