September 28th, 2009
I cheekily linked to The Chinese Room's Dear Esther once or twice in a previous update, because I enjoyed it almost as thoroughly as I enjoy the fact that it exists at all. Their new project, Korsakovia, has seen its first release, and sadly, it's pretty disappointing. I want to try to look at it as a standalone experience and not compare it endlessly to Esther, but I think that it's only in comparison to Esther that Korsakovia has any redeeming qualities at all.
Esther's success came of it not trying to be a game. The narration was the payload, the walk across the island was the vessel, and the innovation was the interplay between the two. It was, artistically, a look at how a story and an interactive experience of place can work together, and it didn't need to be anything more or other than that. Dan Pinchbeck seemed to want to try and make more of a game out of his next piece, though, which is where it all fell apart: he doesn't seem to really be a game designer at heart (or have any on his staff), because rather than show the industry something it hasn't tried yet, it shows us what we were doing wrong twelve years ago.
Korsakovia disappointingly backs off of Esther's narrative exploration, doing less with the story itself while trying to do more with level design. That level design feels like little more than a tedious throwback to the amateur horrors of cdrom.com/idgames that nobody wants to revisit. The psychological bent in the level design the creators seemed to be after is dated and flawed - either fudgy platform-jumping on abstract architecture in space (we saw this in Alice and Max Payne and didn't like it then either) or the fairly run of the mill one-two combo (well-trod as far back as Doom) of establishing and then subverting player expectations through repetition (and this also often not very well, as Korsakovia frequently skimps on the all important "establishing" part). The "signposting," as many have pointed out already, is awful to nonexistent, leaving the player regularly clueless and frustrated (my favorite example being the jumpy platforms leading to the finale: completely unlit, floating against a black background, discovered entirely by chance). You have finite health and can die, but have no HUD. Sometimes the blue lightning hurts, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it kills you instantly from ten feet away.
It was a completely broken gaming experience, and what worries me is that that's apparently exactly what they had in mind. Pinchbeck has been quoted as saying of Korsakovia:
Itís us trying to see how much we can fuck with you and whether that makes a rewarding gameplay experience for us all.
You should have asked someone in the industry, Dan - we could have answered that for you pretty quickly. No. No it doesn't.
Any decent designer today knows that the game's job isn't to "fuck" the player. "Trying to fuck with the player" is synonymous with "Trying to make the player wish he wasn't playing your game," and Korsakovia knocks that out of the park. The screen repeatedly flashes and shakes with distressful epilepsy during all the fudgy platform-jumping parts when you most want it not to, to avoid falling and dying for the fortieth time. Nearly every line of dialog is repeatedly interrupted with harsh, staccato bursts of painful, loud static. Not some of them, for effect - all of them. I pressed on in spite of all of this simply because I wanted to hear where the story of this crazy chum wot ett his eyes was going, but by the final level I had torn my earphones off and left them to sit on the desk and occasionally hiss angrily to themselves. Honestly, if it hadn't been by "the Dear Esther people" I'd have binned it long before that point.
Now, I would still give The Chinese Room team credit, even after all of that ... but.
While it's a well known adage that there are no hard rules when it comes to creative media, and that any guidelines or principles can be subverted for effect ... it's also not hard to tell clever subversion of principles from simple failure to follow them. There's nothing that Korsakovia does that should be entirely ruled out in theory, but in Korsakovia's application there's also nothing that it achieves by doing what it does. There are plenty of books and films that are unpleasant, but worth it, to experience. Seeing Requiem for a Dream for the first time while laid out with the flu was thoroughly awful, but I'd still reccomend the film as highly as most anyone else would. Who didn't squirm at least once during Saving Private Ryan? These are good films about unpleasant things that are worth it to see. Korsakovia succeeds only in being unpleasant, and seems to think that's why it's any good.
At this point, we don't need to push back the horizon of making less sense. We don't need anything to show us how to break the rules we've already learned, because it's rare when a game even manages to follow them all well to begin with, let alone experiment with what's beyond them. Esther did, and there's a wellspring of new things to be tried there. If Korsakovia had come first, I can't say I'd be anywhere near as intrigued with its possibilities.
In literary terms, what we're essentially dealing with is an unreliable narrator. I can think of no examples of one in games, and the notion is intriguing, but it's unfortunate that so much of the experience of Korsakovia was simply sacrificed with the player character's dementia as an excuse. (I might suggest to Pinchbeck that he try and base his third project on a protagonist that isn't losing his mind. It worked in Esther, because the murkiness of the story was a selling point, but in Korsakovia it seems to be a crutch for lax design. Writing something that doesn't unravel into a complete psychological mystery will probably force him to tighten up his direction.)
I still can't fault them utterly, though. The very same indifference to the anatomy of games that made Korsakovia such a waste of time also made Dear Esther intriguing and vibrant and new. If Pinchbeck weren't approaching our world from outside of it, he wouldn't be in a decent position to show us what else is out there.