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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Syberia Review

This is the addendum to my Syberia Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Syberia yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Syberia

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the title of some recent hits, read this page, and be inspired to write a graphic adventure game in which the player actually gets to make meaningful choices for the main character (the way CRPG's have been doing for ten years now). Would that ever kick the genre into high gear. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Syberia that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I was a little surprised to find myself disappointed in Syberia. Disappointed? I had to have been exactly the kind of player whose heart the designer was initially aiming at with this game. There's nothing in here for the powergamer, few challenges, little action; instead, Mr. Sokal set his sights on creating an intricate, mysterious epic with a good plot, stirring characters, and an incredibly immersive gameworld. And he and his team actually made good on this promise, even providing beautiful visuals as icing on the cake.

So why on earth was a cerebral gamer like me disappointed in this amazing game? Because its very excellence has forced me to acknowledge the fatal flaws in today's adventure game genre. There was a time when computer adventures stood at the leading edge of gaming technology, back in the early 80's when I'd rush avidly to the store to buy Infocom game after Infocom game. Well, fast forward 20 years and... I feel like I've just played another Infocom game. It was nice to see Floyd, er, Oscar again, but why hasn't the genre gone anywhere in terms of gameplay since I was twelve years old? Pick up every random pick-uppable item you find and use it on every random non-pick-uppable item you find, because eventually one combination will have an effect (usually one neither you nor your character could have predicted). Follow the plot laid out by the writer, letting him make all decisions for you. Walk back and forth and back and forth and back and forth across the map until your mom, or your spouse, calls you for dinner. Why has nothing influenced this genre to be more interactive over the past two decades--not the increasingly non-linear CRPGs being produced, not the open-ended MMORPGs, not even the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the '80's? It's as if all these gaming advances missed the alternate universe adventure game designers live in completely.

Syberia was the game that finally brought it home to me that no matter how wonderful the gameworld is, no matter how haunting the plot is, no matter how compelling the characters and beautiful the graphics and meaningful the themes, if I have no interactive input into what happens with any of these elements, my gaming experience will always seem hollow and second-best. And as a lover of adventure games since childhood, that was as profoundly poignant and bittersweet a realization as any of the other plot twists contained in this otherwise excellent game.

Syberia Game Advances

Still, my Syberia-induced depression over the general state of today's graphic adventures aside, this is one of the finest examples of the genre I've seen, and there is much to laud about it. Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) Syberia has a feature that lets you review all the cutscene movies you've already seen. This is an EXCELLENT feature which more games should take note of. Usually I have to re-load an old game and re-play far too much of it if I want to see one of the old videos again.

2) The use of cutscenes in general has really been kicked up a notch in this game, and I'd love to see more games (both adventure games and CRPG's) taking full advantage of them the way Syberia has. In particular, the sepia-hued flashback scenes were phenomenal.

3) The Syberia design team paid more attention to the background screens than in any previous game I know of. Not only are they artistically perfect and very detailed, but they make use of basic ambient motion (water rippling, shadows fluctuating), something which makes the whole environment seem more real. Since Syberia's release I've been pleased to see many games following and improving upon this trend.

4) Except for the cell-phone characters, every character Kate meets on this epic was interesting, unusual, and had believable motivations of his or her own. I was impressed that even the dead Anna and absent-till-the-last-thirty-seconds Hans were so fully revealed through their letters, flashbacks, and other characters' memories of them. Oscar was loveable in that ineffable robot way, and a few of the characters, like Boris the alcoholic ex-cosmonaut and Helena the washed-up opera star, were the most profoundly three-dimensional personalities I've ever encountered in a computer game. If only someone could find a way to make characters like these interactive, they would have the game of the decade on their hands.

5) As for Kate herself, I really enjoyed her transformation from a dippy urbanite who refuses to pick up things that are dirty to a confident adventuress willing to climb through ventilation ducts and handle explosives. Making new actions and abilities available to her as the game went on was a really good way of showing character growth and giving the player a feeling of accomplishment.

6) Kate also gets a thumbs-up from me for being a relatively normal-looking woman in relatively normal clothing. I'm so tired of having to play an overly-large-bosomed action heroine or an overly-large-eyed anime woman-child, you wouldn't believe it.

7) I liked that some of the inventory items had more than one function (the screwdriver could unscrew more than one object, the metal shears could cut through two different objects.) I'd like to see this idea expanded on. In far too many games every object has one and only one function, and it starts feeling like everything in the gameworld is really just a differently-shaped key.

Plot Holes

Some of these may have been due to translation issues--this game was originally written in French, and details may have gotten lost in the conversion to English. If this is the case, I'd be grateful of any French-speaking gamers cluing me in as to what us Anglophones are missing regarding these open questions. (-:

1) Who is Sergei? All his dialogue suggests that he's a human, but he has a distinctly automaton appearance and glowing lights for eyes. Is he a cyborg? Does this have something to do with the 'accident' Boris mentions he had? Why isn't Kate surprised by it?
2) Kate and Sergei can speak about a picture she saw in the museum of Hans and Helena holding hands, but that picture does not appear in the photo album and as far as I know it's not visible anywhere in the museum. This damages the flow of that conversation tremendously.
3) The entire plot hinges on Kate making the irrational decision to help Sergei entice the singer he's obsessed with to Komkolzgrad. This is problematic for several reasons (does Mr. Sokal really expect us to believe that a female protagonist, much less a female American lawyer, wouldn't be suspicious of this grade-A stalker behavior?), but the worst of them is that Kate has other options available and inexplicably refuses to entertain them. Most glaringly, she is able to walk right up to the automaton pianist with a screwdriver the very first time she enters the factory. There is absolutely nothing to prevent her from unscrewing the hands without Sergei's permission and leaving Komkolzgrad then and there. (Since she winds up having to do exactly this at the end of the game anyway, it really sticks out like a sore thumb that she refused to do so earlier.)
4) What is with the old sailor? He seems to be talking an incomprehensible mishmash of Russian, German, Spanish and French. And the parts of it that ARE comprehensible (to those of us who speak one or more of these languages) do NOT match the translations provided by his wife. ?
5) Why all the secrecy surrounding the damn wine? Is there Prohibition going on in this alternate-reality Europe?
6) Why doesn't Hans have any emotional reaction to Anna's death? It is very clear from the flashbacks and Anna's diary that the two were very close as children and that Anna loved Hans immensely to her dying day. It's disconcerting and rather disturbing for his response to the news of her death to be just "Oh. I see." If he's supposed to be non-emotive and cold, that should have at least been mentioned in Anna's letters.
7) The timing of the escape from Komkolzgrad defied all suspension of disbelief. It was bad enough that Oscar and Helena hung around on the train for ten minutes without Sergei bothering them, even though he's already proven himself able to overpower Oscar--perhaps Sergei was otherwise occupied putting up the bars that would trap the train. But once the bars were in place and the giant automaton had already moved to trap the train, where did Sergei go? Why didn't he come to the train and kidnap Oscar and/or Helena again while Kate sat around introspectively discussing her relationship with Dan on the telephone for five minutes?
8) Couple of very minor discrepancies: the hotel concierge says Helena is his only guest, but there are two men playing chess inside. Also, for some reason the blood collector remains in your inventory when you leave Komkolzgrad even though you don't need it anymore.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Syberia a 8 out of 10 (rating: very good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, there were a handful of interface issues, for starters. There are many exits to new locations in each area which are clickable but never usable, and trying to access one of them causes Kate to annoyingly declare "No need to down go there yet!" This gives the game more of a straitjacketed feel than other adventure games which have avoiding scattering extraneous forbidden areas about the map. Too, screen exits function inconsistently. Usually your cursor will become a glowing ring when you run it across an exit. However, other times it won't, and you'll just have to walk to the edge of the screen yourself to see if there's an exit there. And finally, conversational topics do not disappear from your list once you have heard them before--if the NPC has nothing new to say about a topic, clicking on it will just give you the exact same dialogue all over again. This is useful for archival purposes, or if you forget what an NPC has told you, but it becomes very frustrating in the course of normal gameplay. NPCs sometimes have new comments to make about old topics as the game progresses, and it's very unpleasant to click down a list of topics listening to long and difficult-to-skip replays of stuff you've already heard just to find one new nugget of information. The game should at least show topics of conversation that have already been exhausted in a different color to help you avoid boring repetition. Apparently I wasn't the only one to remark on these interface flaws, because all three have happily been corrected for Syberia II. (-:

More substantively, movement in Syberia was tedious and slow. Kate's 'run' speed should have been significantly faster, and there should have been the option to skip directly to another screen by double-clicking on an exit (another improvement added for the sequel). Even better would have been a clickable automap. Why does every CRPG in existence provide you with an automap of areas you've already explored, while no adventure game bothers to? There's no benefit to forcing players to watch their character jog in slow motion across six screens they've already explored thoroughly when they could merely call up the automap and click on the desired area. Even in the olden days we could type N,E,E,U,NW,W,use key and be using the key in the right place within thirty seconds. Playing Syberia, this takes about twenty minutes of repeatedly clicking exits and walking Kate moonwalk over to them (her animation leaves a little something to be desired in that department, incidentally). Syberia has the annoying tic of periodically cutting back and forth between camera angles for no real reason. It's very distracting and calls attention to the worse elements of the graphics; this should have been scrapped in beta. The music, while lovely, has terrible volume control, periodically becoming very loud and dramatic at utterly random intervals. This is a poor effect and is very frustrating when it happens during quiet conversations you're trying to follow. Bizarrely, it is impossible to name your savegames in Syberia--you just have to remember what point you were at in the plot by looking at the tiny thumbnail pictures from each savegame. This is an inexcusable omission. Some of the voice acting is very poor (the actress who plays Olivia should never work again after this turkey of a performance), and some of the translations are... less than polished. (Kate's diction, in particular, vacillates wildly between stilted formality and hyper-American slang.) The puzzles are too easy and nearly all boil down to "use the one usable item on the one area that accepts a usable item." It's sort of ridiculous that none of the NPCs are able to make any of these contraptions work without Kate's help; my five-year-old son could do this. Other quests depend upon random connections. For instance, there is a door in Aralbad which it is impossible to open. However, once you try to use the keypad and realize you don't have a valid combination, two fat guys open another door (behind which happens to be another combination) on their way to play a game of chess. They will never show up until you try to use the keypad, even though it has no connection to them. Another time, in Barrockstadt, the only way to advance the plot is to run to a certain faraway map square, which triggers a cellphone call that will never happen until you travel to that unrelated square. These situations should always be avoided; they make the game feel more linear and predestined than it already is. And the cellphone call in Komkolzgrad was absolutely ridiculous. All the other phone calls intended to be meaningful came at reasonable break points in the plot; so why was Kate sitting around on the phone telling her boyfriend "I don't know, Dan, we've just been drifting apart" in an introspective tone of voice when a madman has just barricaded her escape route with a giant robot? That conversation should have occurred immediately upon stepping onto the platform of Aralbad instead! Finally, it's sort of frustrating that the game ends without you ever having discovered the "secret" promised on the cover of the game. This would have been a crippling flaw, except that there is a sequel (Syberia II) in which the second half of this story is told. I'm not thrilled about the bait and switch, but given the impressive scope of this game, I suspect it may have been a development issue--the designer may have had to split his game in half when he realized how extensive it was getting and that he was nowhere close to making his production deadline. At any rate, the game is enjoyable even without any payoff about the secret.

The biggest thing that could have been improved about this game is also the toughest one to fix: the total lack of input into Kate's journey, development, and personality. On the plus side, I really did love her believable transformation into an adventurer. I only wish she hadn't explicitly stated "Wow, I feel I'm turning into a completely different person!" about 20 times during the course of the adventure. Her reactions to the gameworld spoke for themselves; we didn't need to have her transformation exposited to us over and over. And if only I could have felt like I was having any effect on this transformation whatsoever! Kate made a grand total of one choice in this entire game (getting back on the train in the final cutscene), and I made a grand total of zero. I understand that allowing the gamer to choose Kate's final fate would have been problematic, since the sequel depends on her getting back on the train, but if we had been allowed to participate in her evolution up to that point, it wouldn't have mattered. There should have been optional quests we could have chosen to complete or not (fixing the mechanical eagle in Barrockstadt was one wasted opportunity that leapt out at me). There should have been more than one way to complete some of the quests (more than one way to raise the $100 needed in Barrockstadt, for example, or a more cunning route involving counterfeiting money or blackmailing the sailor or anything else besides treating the $100 as yet another differently-shaped key.) Most importantly, we should have been able to choose between different conversational options for Kate (the way The Longest Journey, or CRPG's like the Baldur's Gate series, invite you to do.) As it is Kate vacillates wildly between sharp sarcasm and gentle concern, back and forth multiple times within the same conversation. It can give you whiplash. Something as simple as letting the player decide to choose, say, snotty responses to Sergei and kind ones to Oscar--or snotty responses to Oscar at first and kind ones to him later--would have helped us feel ownership of the character. This is a particular issue regarding the frustrating cellphone calls from home, a plot element everyone I know detested. I thought they were a nice idea, personally, but the player's lack of input into any of the conversations made them more of a recurring annoyance than a subplot. It would have improved the New-York-social-life subplot a lot if you ever got the chance to choose any of Kate's responses--deciding for yourself whether to pick a loving or a snide response to her boyfriend, for example (left to her own devices, Kate seems to pick randomly between the two), or whether or not to spend time talking to the caller (Kate inexplicably declares herself too busy to talk and hangs up some times, and makes time to gabble about inanities other times). When she promises to call Dan back, you have no option to actually carry through on this promise. Giving some thought to details such as these wouldn't necessarily affect the outcome of the subplot per se, but they would at least enable you to interpret them enough to care about them--to determine for yourself, for example, whether Kate and her boyfriend have been drifting apart because they have little in common and don't care about each other's jobs, or whether Kate was really trying to make their relationship work and Dan is being an unreasonable jerk, or whether Kate is tired of Dan and secretly hoping he'll leave her alone. As things are, her vague, neutral responses rob this subplot of any impact.

Ah well, maybe next time. These games were still good enough that I'll be buying whatever Mr. Sokal comes up with next. I just hope they call me for help with their translations first. :-D

Best Quest: Sabotaging the Aralbad fountain. Seamless progression: first I realized what I needed to do (distract the innkeeper), then cast about for a way to do it, and then found an object which made me think of an original yet logical use that would solve my problem.
Lamest Quest: 'Fixing' the musical bandstand in Barrockstadt. The machine was apparently not working because there was no egg balancing on the outer lever. (Conveniently enough, an egg happened to be the one loose item Kate could acquire at this location!) Once you put an egg there, the bandstand magically started working again. Logically ridiculous and has nothing to do with anything.
Best Puzzle: Mixing a drink at the musical bar. OK, so it was annoying having to go through the whole process only to realize something was wrong with the honey, but the solution to that hitch was logical, and this was the only quest in the game that required actual puzzling skills.
Lamest Puzzle: Making Oscar's feet. You have to go through a long, boring process of running from screen to screen before you can learn whether each set of feet you make are correct or not, and it's essentially trial and error to build the right ones. (There's a picture in the brochure that resembles the correct piece of wood, but there's also text telling you to use mahogany, and choosing the mahogany color results in failure, so it's a mediocre clue at best.)
Best Plot Twist: The bombs in the elevators. I was really startled by that, and it marked a real transition for Kate's character.
Lamest Plot Twist: The execrable thing with Kate's boyfriend. I saw it coming a mile away, it was horribly written and horribly acted, and the timing sucked.
High Point: The last two cutscenes (of Helena's ill-fated concert and Kate running for the train) were just brilliant. The overall mood deserves an honorable mention as it kept me playing even through much interface tedium.
Low Point: Tossup between learning that Kate had no need to go down to 200 different Valadilene locations one at a time, and jogging back and forth across Barrockstadt over and over to ferry messages back and forth between the stationmaster, professor and the board of regents.
Serendipity: My children, age 5 and 2, absolutely loved this game. Go figure!

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