Graphic Adventure Review: Syberia I (Written with Sam Kabo Ashwell)

First posted in April, 2004

Please note:
This piece was posted many years ago, when I was not as far along in my understanding of ableism. Some ableist jokes crop up in this review. I have considered pulling this page from my site, but have instead decided to keep it as an example of the fact that people can grow, learn, and evolve. Please also consider this note to be a content warning. Thank you.

Sam:   So, in a sickening display of cute geekiness, I came across a copy of Syberia lying around Jacq's desk. "This good?" "Oh, I haven't played it yet. I was waiting to get the French version 'cause I heard the translation sucked."

And we ended up playing it together, in the manner in which all adventure games should be undertaken: assisted by ALCOHOL.

Jacq:   That's right. We settled in with a few white Russians that first night and fired up the installer. Slightly inebriated or not, our first reaction, simultaneously, was "Oooooooooh. Preeeetty!"

Sam:   This is, indeed, an absolutely gorgeous game, although the humans hanging around do make the place look a little untidy. All those wooden preprogrammed gestures in such an elegant setting isn't wonderful, particularly when the automatons are no more awkward than the humans. Moonwalking is not as graceful as it's made out to be.

Jacq:   We could get diverted here into a dicussion of how much better it is to play games that contain actors rather than poorly rendered 3D characters (I am a firm believer that all adventure games should stick to actors until such time as the technology to properly render humans comes along), but we'd probably better just stick to this review.

Sam:   You're wrong, of course, but we'll quietly pass over that one.

Let us introduce you to the game's protagonist, KATE WALKER: poorly-translated New York lawyer, feisty packrat and fine piece of polygonal ass.

Jacq:   Tiny polygons, mind you.

Sam:   Let us take a moment to thank Tomb Raider and its sequels up to Tomb Raider 35820: Revenge of the Attack Monkeys for their continued efforts to further the development of polygonal ass technology. Although the pretty fixed backdrops would initially seem to restrict one's view of said ass, rest assured the game will provide you with many, many perspectives allowing intimate perusal of its full glory.

Jacq:   But Kate is more than a fine piece of tail. She's a well educated, though initially naive, protagonist. Let us hope, for instance, that in the sequel she refrains from introducing herself to every single person in Eurasia as, "Hi, I am an American. And I'm also a lawyer."

Sam:   Did we mention vapid? The delightful menu-based exhaust-all-the-topics conversation frequently finds her saying things of the 'oh, that's dreadfully fascinating' variety, she's given to overt flattery, and her ass is so fine even she checks it out periodically. She is also given to rapt-amazement reaction shots when watching cutscenes, and saying things like 'Oh, that is so beautiful.' The overall effect's kind of like sitting next to the prom queen in a screening of some lyrical art movie. 'Omigosh that is so profound. I like totally adore things that make you, y'know, think.'

Jacq:   Granted, she may be vapid, but when you compare her to her rolodex she's positively erudite. As we scrolled through her cell phone address book and began dialing numbers, we started getting a little scared. Every time we dialed mom, she was out having a facial. There's the initial mystery of who's this "Dan?" Who's this "Olivia?" And then work calls and we find out that, not only are we a lawyer, but we've got a prick with a grating voice for a boss. Joy.

Sam:   This being a French bohemian game, we'd hoped Olivia was our lover and Dan our friend, but sadly the designers went for the more obvious arrangement. As soon as triggered events revealed this and that our social circle consisted entirely of pondlife, we ceased to hope. They weren't even interestingly rendered pondlife, and even though it later becomes apparent that we're meant to regard them as such and that Kate's Growth As A Person involves moving away from them, it's a desaturated development straight out of a self-help book; Kate becomes more Assertive and Confident and In Control of her Own Destiny rather than developing any actual distinguishing personality traits. It's really not up to the standard of the gorgeous backdrop. But then little is.

Jacq:   Shut up and go make us another drink - I think we're going to need them. (Huh. He actually took me seriously. Cool.)

Anyway... Those gorgous backdrops are everywhere. Everywhere. To the point where there are superfluous paths that need not exist for any other reason except to be pretty. And that's entertaining for about five minutes. Then, when you're sick of walking down the same path for the seventh time because the objects you need to solve your contrived puzzle are spread out all over creation, you start looking for ways to skip around a bit. Her saunter is only entertaining the first half dozen times.

Then we discovered the joy of the double click. (Yes, that sounds dirty.) It makes her, um, almost jog. An improvement over walking, to be sure, but it's still not nearly the hustle we'd hoped for. I finally became comfortable with the idea that Kate's cardiovascular fitness just wasn't up to our demands, but then in the endgame sequence, when the little tart was no longer under our control, she broke into a flat-out sprint. It was then when I started to resent her and question my decision to purchase the sequel.

Sam:   You resented her from the moment I first groaned at her ass.

Jacq:   Point.

Sam:   Going back a second, the superfluous paths are indicative of more general Design Issues that get superficially disguised as a result of the ultra-professional presentation. It always impresses me deeply about the IF community that it manages to come up with stuff designed more tautly than certain posteriors, while the industry designs things as flabby as those chess-playing guys in the... eww, never mind. I mean, it's nice to walk around pretty scenery, but it's so imbalanced even for this. I can understand them wanting us to see that curving road up to the church a dozen times, but the forest and mountains were gorgeous and you only ever need to go down there once.

Jacq:   "Go down there?" There's no need to go down there.

Sam:   Ah yes, that design issue. Maybe we've been spoiled by the golden rules of IF scenery implementation, but it bites to have chests you can't even attempt to open, and doors you can but never, ever will.

Jacq:   Yes. You wander from scenery door to scenery door, only to appreciate Kate's complete lack of randomization as she incessantly looks at each door and says, "There's no need to go down there." And now's as good a time as ever to state how completely justified we were in cheating on three occasions. The first time we were tempted I was really loath to hit the 'net for hints. I mean, there were two of us, and we're sorta smart... but then when we looked up a hint and realized that we'd missed the smallest, most obscure, miniscule hotspot with the cursor... grrrrrrrrrr.

Sam:   Every time we cheated, we discovered we'd already solved the puzzle but hadn't been able to do it because of horribly unintuitive implementation. The worst offender was the Blood Puzzle. And there were a host of puzzles where we wandered around for aaages before one of us spotted another goddamn hotspot.

Jacq:   Are you sure that there are only three A's in aaages?

Sam:   There's also the joy of Linearly Activating Puzzles that mysteriously become clickable or start working for no apparent reason, or objects that suddenly appear in the middle of a previously empty area when some unrelated puzzle's completed. It got to where whenever we got stuck we underwent the Patented Narcolepsy Visit Every Frickin' Room To See If Cocktail Ingredients, Cogs Or Mammoth Dolls Have Materialised Yet technique every time we got stuck.

Jacq:   And didn't you just adore how no one was ever around to answer our phone calls, but yet when we'd solved another stupid puzzle, Olivia would coincidentally phone to hint about how hott our fiancÚ was.

Sam:   Well, it's hard to work around triggered plot events, but these were very, very transparent.

Jacq:   It only proves my point that cell phones are a terribly intrusive gadget. Four outgoing phone calls worked over the course of the entire game, and the rest of the time the phone was only useful for when Stupid Annoying People wanted to bother us.

Sam:   Okay, just a pause in the bashing to note that the prettiness isn't the only kickass thing about this game. The underlying concept is not only evocative and picturesque, but perfectly suited to light puzzles and so on. A forensic mystery across an ornamentally steampunk Old Europe (okay, there's a geographically inaccurate detour to the Aral Sea, but it's still European in flavour) with primitivist undertones? Beautifully elaborate antique gadgets crafted by an enigmatic idiot-savant? (Hey, didn't Savoir Faire do this already...?) It's a lovely concept, but the linear one-solution-only nature of the thing spoiled a lot of the potential of fun machines. The cocktail machine was a brilliant example of this - everyone's first reaction to the thing is going to be 'Cool, can I make a martini? What about a...' and if you could it'd be all kinds of fun and add to immersiveness and enjoyment and generally make us bounce about with joy, but instead it turns it into a find-the-key, enter-the-code puzzle. Lame lame lame.

Jacq:   Yes. After trying to find a lime and some honey behind a rather obscure panel, I really felt that we deserved to make ourselves a G&T before that old biddy got her stupid Blue Helena.

Sam:   I've had traumatic experiences with blue curacao so maybe I'm just biased.

I mean, some of the puzzles were deeply satisfying and worked beautifully with the surroundings - opening the crypt springs to mind - and very occasionally the hotspot-searching was actually justified. But still, nothing much happened to 'em until you got 'em right. Obviously graphical adventures are a lot tougher to fill with non-default responses, but there really wasn't any effort here.

It'd be fine, but I keep entertaining a fantasy that in the French original Kate has a cigarette dangling perpetually from her lip, the dialogue is complex, witty and properly enunciated, and there are a host of optional side-treks and and and... grr.

Jacq:   Actually, I'll bet she was even less elegant in French... after all, she's an American, and we all know Americans can't speak French.

Sam:   Which leads us neatly on to the subject of accents. I get the distinct impression that the budget for the translation into English ran to about three dollars and a ha'penny with a hole through it, and that consequently Wil Wheaton, Dolph Lundgren's midget brother, and someone who had two lines once in an episode of Cheers were hired for the task.

Worst accent of the bunch: the evil Russian guy. Though the Ethnic Barge Dwellerscame close, and lots of people who were meant to be Russian spoke with American accents, or English accents full of American idioms. But no, the Evil Russian's accent leapt from Scots to American to maybe-Eastern-Europe...

Jacq:   Now, now. Perhaps he thought that his uncanny (for quantities of uncanny that equal, say, horrible) impression of Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October might help him to woo the hott geriatric opera has-been! It's all part of his Creepy Stalker Dude Persona.

Sam:   I know that if I was wanting to portray a complete fucking depraved creep I'd take Connery as my model. But really, c'mon, this was pathetic. Also a bad idea: the rector who talked like a muppet. Not helped by being behind a podium and wiggling his arms about randomly when he spoke.

Jacq:   The three rector chorus was annoying, but not nearly so cringe-inducing as the completely useless, no value to the plot whatsoever, sleazy Cassanova that hit on us in front of the U of Barrockstadt.. I think that the only pick up line he missed was, "Hey, baybee... got any Irish in ya? No? Would ya like some?" I mean, sure, he sounded American, but in this game, anybody with any accent can be from anywhere, so...

Sam:   They weren't that original, and every university has someone just as bad. Um, we should probably get back from the tangent of listing everything that annoyed us about this game and move on to some actual criticism, or something.

Oh yeah; themes and things. There are lots of things that keep recurring in this game, above and beyond Hans Voralberg, his automata and his unhealthy obsession with mammoths. Birds, for instance, turn up a lot, and corrosive air keeps being a problem; the entire game is rife with graceful and not-so-graceful decay. Birds are often the agents of or signs of this -

Jacq:   Yes, but if it hadn't been for the birds, Oscar would never have been able to use his fear of avian excreta as a reason to remain on the train, thus making Kate do all the work. I might have believed him, except that when we wound the train later at Aralbad the SOB just stood there gazing out at the mountains while we fixed the train, wriggling about and wrestling with cranks and levers, hindered slightly by our tight pants. All of that aside, the coprophobia excuse never fails to amuse.

Sam:   Another recurrent thing is stopped clocks, although the cool thing about stopped clocks is you don't have to write code to animate them. And all this ties in nicely to the greater mood: a vaguely Gormenghast-like landscape of epic grotesquery, beautiful and sad and ever so sinister, populated by isolated eccentrics left over from a brighter age. The surreal version of Europe this is set against is very much to the fore; there's a massive version of the Berlin Wall, with nothing but wilderness on the eastern side, and the Russian-factory location is dominated by gigantic hammer-and-sickle-brandishing automata. But again, the beauty of the basic concept and scenery isn't backed up by the action: the characters are eccentrics, true, but conventionally so. This needed Peake's kind of hyperbolic caricature; it got something closer to Disney.

Jacq:   Yeah, but you got to blow shit up.

Sam:   In cutscenes. Cutscene explosions lack the viscerality of a true gibfest.

Jacq:   You're never happy.

Actually, on the contrary, you seem to the one here that's extolling all the game's virtues, while I'm picking things apart... and I can't stop now! Can I also complain about how creepy it felt to be forced to lure a dear sweet old woman into the arms of a blatantly freaky stalker? I mean, the game's linear, so I knew we had to do it in order to finish the game, but all the while I was wishing for multiple solutions. Granted, that was another well-implemented part of the game - the squick factor was high.

Sam:   I found it creepier that they had a perfectly good grandiose-pervert concept and let it degenerate into a stencilled Bond villain. Ahaha, Mr. Walker! My robotic piranha cage will never be foiled by something so simple as... oh wait.

Jacq:   Cliche-laden dialogue, granted. Badly rendered accents, granted. Obvious plot devices, granted. However, I have to admit that the story was compelling enough. I enjoyed it. I think we both did. And I'll take this moment to publically say that Dan and Olivia deserve each other, the shallow bastards.

Sam:   We did both leap from our chairs and slap hands when it became obvious that the two were getting it on.

Jacq:   Mmhmm. And I'm looking forward to the sequel, in which Kate decides to abandon her useless career as a lawyer and head off into the Wild with idiot savante boy. Maybe she'll continue to grow up and get over shit... maybe she'll even get her hands dirty in the next game.

Sam:   Maybe, if she gets a full-scale automaton-rendered personality graft. See below for the most pathetic example ever of a 'you can't do that' response:

Jacq:   And we solved that one the obvious way: monkey boy slave labor. I did not weep when he had served our purpose and shuffled back off into the wilderness. "Momo need banana."

Sam:   Personally, I believe every New York lawyer should employ a mentally disabled person to perform manicure-saving grunt work. Opinions, ?

Jacq:   On the whole, I enjoyed it. Enough that when I learned that the sequel was released earlier this week, I purchased it. That's right, be afraid. There will probably be another tag-team review! Mwuhahahaha!

Sam:   However, if this has nauseated you enough already, you're not obliged to read it.

Jacq:   Nauseated? But sugar plum blossom sweetness, whatever do you mean?

Sam:   Quiet, you. Final verdict: looks like Savoir Faire, plays like Heroine's Mantle.