There are few things I do well, and cry with dignity is certainly not one of them. The mess, the noise and the looks of sheer terror on the faces of the people around me as I dissolve into my own salty puddle is never good.
I played Richard & Alice over the weekend, and my house is now empty. *Sniff*
Richard & Alice is a point-and-click adventure from the minds and pens of gaming-journo super-team Ashton Raze and Lewis Denby, who presumably got fed up saying “we can do better than that” and actually did. The game is set a little ways into the future, where a world-ending blizzard has wiped out almost everything we could call infrastructure and civilization, leaving the survivors to battle the elements (and each other) for survival and ever-dwindling resources.
A grand and terrible scene, which Richard & Alice almost completely ignores. Instead, we are introduced to the game’s namesakes, each incarcerated for unknown reasons in an unnamed prison. After the usual introductions, the meat of the game kicks off as Alice tells her story to Richard from behind barred doors. A story of her, her son Barney, and the trials of surviving a post-apocalyptic world as a single mum with literally everything to loose.
Kidnap, slavery, the ethics of imprisoning people for their own safety – Richard & Alice pulls no punches with it’s bleak, snowy what-if story. And without wanting to give anything away, it succeed in building one of the most emotionally-involving games I have played in a long, long time. Painful, wrenching at times, but always toying with some of the most loaded concepts anyone could level at a possible extinction-level event, all through the eyes of a mum and her son.
A masterstroke by the game’s writers comes within the subtle things, the little bits of humanity in a world devoid of any such thing. And almost all of them come from Alice’s 5 (and a half) year old son, Barney and his interactions with his mother, desperate to keep him safe. Early on, he asks why the man holding him and his mother prisoner in a basement room is a “bad man”, and Alice replies with the obvious – they are prisoners. But, Barney presses, the man keeps them warm and fed. Later, while exploring an abandoned house, Alice finds a room splattered with blood and gore. Yet she barely acknowledges the scene other than a moment of shock – she doesn’t want to scare her son.
The little things filter through bigger things in your head and before you know it, you honestly care about these little people. I actually had a mad moment of panic when, after wandering about in the snow looking for a way to break a padlock, I returned to find Barney gone from where I had left him. When I say panic, I don’t mean a mild “oh no, where’s he gone?” thing. I mean I actually panicked. It was a revelation to me, finding just how this strange, bleak little game had twisted my very soul around its characters in such a way that the concept of a few missing pixels made me so anxious.
He turned out to be only a few meters off-screen. What the hell is wrong with me? This must be what it’s like to have kids…
In between these tromps around in the snow, chasing wayward sons, you return to the ever more neglected Richard and future-Alice in their cells. During these little interludes you learn a bit more about the world itself, what happened, what might happen, and the story of why they are in prison. There are even a few puzzles to work out – how to get a photo across a corridor being an early example.
There are quite a few puzzles in Richard & Alice, and normally I would have spent the second paragraph of this review moaning about how bad I am at them. But take it as a testament to just how tightly this game grips you that I can barely remember them. I got stuck once from start to finish, which is a personal record, and the majority of them are easy enough if you think it through.
But damn, you don’t half itch to get back to Barney after being away from him for too long. Most of the exploration in the game takes place after leaving Barney somewhere safer than in the frigid snow, and I didn’t like that one bit. The puzzles seem to add a further emotional pace to the game thanks to this simple thing, and you can feel the mounting tension the longer and further you go. That walk back after an extended wander, worrying what you might find when you return… it’s mind blowing just how uncomfortable it makes you.
And this is where the true beauty of Richard & Alice lies – not in graphics (it’s very pixel-art), it’s not the action or puzzles (slow, methodical and straightforward), it’s the way it makes you feel about Alice and Barney. Their struggle becomes your struggle in a way that only Tell-tale’s The Walking Dead could hope to resonate with. And even that didn’t make me forget it was a game the way Richard & Alice did so effortlessly.
Once, I actually abandoned looking for a set of ladders, needed to progress in the game, to go and make sure Barney is still where I left him a few minutes before. Afterwards, I felt foolish, but that’s the kind of effect this game had on me. You care what happens, and that, to my mind, is the mark of a masterpiece. Another mark is turning a few screens of white, a couple of buildings and a frozen lake into one of the most harrowing places I have ever experienced. The soundtrack is rarely music, but rather the howling of the wind your constant companion. When there actually is music, it’s quiet, understated, and works very hard to charge those quiet screens with menace, sadness and occasionally hope.
I will end with this observation – this is what you get when you have real writers writing for your game. The language is believable, the story clever, and the characters are actually people. Not pixels/polygons painted with some canned-stereotypes and a few swear-words. About the only criticism I can level at Richard & Alice is the ending was a little weak and tricky to follow, but given the fact that I sat right where I am sitting now, crying my little heart out on Sunday afternoon – it didn’t matter a whole lot.
Richard & Alice is an amazing trip into a side of gaming we rarely experience. At about four hours long, it’s short, sweet, and introduces us to a world of emotion and empathy that the casual gamer generally doesn’t value. But we all should. Everyone should play this game. Not everyone will enjoy it, or even understand it, but those that do –
I need a hug. *Sniff*
Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available – PC
Review based on a copy supplied by Denby/Raze
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