“So much misguided effort pursuing only the shadow of the big picture – why?”
I’d been anticipating Backbone for some time, but I didn’t go into it with an excited smile. Not quite. That isn’t because it was released to polarising reviews, but rather because of the developer’s response to that reception. It goes without saying these developers put everything into their game, and goddamn, they have every right to stand by it with confidence and pride.
I am so very behind that…
But oh boy, that open letter is a bit sentimental, isn’t it? You might even say it’s pretentious (I did, I definitely just did). So much so that I was sure I was about to play the video game equivalent. I feel guilty even bringing it up, but it had such an impact on my perspective I can’t avoid it. It’d be dishonest. And I know my response to that letter says more about me than it does the developers.
Anyway, into Backbone I went, the letter slumped around my shoulders. There was a gorgeous pixelated world in front of me, beautifully lit and meticulously detailed, but suddenly it was all laced with doubt. I expected that letter to keep feeding me negative thoughts as I tried to engage with the world, but that’s…not exactly what happened.
Because Backbone is not what you think. That’s registered as something of a betrayal to those who played the prologue back in 2019. From what I’ve read, lots of players expected a neo-noir mystery in the trappings of the point and click genre. But Backbone is only partially interested in being that; its sights are set on something else altogether.
So when private detective Howard Lotor takes a case to capture proof of a wayward husband, he’s just as surprised as we are by the case’s strange, disturbing turn into a full-on existential crisis.
Is it really much of a surprise, though? The game dubs itself ‘post-noir’, which should at least signal something’s up. In fact, Backbone reminds me a little of Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett’s approach to Raymond Chandler in 1973’s The Long Goodbye (only without the deconstructionism), when they created a contemporary noir tale infused with the pervasive doubt and distrust of the 1970’s.
Backbone is no masterpiece – not even close; it’s too heavy-handed with its themes of alienation and class conflict to be as thought-provoking as it might like – but it’s very much a game of now with a particular point of view.
‘Now’ – this divided, broken, angry and unjust present of ours.
We’d do well to have more like Backbone, instead of trying to stay in the centre lane all the time (or appease the worst sorts of people, which is more troubling).
I was less enamoured with the lack of gameplay, at least initially. Dialogue options aside, there’s not a lot of player input in Backbone. It’s primarily a narrative experience; when gameplay occurs, it’s presented very simply with little to no margin for error. There’s a few puzzles, all of which are fun and direct but without challenge. I quickly got over it. Between gazing at its lovely, lovely world and following its bizarre narrative, I easily found myself absorbed in what the developers really wanted me to care about.
See, Backbone works much better if you’re prepared to meet it on its own terms. If you do, I think there’s something worth experiencing. Lotor and his journalist pal Renee, a smart and tenacious fox, have much to reckon with in this cruel, uncaring world of theirs.
Lotor’s tail swishes by his side as if he’s always clutching a bottle, which wouldn’t be out of character for the racoon. He’s a composite of every boozy, down-on-their-luck private eye you’ve seen strutting in Philip Marlowe’s shadow. But Backbone has the good grace to let you decide what kind of detective fills that shadow. If you want to be a gross, miserable shit, then that’s up to you.
But you’ll still only ever be the product of the dystopian nightmare that’s enclosed itself behind massive walls. What’s beyond them? Something better? Worse? Something so different we wouldn’t know it if we saw it? Whatever it is, Backbone’s political conscience knows walls aren’t the answer – that they only seek to divide. It might not be sure what the answers are, but it’s smart enough to know it doesn’t need to be.
Some have found its later stages anticlimactic, in which Backbone’s world writhes within itself, pushing (clumsily, it should be said) at the confines of genre. Not me, though; I was properly invested, even when I was unsure at points of what it was signifying. As for the ending itself, Backbone ends exactly when it needs to, true to the events that preceded it.
And true to the noir genre that underpins its philosophical musings.
So whilst Backbone might not reach its lofty thematic goals, it’s just nice that it tries – especially when it does so in a world made of stunning, high-res pixel art. I liked that attempt more than I thought I would, especially off the back of its developer’s (sappy! It was sappy!) letter. That’s weird, I guess. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if I’d gone in with my original expectations, but I doubt it. This is a refreshingly creative game.
Platforms Available – Steam, GoG, Epic Store, with PlayStation, Xbox and Switch versions planned for later this year.
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.