There is a particular kind of detective whose investigating serves to illuminate a social (or supernatural) milieu as much as, if not more than, the mystery itself. Think Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, or any detective whose outsider status allows them to move through the social strata, tracing the connections between people and institutions that insiders ignore or take for granted. Or hide.
The Canadian Media Fund and Kickstarter-funded Québec, Canada-based developer Parabole‘s Kona has much in common with Campo Santo’s Firewatch or Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero or Prologue Games’ Knee Deep: all games about finding something out in an environment not often (if ever) seen in videogames.
Those are games without a lot of systematized management. Yes, you’re solving puzzles and making dialogue choices that affect their worlds’ future and past, but there’s no failure. That’s not to say there aren’t stakes, but they’re not interested in those kind of stakes.
Kona takes the narrative ideas of those games and adds in a survival system. Carl Faubert is a Korean War veteran and private investigator who’s been hired to investigate a relatively minor crime in the village of Atamipek Lake in Quebec. Things quickly escalate.
In an emergent gameplay aesthetic, developers build a bunch of systems and turn them loose on each other, usually with some amount of player involvement. How much those systems weigh that involvement determines whether the worlds they create place the player at the center of a world that adjusts to their (usually dramatic) need or an indifferent world in which the player must survive. Obviously, one’s views on the world affect how “real” these approaches feel.
Survival games are built on this kind of system: you have needs (food, shelter, warmth, etc) and you must meet those needs. I suspect that, while not necessarily easier to develop, the systems-based, player-ignoring kind of design requires a skillset already possessed by numerically-minded individuals. Because the end result comes from a limited starting point, the return on starting resources is a lot larger. Rather than individuals designing all the encounters and interaction, computation handles that. It magnifies the work of a small number of people into a variety of enabled-experiences (Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft are two examples).
Tweaking some numbers and seeing the effect they have is less socially fraught than issues of representation. It’s easier to believe in the neutrality of numbers. The worldview modeled in these games, one of biological drives inscribed in code and individual ingenuity enabling the existence within a harsh environment, attempts to sidestep critique via its focus on, well, surviving.
It’s a lot harder to test for a player’s reaction and interpretation than it is a body temperature/injury/stress model. How people read the game’s narrative aspects—at the outset, a very relevant conflict between a First Nations community and an extractive industry—can’t be controlled. To an engineering mindset, that can be a bug: the intended effect of the story was not its actual effect.
Software bugs are fixable: find the code that is causing the disconnect between intention and effect and change it. With a narrative, though, the intent of the author isn’t a trump card. You can’t just will things into effect when other people are involved.
There are bugs in Kona. Once I got stuck in a loop of narration explaining how Carl’s punctuality meant I couldn’t leave his truck until he’d driven to the general store where he was to meet his employer. My initial reaction: “This is bizarre.” Maybe it was the impression that the game was more interested in simulating the frustrations of driving in a snowstorm and the isolation of a Canadian winter, or its status as a Kickstarted independent game, or the imminent return of Twin Peaks that primed me to expect a surreal obtuseness and kept me from getting frustrated. After a minute or so of the narration and the inability to do anything, I reloaded the last checkpoint.
You spend a lot of the game looking for small squares on the screen that indicate an interaction. When playing with a controller, it can be difficult to center the square in the screen so you can select it—a situation not helped by the very small difference in size and outline and orientation of the square and the highlighted diamond.
Visibility is a two-part situation: What you can see as the player is not necessarily what you can interact with. In order to avoid the frustration of making a dark area unnavigable, everything is still rendered visible to the player. The diamond on an interactive object does not appear in a dark area unless you have a flashlight or a lantern shining on it.
More frustrating, although not unlike actual snowstorm driving, is navigating the region in a white-out. The survival system prevents you from running directly from location to location, instead having to rely on Carl’s truck. A constant first-person viewpoint means the advantages of spatial awareness that come from an external view of a vehicle in other games are not there. It’s 1970, so there’s no GPS: Carl holds the map in his right hand if you want to check it while driving. The button to zoom in on the map when walking is the brake button while driving, so you can’t focus your attention. Given the relative uniformity of the white landscape, it does a great job of simulating distracted driving, which, depending on your point-of-view, might just be a pain.
What’s interesting about Kona is that it brings together two seemingly incompatible approaches, and uses them to motivate and explain one another. The survival systems work to keep you on a narrative path, while the adventure-type investigations and puzzle solving give shape and motivation to the survival aspects. In Kona, there’s more to the world than just surviving; it’s a means to an end.
Kona was developed by Parabole. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Brian Taylor still checks his twitter mentions from his base of operations in Pittsburgh.