This winter was one of the worst in recent memory. Snow fell into April, accumulating on already sizable snow banks and crippling some southern American cities that weren’t prepared for the cold. States used to the frigid weather were getting bogged down and the general mood was tense. Winter clothes remained in closets for months and many wondered when the seemingly never-ending winter would be over.
What if it never ended? What if presently, into June, the snow continued to fall? What if the temperatures remained a blisteringly cold zero degrees and people’s moods continued to worsen? Imagine criminal acts increasing, people falling apart. Who knows how far the world would go to cope with the cold. This is the setting of Richard and Alice, a point and click adventure by Owl Cave released in 2013 and recently available on Steam. The game pre-dated this past winter, but it captures that same desolation and quiet through the eyes of the titular characters. Despite it being 80 degrees outside in the real world, I still feel a chill when I sit down to play.
The bulk of the game takes place inside an underground prison. Richard has been there a while for deserting the army, and Alice has just arrived, charged with murder. The game is spent with the two inmates getting to know each other in flashback sequences and point and click puzzles. We view the prison from inside Richard’s cell, and until the end, we never leave. It’s a strange place to set an adventure game, but it works, thanks to the aforementioned flashbacks that provide the player with a change of scenery without changing the overall atmosphere.
The flashbacks from Alice’s point of view are perfectly-paced tellings of how she got to the prison and a look into what the world looks like covered in snow. She tells the story of how she came to be charged with murder, intertwined with a recollection of survival with her five-year-old—five-and-a-half-year-old, excuse me—son Barney. His optimism and joy over little, inconsequential moments provides passing levity to a world so bleak and empty that the pair runs into only three other people throughout their entire trip. Even these interactions fall into a spiral, since the world of Richard and Alice provides no true respite from darkness.
In contrast to the snow globe that is the outside world, the amenities inside the prison are practically utopian. The prisoners get warm beds, computers, televisions, and temperature control. Even Alice remarks that it’s been a while since she’s even slept on a bed. There are plans to provide the underground prison cells to the wealthy as a break from the harsh weather, but that also disappears as even the world beneath the earth begins to unravel. Despite the differences between the two locales, Richard and Alice can’t escape the world they have been plunged unwillingly into and both have different ways of coping. Even during the climax, there seems to be no sense of hope. A suspenseful escape from prison is surrounded by emptiness, with Richard and Alice either being left to isolation in captivity or isolation in the outside world.
It’s the details like this that make the game so intriguing, although it has some basic flaws. For being a point and click adventure game, the puzzles can be rudimentary. Some serve as a platform to dive into the next flashback or dialogue, which gives them necessity. However, there are longer puzzles that, when combined with some awkward animations that slow down gameplay, have frustrating imprecise controls. One puzzle in particular requires enough backtracking to make you bored, without enough change in scenery to break the player out of monotony. The puzzles also have a tendency to be too convenient, with the pieces you collect coming together in a way that is so obvious that it can make you groan. At one point in a flashback, you get a rusty ladder and then you find a can of rust cleaner. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out what you have to do, decreasing the impact of the puzzle in the context of the narrative.
In the end, the gameplay mechanics are irrelevant when compared to the story, which utilizes subtlety and dialogue to spin a great, depressing, and complex tale of survival. The objects you pick up may be convenient, but they all lead somewhere. The climate change backdrop isn’t forced and it gives the proceedings a sense of reality, especially when you think about the recent harsh winter. There are no monsters, and no good versus evil. There are just people trying to survive in a world that’s gone to hell, and to be honest, that’s not so far-fetched to consider.
That’s why even after a few days, Richard and Alice still manages to stick, the end results playing out in your head on repeat like you’re trying to make up your mind about something, and the goosebumps on your arms popping up each time you think about it. Even a few months out of winter, I still think about the snow and what it may bring.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.