Wot I Think: Kairo

By John Walker on April 23rd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Richard Perrin’s atmospheric puzzle explorer Kairo reaches Steam tomorrow, so now seemed a good moment to give it a proper Wot I Think. So, er, here’s wot I think:

Kairo is a beautiful thing. And the key word here is “thing”. You could, I suppose, boil it down to being a first-person puzzle game. But that misses the entirety of what Kairo is. You could recognise it as an ambiguous piece of art, but that doesn’t recognise how precise and careful it is. So I have settled for “thing”. A beautiful one.

However you might describe it, the word “enigmatic” applies to every element. Made up of dozens of interlinked locations, yawning rooms of extraordinary architecture, or tight, reality-defying tunnels and bunkers, your purpose in Kairo is never explained, nor indeed does it ever feel important. It’s a game about exploring spaces, and finding out the consequences of your exploration, driven by a vague notion of progression. Success is measured in slight changes to the environments, these minuscule adjustments feeling oddly significant, as you eventually have done enough to open up new areas, and further explore.

Kairo is, in a large part, about an ambiguous exploration of your physical presence in the world. The puzzles themselves maintain this depth of ambiguity. Each room, distinctly coloured and uniquely designed, has something you must do. What it is, and how you relate your actions to it, is perhaps the core of the game. Sometimes it’s as simple as pushing a block into a hole. At other times you’re realising that your movement is determining the rotation of objects within the world, and you must manipulate them accordingly. Even when a puzzle is about pattern recognition, or manipulating buttons, it’s still very much about your tangible connection to the world. Buttons are large tiles that must be trodden on, or huge sections of three-storey walls that must be ascended into order to push them.

Sound also plays a very significant role. In a game that asks you to go through such a relatively barren experience it had to be perfect, and it is. Objects bong and ding in a way that sends you equivocal messages, nudges in the right direction, or simply sing to you as you go by. There’s also radio static, peculiar coded messages emanating from structures, and odd voices, all leaning toward the game’s hinted messages of technology.

I’m aware that these aren’t very coherent descriptions. That’s because they’re describing something particularly incoherent. Quite what Kairo is about entirely eludes me, and yet I never felt alienated from its themes. Strands of DNA, fuzzy images of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and photos of Einstein speak of scientific and technological progress, while barely discernible images of devastation, ruined towns, and ghostly figures seem to suggest somewhat more negative thoughts. But just putting those things in a sentence is far too big of a misrepresentation – these are scattered images, appearing in odd frames on some walls, or sometimes peculiarly appearing walls of fuzzing video.

Much of what you do is driven by symbols – symbols that might be part of some unknown numbering system. Understanding their patterns is only occasionally important, but they add a sense of thematic consistency to each of what you eventually recognise as the game’s four areas. It’s details like this that demonstrate just how much thought has gone into Kairo, alongside the more immediately obvious passion behind its architecture.

And what architecture. While the game is unquestionably basic in its building materials – bland, geometric shapes, with only a few repeated textures – their construction is superb. Elaborate staircases wind up sloping walls in huge temples that look like a tribute to an alien Masonry. Huge open plains stretch to the horizon, where new structures await, that when finally reached are towering castles of madness. Elsewhere you might be walking along floating paths that construct themselves before you, or negotiating winding pathways built of hundreds of varying cubes. One particular room features a maze whose walls only crash into place when you approach them, before just showing you an empty chamber. The ceaseless inventiveness of its ever-different constructions is by far the most deserving element for celebration.

Things perhaps get a little wayward in the final quarter. The last section is appropriately more difficult, but unfortunately pushes the ambiguity a little too far, perhaps leaving you lost for where to go next. It was at this point that I discovered that there’s a hint system, however, in the the Pause menu. While I’d prefer the game to have never needed one in the first place, it did see me through these confusing last few moments. It’s definitely welcome that things become more spread out, less linear, in this area, but when one of the apparent puzzles proves not to be a puzzle at all (unless you’ve discovered a secret quest that I had missed) it lies there like a red herring, making you feel sure you’ve missed something and all the ensuing frustration. (The hints make it clear not to worry about it, but like I say, it probably shouldn’t have needed the hints to do that.)

Overall, Kairo is quite the thing. A wonderful piece of explorable, challenging artistry, a stunning collection of esoteric architecture, and a delightfully peculiar journey.

Kairo is out on Steam tomorrow, and available now for $8 via a Humble Store on Perrin’s site.

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40 Comments »

  1. Makariel says:

    Reminds me a bit of Myst.

    /runs

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      That was what I was thinking. This WIT reminds me of how people who love Myst describe that game.

      Myst didn’t click with me. I first stayed away from it due to people like Richard Cobbett in the adventure gaming newsgroup, but later bought the three first Mysts all at once. I figured that it’s such an important piece of adventure gaming history now, that I ought to play it. I played through the first (and didn’t get why people was describing it as so pretty years earlier), but gave up a bit into Riven (which did look quite nice).

      Edit: Oh, *now* I notice the small text next to the header. (What’s that called, btw?)

      • The First Door says:

        Riven is just stupidly hard in places, but the Universal Hint System is quite good to help you through without just telling you the answers. In fact, it’s great for most older puzzle games which have occasional silly puzzles.

        Seriously though, I can’t help but feel this sounds more like Uru, the spin off Cyan Worlds made. The reason I loved Uru was because most of the game was exploring these long dead worlds and trying to figure out how to make the machines in them work again. There is this incredible satisfaction which comes from making a world come alive again.

        It sounds like Kairo has that same satisfaction so I’m very excited to pick this up!

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  2. Judy says:

    Looks like another game that would be appropriate for the Oculus Rift. Opportunity missed?

  3. outoffeelinsobad says:

    That entire first paragraph is completely ridiculous. How is “thing” a more precise designation than calling it a video game?

  4. Lovehammer says:

    Beautifully written. Most flavourful. Going to get me one of those.

  5. daphne says:

    I think it’s kind of weak expressing your disdain for Myst comparisons while at the same time indulging in the use of the phrase “consequences of your actions” on yet another video game, and a solitary, introverted first person puzzler at that. O RLY, Mr. Walker? What about “the gameplay”? Did you enjoy that as well?

    • P7uen says:

      I think it’s kind of weak you didn’t understand the clearly written sentences in the article while at the same time forgetting to complain about feminism.

  6. BooleanBob says:

    “However you might describe it, the word “enigmatic” applies to every element. Made up of dozens of interlinked locations, yawning rooms of extraordinary architecture, or tight, reality-defying tunnels and bunkers, your purpose in Kairo is never explained, nor indeed does it ever feel important. It’s a game about exploring spaces, and finding out the consequences of your exploration, driven by a vague notion of progression. Success is measured in slight changes to the environments, these minuscule adjustments feeling oddly significant, as you eventually have done enough to open up new areas, and further explore.”

    (Having never played Myst,) this is what I’ve always imagined it is like to play Myst.

  7. webwielder says:

    The word “haunting” is overused, but this game truly is. Transported me to an alien realm in a way I’ve rarely experienced in games.

  8. Josh W says:

    This seems a great year for strong architecture in games

  9. PopeRatzo says:

    I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I took all the money I saved by not contributing to the kickstarter for this game and bought a bunch of DMT.

  10. GoliathBro says:

    Roughly how many hours can I expect to get out of this?

  11. Resin says:

    Wasn’t there just a preview for a very similar looking game Naissance (sp?) ? It would be interesting to hear some direct comparisons.

    This looks really cool. The reveiw makes me wonder if I’ll end up feeling the same way I did about Dear Esther though. Kind of ….’What a great environment, I wish I had a game to play there.’

    • Caiman says:

      That depends entirely on how you limit your definition of “game” though, and more importantly, whether it influenced your experience with Dear Esther. If I launch Skyrim and do nothing but wander around enjoying the sights for a couple of hours, does that change the definition of the experience simply because I did not undertake any traditional “gaming” activities? Why limit ourselves to what we’re told to think about what defines a game?

  12. Harbour Master says:

    I just finished writing up my interpretation of Kairo’s story, for anyone who wants to be aggressively spoiled: The Secret of Kairo.

  13. sbs says:

    First screenshot immediately brought to mind Peter Gric http://www.gric.at/gallery/bild211.htm

  14. Frypan Jack says:

    This (and NaissanceE for that matter) remind me of the first person sections in AssCreed Revelations, though hopefully without the jumping puzzles.

  15. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    I REMEMBER THE DAYS WHEN RPS WAS ABOUT VIDEO GAMES.

    John Walker wrote this review so that he can have sex with the cubes.

  16. brulleks says:

    There’s a hint system?! Dammit, I spent ages wandering round that last area before giving up. I’ll have to go back in and see if I can suss out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing.

  17. TomxJ says:

    Bought this a while ago off the dev. Any word on steam keys?

  18. strangeloup says:

    A friend who I’ve since pretty much lost touch with bought me in on the alpha (and, eventually, to full release) as a present. I just recently downloaded the finished version, and although I have every reason to believe I’ll enjoy Kairo, I suspect the experience will be a little bittersweet as it’s associated in my mind with someone I care about and don’t hear from anymore.

    It always struck me as a bit of a shame that so many of the games that tried to ape Myst (far too many to list!) replicated the form but lost the spirit. I’ll readily admit that every entry in that series has flaws, but when everything came together just right the feeling of exploring a strange, beautiful world, and trying to figure out how all these bits and pieces worked was sublime.

  19. archagon says:

    I love these kinds of mysterious, artsy exploration games. If you liked Kairo, you might want to also check out the Halfquake series of mods (particularly Amen) and the Mondo series by cactus.

  20. MondSemmel says:

    Played it, finished it, didn’t like it. The puzzle-solving part of the game is just not particularly enjoyable when compared to any of the greats (e.g. SpaceChem, the Portals, the DRODs, etc.). So I recommend skipping this. If you own this game, you probably own dozens of other unplayed games on Steam. I’m sure something in there is more enjoyable than Kairo.

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