Indie duo Denby Raze have released their first adventure, Richard & Alice, to the downloadables. Is a story of post-apocalyptic morality, and two people stuck in a prison, enough to win over my frozen heart? Here's wot I think:
Richard & Alice is a story. It's a point and click adventure, although a minimalist one. It's not a visual novel, although for long stretches you're clicking through conversation. You constantly feel involved, part of proceedings, relevant to the game, but it is, overwhelmingly, a story.
Stories are the hardest games to review, because to tell you what makes it so great - and it is great - is to destroy it. So let's carefully talk around that.
It's some point in the future. The weather has driven the world into some sort of apocalypse, snow having broken down infrastructures to the point where few survive and anarchy reigns. Small pockets of government-controlled zones exist, but only the very lucky are in them. Think The Road, but with pointing and clicking.
Richard and Alice are both in some peculiar sort of prison. Richard's been there a while, Alice has just arrived. The cells, opposite each other, are pretty luxurious for a prison. Sofas, TVs, PCs, a proper bed, and a bathroom with a shower. We know why they're in - Richard for desertion of the army, Alice for, well, murder.
Richard wants to know Alice's story. More than anything, he wants to just speak to another human being. Alice's story is told to us in flashback, and forms the majority of the played game. Going back an unknown amount of time, Alice and her five year old son Barney are trapped in the basement of a old man who'd previously taken them in. Naturally, you're helping them escape.
Barney is instantly brilliantly written. He's the lynchpin of the game, where sometimes the writing can get a little purple or fraught, Barney keeps things grounded with a very genuine portrayal of a happy, bemused kid. His cute walk and gorgeous idioms give him an immediately loveable status, and that's all you need to be completely drawn in to the need for Alice's survival.
Things alternate between the present day in the jail cells, and the ongoing narrative of Alice's past, throughout which you may or may not start piecing together another story - one that will almost certainly have you play the game a second time once you're done.
That's what's so very clever here. Despite being an almost entirely linear game, there are details you won't know about, deciding which of the multiple endings you'll see. It's subtle, and it's such that hindsight affects much. I hope this is ambiguous enough. Trust me, play it twice.
As a point and click adventure, its success varies. Because of the leaping about in time, a consistent inventory isn't very possible, meaning that too often puzzles are a touch contrived. A can of rust remover frozen in a bin outside the church, and a rusty ladder inside it, is possibly pushing credulity for a game focused on being as realistic as this one. With the limited locations, a few too many times puzzles are based around this sort of ultra-convenience. And that's a shame, because I think with some more careful planning, that could have been avoided.
The art is also something of a sticking point. While the animations of Alice, Richard and Barney are crude, they're fine. It's more the backgrounds that really could have done with more effort. The opening scene of the game shows a house from the exterior, and it looks like it was drawn in Paint in four minutes. Other scenes are much better, but still incredibly basic. Yes, this is Adventure Game Studio, so we should maybe be glad it's not made of seventeen pixels, but the engine can do a lot better than this too. It's a shame another pass wasn't taken on the art, to give the backgrounds as much life as the text within them.
But the text wins. The story told is a splendid one, incredibly moving and surprisingly twisty. The relationship between Alice and Barney is a triumph, and handled with great care. There's certainly a bit of the young-writer-likes-to-swear to it, in places it could be more mature, but it's always engaging, engrossing, and delivers the punches where they're needed.
If you're longing for a game that knows how to tell you a short story, this is it. Yes, there's a lot of dialogue to click through, but control returns to you just often enough to make sure you feel a part of things. And while you'll do a lot of that clicking an awful lot faster a second time, there's definitely enough here to merit playing it through at least twice. Richard & Alice is a poignant, well-told tale, exploring themes of hope, despair and morality. And that's not a thing you can say about enough games.
Disclaimer: Lewis Denby, one half of the team who made this game, has previously written for RPS.