Thursday, January 7, 2021

A Little Backbone

I try not to give traction to the multifold algorithms that sprawl across the digital skyline of the twenty-first century. I retain no histories on any platform or search engine. I never "Like" anything, anywhere, ever. I don't even respond to automated enquiries about whether I enjoyed things I've watched, listened to or purchased.

The reason for my reluctance to reveal myself has far less to do with a desire to hide than a suspicion that choosing from a menu containing only flavors I already know might deny my palate new tastes I might enjoy. I'm all in favor of comfort zones and knowing what you like but one area where that kind of inner understanding risks becoming self-defeating is in the process of discovery. That, and I'm stubborn as hell.

It doesn't work, of course. Whoever codes these things is a lot smarter than I am. Steam's suggestion algorithm is particularly resistant to suppression. I never give it any help. I don't let it know whether games it recommends are relevant to me. I don't submit reviews. I don't interact with the platform in any way other than to read about games then buy and play them. That's plenty, it seems. From that much, Steam is confident it knows what I'll like and, perhaps more worryingly, what I won't.

"Is this game relevant to you?", it asks, sounding uncannily like a worried parent. "This game doesn't look like other things you've played in the past". Stick with what you know, in other words. You'll thank me later. 

And maybe I will, at that. Yesterday, when I logged in to play Disco Elysium, Steam suggested I might care to take a look at something called Backbone. It was like other things I've played, apparently. Specifically, the numerous "detective/noir" games in my Steam folder, titles like Unavowed, the Blackwell Chronicles, Californium and Disco Elysium itself.

What Steam doesn't know, yet, is the extent to which Backbone pulls a bunch of my biggest gaming triggers, all at once. It's a "noir, roleplaying adventure", three of my triggers rolled into one, yes, but forget that. All the characters are anthropomorphic animals.

This, I'm very well aware, is a whole sub-genre of its own. I've seen plenty of it, in comics and graphic novels, movies and video games. Foxes in trenchcoats, slouching through rain-drenched streets. Bears in rumpled suits, slumped in scuffed leather chairs, staring at svelte cats in high heels and pearls. A dingy office on the second floor of a three-storey walk-up, lit only by reflections of neon light filtered through a slatted blind, making bars from the motes of dust as they swirl beneath the lazy, circling ceiling fan.

Aaand... cue the saxaphone! Not many of them are all that great, let's be honest. It's low-hanging fruit and yet it's harder to pick than you might imagine. 

No-one can say whether Backbone is an exception or an exemplar because, as yet, it doesn't exist. The game remains in development. It may launch later this year. It does, however, have a playable demo, Backbone: Prologue. That was what Steam recommended to me yesterday.


Backbone: Prologue is free to download and has an "Overwhelmingly Positive" rating from more than three and a half thousand reviews. A quick scan through some of them reveals comments like  "Awesome", "Masterpiece", "10/10".  But why trust anyone else's impressions when you can form your own?

So I downloaded Backbone: Prologue and played it. It took me just over an hour although a lot of that was fiddling with the controls. There's probably half an hour's gameplay there. In fact, if you'd like to watch someone play through the whole thing, it'll take you thirty-six minutes.


Or you could just watch the trailer. That's a minute and a half and it pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how the game plays. 

So, how does it play? Clunkily. The controls are awkward and you can't change them. There's a lot of business to get through - crouching, jumping, cracking codes. It feels very much as though the developers wanted to show you all their tricks, which is fair. It's a demo, after all.

I'd hope the full game, when it arrives, takes a step back from itself and breathes, once in a while, not least because by far the most impressive thing about Backbone is how it looks. It would benefit from every minute spent just gazing into it. The art direction is first rate. The detail is fascinating. The environments feel alive and lived-in. Everything about the world calls to you to slip through the screen and immerse.

Unfortunately, what you're allowed to do is too limited to allow much loss of self. I'm certain it didn't help that I'd spent the last few days steeped in the snow and grime of Revachol but even compared to something much more on its own level, Unavowed for example, Backbone's brief prologue feels linear and constricting. 

The characters don't come to life but then they are all tropes. In this genre two-dimensionality is often seen as an asset. And how much character development can you fit into half an hour, anyway?

Such of the plot as reveals itself felt rushed. The reveal seemed over-dramatic for an introduction. It's an attention-grabber, for sure, but it makes me wonder where the narrative would need to go next just to keep up the pace. It would make for a very different game than you'd be expecting, if they carried it through. But maybe it is. Pretty to think so.

None of this is meant to suggest I didn't enjoy myself. I did. The moody jazz soundtrack and the downbeat atmosphere alone make me interested to play the full game when it appears. I'd want more flexible controls and a balance of gameplay that favors conversation over mini-games but I saw enough I liked to think I might push through, regardless.

Enough. I'm no algorithm. I have nothing to sell. And there's little point my going into my likes and dislikes to make a point. It's a 30-60 minute demo and it's free. Go play it for yourself. Make up your own mind. Or don't. 

See if I care. 

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