Adventure games always held a special sort of promise for me; they were a respite from the usual childhood fare of platformers and shoot-em-ups. Fun as those could be in their own right it was wonderful to play a genre where violence was not only out of focus, but out of the frame entirely. Adventure games are sometimes criticised (with some justice) for their obnoxious puzzles, but generally speaking I prefer their atmosphere. They create an ethereal aura about them where there is always something interesting around the next corner, rather than something that will gnaw your face off. Exploration and wonder are often keywords with these types of games: vistas expand before you, whether in 3D format or matte painting form, and you want to soak up every detail.
My favourite types of adventure games are those where an ordinary person steps into an extraordinary set of circumstances and is transported, right along with the player, into a world of wonder they didn’t know existed. This was why I was intrigued by B. Sokal’s Syberia ever since I was very young: this game is about Kate Walker, a lawyer, who finds herself at the centre of an amazing journey after a hitch appears in a routine bit of business. She galavants across Europe in search of a man who is essential to her closing a business deal for her firm. Along the way she discovers a good deal about him, about the world, and about herself that changes her life forever.
It is a fascinating story that keeps you hooked through some of its more mundane or silly puzzles, and what’s more it stars a woman I quickly grew to love. Kate Walker is a fun character; serious and determined, but possessed of a snarky sense of humour and wit. As you play her throughout the ever stranger landscapes she finds herself in, she is quite evidently observant, brave, and resourceful. Above all she is quite clearly committed to getting the job done.
For me, one of the more fascinating mechanics in the game is her charmingly dated mobile phone which is the source of a few keys to quests and several small but interesting subplots.
What is best about adventure games is that they dispense with the bloodied conflict that inheres to more violent games and very often instead substitute human drama in its place. Conflict played out with words and emotions rather than swords and guns. Syberia does that fairly well and with an economy of words. Perhaps my favourite subplot with the game involves the constant phone calls from Kate’s fiancé, Dan, and the way she handles his increasingly entitled and imperious attitude.
I think Border House readers will be fairly pleased to see where that relationship ends up, if not too terribly surprised. Ms. Walker is certainly an interesting woman; the voice acting for her is wonderful and expressive. She never comes off as an ice hearted stereotype, or indeed any other stereotype. Indeed, what struck me the most about her was that she was a fundamentally good and kind person, as evidenced during one of the game’s other strong points.
I feel it portrays non-neurotypical people fairly well, as different but equal human beings with a tremendous amount to offer. Ableist individuals in the game are scarcely portrayed sympathetically, and Kate herself works with a young non-neurotypical boy to achieve an important plot goal early on in the game, seeing humanity in him where, for example, a local innkeeper did not.
Of Women and Machines
It becomes important here to talk about just what Ms. Walker’s “business” is that gets the ball rolling.
She is sent to a small town in the French Alps, the fictional Valadilene, to secure a deal for her client, the multinational Toy Co., to buy a factory in the town that has made ‘automatons’ for over a century. Automatons and their unique workings are central to this game. Steampunkish robots (although don’t ever call them robots!) with Rube Goldberg-style workings and powered by springs and wind up keys, they are this game’s signature. They are the products of the Voralberg family and Kate Walker is to purchase the factory in a deal with Ms. Anna Voralberg, the supposedly last living member of the venerable family who was the sole owner and operator of the factory since the 1930s. The game takes off when it is discovered that there is, in fact, another heir. Hans Voralberg, who becomes the object of Kate’s continent-spanning search.
You learn early on a good deal about Hans and Anna’s lives as brother and sister, and I will not spoil the emotional details of a diary Kate can find; suffice it to say I think the politics involved are quite good. Anna comes across as strong willed and driven.
Hans became non-neurotypical after an accident in his childhood while off adventuring with his sister. His father was furious at the apparent loss of his sole male heir and frequently abused his son due to his condition. Anna did the best she could to shelter him and encouraged the blossoming of his newfound mechanical talents. Indeed, you come to find that the greatest mechanical creations you find throughout the game are of his design. Hans ran away to escape his father’s tyranny and in retaliation father dearest faked Hans’ death, which was why neither Kate nor her firm knew there was another living heir until the last moment.
The diary is one of the more affecting things I’ve read in an adventure game. I lost track of how long it was– it ran on for many pages spanning a decade of the young Voralbergs’ lives. But it was so gripping I didn’t care about the length. I felt it told a story of two young people making their way in life, negotiating with their father’s patriarchal brutality, and eventually succeeding in their own ways.
As to Kate herself she eventually moves towards independence from a man who isn’t good for her. Rather than reiterating the usual tropes that see our woman hero thrust into the arms of a man whose appeal is as inscrutable as pre-Rosetta Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see something more analogous to the convention-breaking resolution of the movie Monsters vs. Aliens. Understanding at last that her fiancé isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, she puts the boot in him and proceeds to live her life on her own terms rather than subordinating them to his. Gotta love it.
End of Spoilers.
Kate Walker: A Character Done Right
Adventure games are stories told through letters, diaries, and postcards; through half-heard conversations; little bits of intrigue scattered like breadcrumbs along the narrative line. This was always tremendously preferable to unending violence. Even my favourite RPGs too often use bloodshed as the first rather than last resort and it is quite welcome to play a game where that isn’t even a speck on the horizon. Rather than over the top CGI battle sequences, Kate Walker uses her wits (as personified in part through the witty player) to overcome the many obstacles in her path.
The interactions between her and Oscar, her automaton companion and assistant, are absolutely priceless comedy that lend the distinction of character to the both of them. Alone they are almost worth the price of admission.
I love Kate as a protagonist; she feels like a full, independent character who is well drawn, defeats stereotypes, and is clearly not there as a sex object. Indeed one of my favourite bits of the game is when she tells off a young man for his rather uncouth and cackhanded attempts at flirting with her. Her clothing is quite realistic and appropriate to what she’s doing: her beige jacket and jeans are quite functional for all the running, jumping and climbing she has to do, in places ranging from old factories to decaying universities to creaking cosmodromes.
Lots and lots and lots of running. This is probably one of the game’s most significant faults as well; travel is, at times, inefficient and tedious. It takes a while for Kate to run from one screen to the next and sometimes there are several strewn about between one point of interest and the next. Most contain little of value in terms of gameplay. I will credit the scenes for their beauty, however. Most are like paintings that our intrepid heroine is jogging through and are worth seeing. But worth seeing the number of times she has to pass through them? Perhaps less so. That’s one of the few gameplay complaints, however, and even this in truth is not too terribly annoying.
To return to Kate’s character she feels quite realistic and intriguing- never quiet, meek, or small, never preening or objectified. She gets the job done and is quite clearly shown as being able to stand up for herself. Over the course of the story, while she begins as a strong and forthright person, she grows more into independence and begins to militate against the excesses in her life back home in New York. It is hard not to feel some pride in that as each advance you make with her in the game brings her closer not only to Hans Voralberg but to her own independence.
This is a game worth playing through at least once if you can deal with the over-small resolution.
The Greatest Adventure
For both its gameplay and its politics I give it high marks. Kate Walker is, I feel, a memorable woman character who also has the benefit of being role-model material. She has the look and wit of a compelling action-adventure hero who doesn’t need to prove herself by making everything she touches explode in a mushroom cloud.
The game’s ending leaves one hungering for more, even if it is emotionally satisfying on one level. Fortunately, there is a sequel, which I’ll be playing soon. It’s also not without its flaws in story and characterisation: one unavoidable decision Walker makes late in the game is so obviously an ill-advised one that I cannot help but see it as a poorly disguised plot contrivance. But even so, it does not- in my view- seriously disrupt the virtues of Walker as a character.
It is certainly worth the pittance it now costs on Steam; there is something oddly creative about the setting, a Europe just beyond the mists of that continent’s mountains, seemingly out of time and out of space. A magical steampunk railroad is what carries Kate from the cosmopolitan and sterile heart of an upper-class world to a strange and endearing world where she finds truths about herself. From charming Alpine Valedilene to the steel ruins of Komkolzgrad that echo with the dissonant metal symphony of dead industry, it’s an interesting game to romp through.
This is a story about finding a lost genius, yes, but like some of the best stories it sees its protagonist finding herself as well. Stories about women that are not mired beneath layers of objectification and stereotypes remain all too rare. Beyond this, it is also rare to find an RPG these days that does not make mortal combat its bread and butter. Adventure games were always a relief from this, and Syberia provides a very good opportunity (albeit one with a clunky interface) to relive the joy of looking around every corner and knowing that death does not await. Only more adventure.