The Intentional Ambiguity of Kairo

The following is a guest post from Michelle Ealey:

Michelle Ealey is a freelance writer and part-time science teacher. She enjoys science fiction and fantasy books, movies, and television, and she’s been playing all sorts of games since she was a kid. Her work has appeared on various places on the internet, including her own site. You can follow her on Twitter at your own risk.

A screenshot from Kairo.  A scene in purple hue without an living things, a hallow pillar with rings going upward on a base with stairs.

After my first playthrough of Kairo, I was frustrated. I didn’t get it; I really didn’t know what had happened and why. A few days passed, and I decided to play it again. Kairo, the new game by Richard Perrin, is minimalistic; it is stripped of the decorum most other games have. The game has no voiceover, no enemies, no dialogue, no text to read, and no wise NPC to guide you on your way. The game starts with you on a stone chair, a chair that could also be called a throne. The landscape is a vast expanse of white punctured by gray structures. How you have gotten to this world isn’t clear. You could sit on the throne for hours if you wanted. There is no urgent stimulus or a clear plot point forcing you forward. Eventually you will want to venture forth because you are pulled by the need to know, by the primal urge to understand what is going on.

Even after playing the game twice, I still can’t tell you what the story of Kairo is because I am not sure if my interpretation is “correct.” In the game, all you have is your intellect as you wonder through the environment and solve puzzles in order to unravel the mysteries of the world. The order you visit the rooms, the time you linger in the environment, and how closely you listen to the audio all influence how you construct the story. This openness can lead to multiple interpretations, and I wondered if the ambiguity was intentional. Curious, I contacted Perrin, and we discussed the game via email.

During the initial stages, Kairo had less “sign posting” than the game has now. “You want the environment to give the players enough subtle hints what they should be doing without completely handing it to them,” Perrin said. “In the early days I gave players almost nothing and people just weren’t quite connecting with the world because they didn’t feel like they were accomplishing anything. That’s why when you fix machines now a HUD element appears; it’s just to reinforce a sense of progress.” Perrin also included a hint system, but the hints only help players solve the puzzles, not to understand the story.

The ambiguity in the game is on purpose. “The obvious danger of being so obtuse is that not all players are going to understand the story, but I just decided that was a risk I was willing to take. Hopefully players will still have enjoyed their time exploring the world and solving puzzles.”

Puzzles are what you mostly interact with in the game. The lack of interacting with other characters and the absence of life filled me with dread during my first playthrough. Sometimes, for me, loneliness can be terrifying. Searching for others, even enemies, can be unsettling. These feelings lead me to suspect Kairo was a horror story. While Perrin did not want to discuss details about the story, he did tell me that he doesn’t view Kairo as a horror game “because at its heart the game is about hope not fear. However, I wanted the places you found in the game to be really varied so many of them were intended to be sinister. I wanted the players to go on this roller-coaster from finding some places awe inspiring to others feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortable.”

Part of the reason I had such a personal response is the POV. Kairo has a true first person POV, and this perspective personalizes the experience, making it an intimate interaction between the player and the game. A true first person POV is one where you really are part of the game. In Kairo, you don’t see who or what you play as. There are no mirrors, and you don’t see any part of the body. Do you even have a body? Are you even human? These fundamental questions, ones about your identity, are part of the game’s mysteries, mysteries you also try to solve while playing the game.

Perrin designed the game’s POV to elicit this type of reaction. The first person POV “was an easy call because it just solves so many problems, way more than it creates. The game is initially meant to be very confusing to the player and that perspective denies you any context, you don’t even know if you’re human. It helps maintain the immersion at all times because although I disabled player control a few times I never jump away to cutscenes. It also allows me to side step any issue with gender or race because you are whoever you are, I don’t force anything upon you. Finally it just perfectly fits with the minimalistic feel of the rest of the game.”

Kairo’s minimalism made me realize during my second playthrough that all of the pieces to the story were there because each area is carefully designed to show what the world is about. The world of Kairo has seen better days; walls are cracked, columns have fallen, and statues are broken. Solving puzzles brings the machines back to life. You are surrounded by artificiality; everything is constructed, and nothing is organic. Water does flow, but only to serve the machines. You don’t eat, you don’t drink, and you don’t sleep. You walk, you solve a puzzle, you observe, and you continue on. Collecting the pieces and assembling the story was the thrust of the game. After playing a multitude of games that had cutscenes or a long voiceover explaining everything, I had to readjust my way of thinking and my approach to this game. The game makes you work at understanding its language; you have to use every piece the game gives you in order to discover the story.

A major piece the game gives you is its audio. Audio cues guide your progress during solving puzzles. Sometimes you hear whispers as you travel through the world. The main contributor to communicating the mood of the game, in establishing the atmosphere, is the soundtrack. Bartosz Szturgiewicz, also known as Wounds, composed the soundtrack. Wounds, who is from Poland, got the job after sending Perrin his portfolio by email. I discussed the process of creating the soundtrack with Wounds by email. Wounds’ music is electronic, and he brought those skills to the soundtrack. “Most of the sounds are synthesizers, both normal and grain plus a lot of reverb,” Wounds told me about the tracks. “Some, as in ‘Underground Orchestra’ use samples but I tried to make the sound weird and out-worldly. In ‘UO’ I used two or three guitar chord samples, stretched and reversed them and played with the pitch. I really love how they sound, so I made two tracks based on them.”

I asked Wounds if he knew the game’s story. “Nope, I have no idea about the story.” Instead of creating music in response to the story, Wounds’ haunting and ethereal soundtrack centers on his reaction to the setting. “Kairo is a game with a, let’s say, ambient story where bits and pieces are tucked away somewhere so I didn’t focus on that. The thing that you see, the places you explore and the feelings they somehow give you is what I was working on so my soundtrack can be labeled as very subjective. I simply booted up the game, wondered around a bit, contemplated what I saw and what I felt and then just try to convey the feelings into music. It came very natural so I was rather surprised when Richard okay-ed almost all of the sounds. When I stepped into Kairo, the full Kairo, after the release I felt weird. The music fitted but, somehow, it stopped feeling ‘mine.’ It was in symbiosis with the world Richard created and in a very natural way belonged to it. That’s a wonderful feeling I tell you. Very weird, but wonderful.”

I was curious if Perrin was disappointed that Wounds composed the soundtrack based on his reactions to the atmosphere of the world and not the story. “This was pretty much how I wanted the game to be,” Perrin replied. “I wanted the music to complement the feel you get from walking around the rooms and I knew Bartosz could do a great job of pulling that off. The story in Kairo is told so gently with the things you find that I didn’t want the music to push that kind of aspect of it. If the game had cutscenes that really focused on the narrative I’d have approached it differently.”

Before playing Kairo for the first time, I played a string of games with linear storylines that grabbed my hand and ushered me through the one clear and obvious path. To appreciate Kairo I had to let go of my expectations of a scripted experience; this freed me and transformed my frustration into fascination. I allowed myself to patiently explore each corner and crevice, slowly navigating my way through the world; I even spent almost thirty minutes just playing around in the Star Lab. Kairo’s story is intentionally ambiguous, and the game is better because of this. The strength of the game is how it challenges players to do more than rush through. Kairo encourages exploration and observation; it wants player to create their own interpretation of their experiences. Will I ever know the “correct” version of the story? Probably not, and that’s fine.

How does Perrin feel if players don’t discover his version of Kairo’s story? “I won’t be disappointed by people interpreting the game differently to how I had intended. If it was really critical to me that people understand the story exactly how I wanted then I’d have been more explicit in my style of narrative. There’s a lot of fun to be had in trying to put the puzzle pieces I’ve left together in your own way and seeing how well they fit.”

Kairo is available to purchase on Perrin’s website and Desura; the game is going through the Steam Greenlight process. The soundtrack and other work by Wounds is available on his Bandcamp page.

3 thoughts on “The Intentional Ambiguity of Kairo”

  1. Went in to vote for the greenlight, despite having already bought Kairo, in the faint hope that the development of Steam Linux will somehow eventually cause me to be able to run Kairo in my #! boot.

    I love how you manage to write this long and informative a review without spoilering anything more than the most obvious part of the very first map!

    1. Thank you. Perrin plans on an iOS release as well. Maybe that will help the game as well. I hope it gets on Steam soon.

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