Mini-Review: Syberia

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Syberia has been sitting on my shelf for months and months. People have recommended it, and now I hear there's a sequel, so I took a few days and played it.

Syberia does some things right and some things wrong. The parts it has right are quiet, smooth, unobtrusively right. The parts it has wrong are blatant, exasperating, annoyingly wrong. I could easily have written a microreview saying "Syberia sucks. I gotta go." But, no, that would be unfair.

Your name is Kate Walker. (If you've played Syberia, you know whose voice said that.) You're a lawyer, and you're in the tiny French mountain town of Valadilene. You're supposed to be negotiating the sale of the Voralberg toy factory -- Valadilene makes the best clockwork toys and automatons in the world. All you have to do is find the owner and get her to sign the contract.

From there, the story goes on. Eventually mammoths come into it. I admit that I can't say no to mammoths.

What's good? The art is fantastic. If I were writing a full-on review, this would be "Graphics: excellent. Atmosphere: extraordinary." The game is arranged in chapters -- four locales, as you make your way across Europe -- and each locale is wonderfully distinct and alive. The visual styles are eloquent: not just of four towns, but of an earlier era. As if time had drifted past these tiny European backwaters, leaving them as tiny and essential moments of the past. Valadilene is all flowing Art Deco curves; Komkolzgrad is angular rusted steel and towering worker-hero statues. The 1920s, 30s, 40s. Somehow the game conveys both the living presence of these places, and the fact that they are fading remnants in a soulless modern world; they are exactly balanced between fairy-tale exaggeration and absurdity. Do I burble? Well then, I do burble. Syberia has the best-laid setting of any game I've played in years. Not the prettiest, but the most skillful.

You know what else is good? The interaction. The puzzles -- the actions you have to take to move through the plot -- are seamlessly integrated into the world. You bounce back and forth from characters (who you talk to), to automatons (which you repair and manipulate, and occasionally talk to), back to characters (to give them items or ask them questions)... Sometimes pre-scripted events or conversations popped up, to forward the plot; but I never felt I was being dragged into plot events. They were always under my control. I was always the actor, not the spectator. Contrariwise, when a routine or familiar action was required -- later in the game -- I never felt bored. The game would either walk me through it, liven it up with an unexpected twist, or just skip it entirely (and fade to the next interesting scene).

(If there's a flaw in the plotting, it's that the author loves frustration. Over and over, you get close to a goal, only to have it snatched away. Often with the same goal, several snatchings in a row. If it happened about a third as often, I wouldn't complain. Oh, and you spend much too much time running. And climbing stairs. Slow, slow stair-climbing. Ack.)

I won't claim that everything that happened in Syberia was utterly believable. Some events had a tinge of the awkward and arbitrary. But nothing was blatantly unfit, and the whole had a mildly absurd integrity which fit in with the fairy-tale settings.

I want to stress how skillfully the gameplay was laid out, because the other thing about all these puzzles and interactions was this: they were all obvious. I mean, trivial. The tasks are right in front on you, and they're easy. There may be things you can't do yet, but you're never uncertain what you ought to do next.

I can think of about three tasks in Syberia that actually require some thought. (And one of those seems to be missing clues: thought didn't help, and I solved it by trying every possibility.) The vast majority of the game has "puzzles" only in the sense that you have to take an object from point A to point B, or tell a fact learned from person C to person D. It's interaction, and it provides pacing, but it's only barely over the line from an "interactive movie" like Gadget.

I can already hear the game-playing masses crying out, "You can't have it both ways! If the tasks were difficult, they wouldn't be smooth and well-integrated! If the story is well-paced and makes sense, then the story events can't be challenging!"

And that's nonsense. I don't believe it. What I find most disappointing about Syberia is that this very excellent sense of interactive storytelling could have gone into a really satisfying game. Instead, it went into a game where there's nothing to play with; not much to realize; no opportunity to discover-by-messing-with-the-pieces. All these lovely automatons, and the closest we get to a mechanical puzzle is: "put four gears into four slots and I won't let you make a mistake."

And the other thing I find disappointing is, it's a lousy story. Kate Walker moves from... well, from point A to point B. She learns a great deal about the history of the Voralberg family -- but it's not interesting history. She keeps getting phone calls from her family and friends at home, and these provide elegantly paced updates in a soap opera which is as dull and superficial as soap. Individual events are colorful, but they don't stick together. These characters have no force. They change, but for no reason. The storyline has zero resonance. As far as I can tell, the entire narrative in the author's mind was "Let's have some mysteriousness, with mammoths." And, you know, I can't say no to mammoths; but I wish something had happened.

Yes, I know there's a sequel. It's no excuse. The first part of a duology or trilogy must make me want to buy the rest. Syberia doesn't.

I suppose it could be the translation. No, I don't suppose that. I can't imagine what alternate words would be powerful enough to make this a great story. It's not the acting -- there is some stunningly poor voice-acting in Syberia, though the main characters are competent -- at any rate, the actors just had nothing to work with. The most believable characters are the robot and the brain-damaged kid. If you want to draw a conclusion from that, I'll be right with you.

I could go down the rest of my list of notes... but then this would be a full review, and I'd have to stick the ratings on top. I shall not. Take these as consolation:

And finally... having finished this review, I re-read my 1999 review of Amerzone. That game was also by Benoît Sokal, and has some ties to Syberia, although the stories are completely separate.

And it seems that I had exactly the same complaints about Amerzone as I have about Syberia. Conclusion: seems that Sokal has improved his gameplay and his puzzle presentation, but his idea of an interesting game is far, far distant from mine.

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