Upon its release in 2002, the PC adventure game Syberia, developed by Microids and published by The Adventure Company, garnered immediate and unrestrained praise. GameSpot's Scott Osborne regarded it as "an adventure-game tour de force," saying that its "melancholy story feels unusually rich, a true cut above the stories in most other games of this sort." GameSpy's Carla Harker described its story as "hauntingly sad." Ray Ivey wrote for Just Adventure that "the entire story of the game is drenched in a sense of sorrow and regret," and Bob Freese, writing for the same publication, exclaimed in bold face, "This is, without question, the finest PC game I have ever played."
They're right about Syberia's story (or plot, if you prefer). It's pure sterling. But it's always a good idea to differentiate between story and narrative, the latter consisting of how the story is told. Very few reviewers bothered to pick at Syberia's narrative chinks--a state of affairs which I would now like to rectify.
Syberia's protagonist is one Kate Walker, a lovely, big-city lawyer under the employ of a multinational toy company. That company has just agreed to buy out a tiny French toy factory that specializes in crafting intricate, wind-up automatons, and Kate must fly to the picturesque village of Valadilene to seal the deal on behalf of her employers. Already we may detect some of the game's more prominent themes: big versus small business; city versus country life; American enterprise versus French tradition. These elements by themselves ensure a story more interesting than almost any other game's, of which the vast majority never aspire to anything beyond good versus evil. But for that story to take root in the player's mind, it must be fixated through narrative about interesting, believable characters; and it is with regard to its characterization that Syberia suffers.
Soon after her arrival in Valadilene, Kate learns that Anna Voralberg, the woman who owned the automaton factory, has just passed away. This complicates the acquisition, and Kate is obliged to remain in Valadilene longer than expected, much to the consternation of her oppressive boyfriend back home. In an effort to learn more about the French toy-maker, Kate enters and explores the deserted grounds of the factory building. She marvels at the elaborate banks of outmoded machinery, each as quaint and charming as the rest of Valadilene. She wishes she could see the assembly lines in action and hear the bustle of artisans at their craft, but right now the factory is still and gloomy, and the only sounds she detects are her own footsteps upon the concrete floor. There's a darkened room in the back of the factory. Kate steps through the doorway, her heart aflutter. What is this place? It's . . . a workshop. And there, hanging from a chain, is a life-size automaton--which talks! It's intelligent. It's conscious. It calls itself Oscar, and it wants to know my name. It expresses bafflement at the metaphysics of death. Oh dear Lord Jesus, this ain't happening, man! This can't be happening, man! This isn't happening!
At least, that's what she should be thinking. But in the game, Kate reacts not with panic, nor even genuine surprise, but with something closer to idle amusement; as though, instead of speaking to a sentient android straight out of a sci-fi yarn, she were instead speaking to an adorable child impersonating the same. In spite of her education, she's totally blasé about the extraordinary piece of technology (magic?) that hangs before her.
In a different story, that kind of reaction would be perfectly acceptable. But one of the ostensible themes of Syberia is that of the hero displaced. Removed from her homeland and everything she considers normal (and indeed, everything that we, the gamers, consider normal), Kate must struggle to adapt to her new and radically changed environment. Although she uses her cellphone to maintain some tenuous contact with her friends, family, and boss back home, her relationship with them transforms greatly as she plunges ever deeper into the mysteries of Valadilene (and eventually elsewhere, too, including the semi-titular Siberia). Like every single hero before her, at the outset of her quest she crosses an important threshold which cannot be recrossed by any means--at least, not under the auspices of a cohesive narrative.
When Kate reacts (or rather, fails to react) to the android, the narrative structure of the game is perforated, and much of the magic escapes. Through simple clumsiness, what should have been a cornerstone scene of initial shock and bewilderment, serving to set up the rest of the adventure, instead enervates the game. In effect, this is the difference between an impassioned "This can't be happening, man!" and a blithe "Huh, that's pretty neat." The one is distressed and affecting; the other is routine and boring. As good as Syberia's underlying plot is, the designers' butterfingered implementation thereof is fatal to the game's sense of dramatic urgency. How sad that such basic narrative shortcomings should hamper what is otherwise a complex, artful game.
I don't like to compare story-oriented games to novels, movies, or other narrative media, because I know that games can equal or even surpass surpass these in some respects, and to engage constantly in comparisons smacks of desperation. But as my interest in games seems to wane in the face of life's myriad challenges, I cannot help but grow ever more desperate, and so the comparisons seem apt. Games have had their high points--and oh, how inestimably high they have occasionally reached!--but when I see even the most lauded of games faltering with regard to elementary narrative structure, I fear the bleak lands for which we're headed, even as I look longingly on the isolated achievements of the past.
Writers, designers, all creative minds: If you're going to include a story with your game, pour your hearts into it, for once. Learn what it means to shed blood and tears in the name of poetry. Anything less will only exacerbate the situation.