Siberia Has No Y

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.


Beautiful. Having never played Syberia, I wonder what part of this narrative is choice and what isn't. Perhaps the developers felt the heroine need to be a blank upon which all our emotions and thoughts are projected. The filmmaker in me wonders how to stage this important event, and I have pictured in my mind 2 possible versions of Syberia:

a) You encounter the automation, and are given a choice of reacting negatively, positively, perhaps manipulatively, even protectively. What emotions might we offer the player, and why?

b) You encounter the automation, and your character reacts instinctively with shock and bewilderment. She instills all the emotion you had hoped for and more. To me this seems more powerful, since you still must deal with this new element, but also have clear drive from your character. Yet the player might have an opposite reaction from the character's and thus be turned off as you were.

The point in which you offer choice is as crutial as the choices you offer. A tangent to your ideas, lobo. This is one of your best pieces, btw.

I haven't played Syberia also, but I can totally imagine the destruction of immersion and tension when a lead character reacts the way you don't expect it.

That is one of the better things with Prey I thought, that, especially for a FPS, the lead character reacted in quite a believable way. Allthough I don't think I would be picking up alien weaponry with such ease.

Good piece, I hope some game developers will read this too. It could greatly enhance there game.

So what you're saying is, even Syberia goes through the motions.

I'd also like to point out that the game designer is French, therefore the disinterested, disconnected-from-reality reaction is, quite frankly, 100% accurate in the eyes of the maker.

I think Souldaddy brings touched on some good points. The development and reactions of the lead character which occur outside of the player's control might seem to turn a game player into a mere spectator. I would bet that writers for adventure games and RPGs have a very difficult time balancing the player's autonomy and good narrative structure.

In this case, it sounds like the lead character has been developed and characterized so much already that the player isn't really expecting to "be" the character, but rather to lead her along solving puzzles.

Lobo, you always seem to steal ideas right out of my head and then write them better than I can. It's really not fair. Well, I wasn't thinking about Syberia, I was thinking about Myst, but the question remains the same: the "what" of the story vs. the "how".

It's extremely rare occurance for me to get sucked into the story of a game. Story ends up being the background for a game much more often. Oblivion is a case in point--none of us would be hooked if the actual experience of playing the game wasn't fun. The story just isn't compelling enough.

But I do think Myst is an interest test point on this. The story (which, i would argue separetly, is unique, original, and compelling in its own right) is far less important than the narrative, but with out the story, the narrative would have nothing to build around. I pretty much decided to marry my wife after she spent two days straight playing myst on my old Mac. She cared less about the puzzles (and asked for solutions anytime something stood in her way). But she just loved the way the story unfolded, how it all pieced together. I think part of the reason for that titles success was precisely this.

(Myst-bashers may now descend, pattern is empty.)

*Legion* wrote:

So what you're saying is, even Syberia goes through the motions.

Sing, bird of prey.

Gaming is in a pretty sad state, really. Even the absolute best games have to offer in terms of artful, meaningful storytelling doesn't begin measure up to what can be found in abundance in other media. So when something halfway decent comes along, like Syberia, we heap praise upon it like it's some kind of masterpiece.

Sadly, most of the stories told in games are very poor, or as you describe here, very poorly told. I think gamers put up with it (and developers get away with it) because interactive virtual worlds are so compelling in and of themselves. For a while, anyway. Anyone who plays games long enough will probably grow impatient and unimpressed by their failure to live up to their potential as vehicles for powerful, compelling experiences. I know I'm plenty cranky about it.

The Fly wrote:

Gaming is in a pretty sad state, really.

... in terms of storytelling.

Staats wrote:
The Fly wrote:

Gaming is in a pretty sad state, really.

... in terms of storytelling.

I agree. As a storytelling medium.. yes.. as a medium based on experiences which are hard to put into words, no.

Staats wrote:
The Fly wrote:

Gaming is in a pretty sad state, really.

... in terms of storytelling.

Well we have to think about the roots of popular gaming, which is essentially sport. Does soccer have a good back story? Does golf have an intriguing narrative that explains the actions taken during its play. No, it doesn't, and it's kind of silly to think about it that way.

On the other hand you have the less popular side of gaming that births games like Myst, and Escape from Monkey Island, and Syberia. These come from a literature base rather than a competition base. So when these games break down and don't follow through with the narrative frankly it's completely inexcusable.

For a game like Syberia to falter on its story telling is the same as a game like Rainbow Six 3 to falter on it's controls. They both detract a key element from the gaming experience which is immersion. You can only fool your brain so long into caring more about the virtual than the actual, and, every time a game fails in one of its basic necessities then they let your attention start to slip like sand out of their fingers. After a while whether the other parts of the game are done well or not, you will lose interest and the game will have been a failure.

hmm.. I don't agree. I understand that 'you' (the player) are not provided with a reaction fitting to 'your' world, but the reaction which is provided is all about the character in the game, and not about 'you'. Kate is the model of a modern gal (and, as someone pointed out, a modern french gal): nothing shocks or surprises her. She lives in a cacoon of near sensory deprivation. She has her marching orders, and she marches along to them. She is in fact the automaton, and her surprise and sense of wonder slowly emerge only over the course of the game. It would completely ruin the character's arc if she got all starry eyed and excitable at first contact. In her state of deep repression, she is incapable of even experiencing the wonder that envelops her. I think you are meant to feel the way you felt, but that feeling is then meant to be an impetus for you to keep playing--to keep unraveling this puzzle that is kate. Why doesn't she react? Why doesn't she find this all so strange and startling?

because automaton's don't have emotional reactions. during the course of the game, you make the main character human. Now that's a good puzzle! Welcome, Gepetto, to microids new world of gaming!

or not.

Excellent post dasmo, i think that is a pretty good description of how character arcs can be applied. It's one of the main story-telling gismos that hollywood uses all the time. Characters usually become polar opposites of themselves in the start of the movie or at least grow towards that which they are not a part of.


That's certainly a plausible interpretation of Kate's character, dasmo. Far be it from me to tell you that you're wrong. I personally, however, fail to detect much evidence in support of that view. I think that nowhere in Kate's history as an urbanite, corporate lawyer could she have ever become desensitized to the effects of sentient, humanoid machines. And I certainly don't agree that the arc of her character would have been "ruined" had she acted surprised by the incredible things that she sees. As I claimed in the article, the theme of the hero having been thrust into a strange new environment is well established in myth and literature, and in virtually every other respect of its plot, the game makes pretense to upholding that theme. Kate's behavior is therefore not only at odds with the player's expectations, but also with the very narrative premise of the game.

It is quite possible, as you say, that the designers actually intended for the player to become puzzled at Kate's odd behavior (as opposed to their having succumbed to narrative ineptitude, which is my position). If that was their intent, then I think that intent was misplaced. Those who would seek to toy with narrative structure should always remember that incoherence is no substitute for depth; mere confusion no substitute for mystery.

Again, let me stress that this is my interpretation, and I'm not at all seeking to trample over yours.

This was quite a fascinating read, both the article and the comments (sorry, I'm new here and not used to intelligent conversation on a gaming site.) I finished both Syberia games (though the second one was a chore in the latter half) and while I did very much enjoy the story, I definitely agree with how you thought it was poorly told, particularly from an emotional standpoint. It does seem very inaccurate that a character like Kate who has never seen some of the things she experiences in Valadilene would act so blandly so such shocking things as the discovery of Oscar. I'm not sure if this was due to poor direction or something else because clearly, most of the game's actors were very talented and certainly capable of demonstrating such strong emotion.

I'm actually finding much more engaging storytelling in Dreamfall which I started last night. The characters definitely seem to have more developed personalities and are more emotionally attached to the circumstances which they are experiencing. Benoit Sokal (the mind behind Syberia) has recently released Paradise which looks to be in the same vein of playability that Syberia was, but with a unique storyline. It's down to $29.99 at Future Shop so I may pick it up and give it a try. I'm hoping that it was Microids who were responsible for the emotionally detached characters and that it wasn't a result of Benoit Sokal's direction. It's tough to find a good adventure game these days.

Hi Lobo--

well, yes, I am certainly filling in some gaps left by the manufacturers in the roll-out of kate 1.0! but i'm not claiming she would have experienced things like this before. Quite the opposite. I read her as the postmodern hero, incapable of actual contact with the world due to years of ironic detachment. Thus her lack of surprise signals her predicament; and her inability to leave well-enough alone, her tragic flaw. She could have remained happily floating in her emotionless world, but by pursuing that wisp of novelty--despite her initial failure to react to it--she is broken. and through the crack creeps the Real. of course, this reality ain't so real either, so perhaps she's just gone mad! but then that trope of enlightenment/madness runs through most adventure games (dreamfall/longest journey in particular). and art in general.

and i'm not sure that the fault lies solely with the writing. The voice actor must also bring something to the table. And in this situation, the voice-actor most certainly seems to have simply deadpanned her way through it, without having explored why her character was reacting in such a manner. Have you played 'prey'? I know you may not have the pc to run it, and it is a completely different kind of game, but it's a great example of the exact opposite kind of voice-narrator. He reacts to everything, and his audible reactions are heartfelt. makes sense, as it's an fps, where you are meant to become the character. In adventure games, i'm not sure this is at all the goal. so i'm back at my initial proposition: a good part of adventure gaming is the puzzle of the main character herself (or himself. look at the strong and sometimes inscrutable personalities in the broken sword series).

I'll go home and boot it up again. perhaps you are right, but I prefer my fantasy!
thanks for replying.

Excellent point about the importance of a good voice actor, dasmo. With the prevalence of digitized speech in adventure games these days, voice acting has become just as important to a game's success as any other element, including writing. I think you're right, the voice acting was definitely a factor in my opinion of that scene in Syberia.

My PC can't run Prey, but I do hope to play it some day.

Welcome (dasmo, Duoae, Parallax Abstraction) to GWJ!

Thanks Lobo. I have to say that the voice acting is one thing that really brings Dreamfall to life in addition to the great story and dialogue. Despite really having enjoyed Syberia, I do agree that with better acting (or perhaps better voice direction), Kate Walker would have really easier to connect with. I am really anxious to try out Paradise and see if Benoit Sokal has managed to correct these shortcomings. I get the impression from other Microids games I tried before they went under that perhaps it was their production values that made Kate Walker's voice acting a bit flat.

I haven't played Dreamfall, PA, but I adore its predecessor, The Longest Journey, which to my mind has some of the best voice acting of any game ever made. I'm glad to hear that its sequel excels in that regard, too.

Lobo, I don't mean to sound crass but I hope that your lack of new technology goes on for a little longer before you have finished perusing the remains of your old game collection. You are kind of like a ghost of Christmas past reminding us of days gone by. The historian of GWJ.

Always reminding us of where we come from so we can understand better where we are going.

Lobo wrote:

I haven't played Dreamfall, PA, but I adore its predecessor, The Longest Journey, which to my mind has some of the best voice acting of any game ever made. I'm glad to hear that its sequel excels in that regard, too.

The original Longest Journey still ranks as my favourite game of all time. And with how many games I've played and how many of them haven't been in this genre, that's saying something. Sarah Hamilton, the person who voiced April Ryan in the original is supposed to be back playing the same character in a different setting this time, but she doesn't sound the same to me. Maybe I just haven't played the original in long enough that I don't remember what she sounds like, but I'm positive she sounds like a different person. Dreamfall definitely feels more simplified in terms of how it does lead you to your next objective more than Longest Journey did and while I haven't run into too many puzzles yet, I hear they are much easier than the mind-melters in the previous game. But as these games are more about advanced storytelling, none of these tend to bother me much as long as I can feel emotionally involved with the characters. And Ragnar Tornquist is the unquestioned master of accomplishing that for me.

Thanks Lobo, i have to admit that i find your questioning and intelligent pieces to be my main attraction to this site.

Unfortunately i'm not much of an adventure gamer having never actually completed one - almost complete Monkey Island 2 on easy! - but i do/have owned a lot and played a great many more. I just lack the mental agility to navigate and persevere with these games.... plus i don't cheat so that doesn't help.

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