Thursday, 2 December 2010

Review: The Trial

When Franz Kafka released The Trial in 1925, computers did not exist. It might take a moment for that to settle in: no YouTube, no Wikipedia, no email. Even the word processor was an invisible speck on the horizon of the future. Given all that, it’s unsurprising that he never quite got around to finishing the book. It’s a wonder he ever got started. Nevertheless, The Trial has done very nicely for itself, and now it’s finally received the greatest accolade available to any narrative artefact: a videogame adaptation.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Od, the studio behind such esoteric releases as Trigger Toe and The Lonely Berserker, has created what they call a “hyper-version” of the classic novel, an “exploding of Kafka’s brain-world, cut out of time and digitised for a generation of people who find books too heavy to enjoy.” The original plot has been ditched in favour of a multi-stranded narrative, although the strands converge at numerous key points. In fact, they barely diverge to begin with: no matter what you attempt to do, you invariably find yourself performing the same actions again and again. The clever part is how the game makes you feel that this is entirely natural, that your freely made decisions lead inevitably to the same conclusion.

In one sequence, you have the option of calling on a young lady who lives in the apartment opposite your own. It’s late at night, so there’s a chance that she’ll resent the disturbance, but it’s also possible that she’ll fall madly in love with you. Brilliantly, the game ensures, through subtle sleights of hand, that both outcomes occur every time. You have the thrill of making a new romantic contact, coupled with the pathos of immediately severing it. Similar events occur throughout, with the result that every possible permutation of human experience is condensed into 30 hours of playing time. This is one game that represents definite value for money.

There are, however, a few areas in which the good people at Od take avant-garde game design too far. Most notably, there’s a sequence that occurs in total darkness: the player has to navigate a labyrinthine office building by feel alone, responding to the vibrations of the controller pad. Although this is a nice existential touch in theory, it’s marred by the fact that it takes about 40 minutes to complete, during which time dozens of anonymous characters interrogate the player about the most mundane of his daily habits. Scrolling through dialogue options like “Why, I bathe every day without fail. Good hygiene is essential in the modern world” gets tedious pretty quickly, especially when each one provokes the same response: “The judge will be very glad to hear that, or perhaps he’ll hold it against you. One can’t be sure.”

Other aspects of the gameplay are equally frustrating. The controls are occasionally re-mapped without warning, sometimes at incredibly inopportune moments, such as when the player is standing by an open window. For a game with no enemies, in which the most hazardous feature of the environment is a balcony with a broken guardrail, The Trial has an exceptionally high mortality rate. (It’s actually impossible to play it through without dying at least once.) And if you’re thinking “Good, I like a challenge,” think again: the arbitrary nature of each death means that you never get to learn from your mistakes.

Despite these problems, The Trial is ultimately a success. It’s worth sampling just for the queasy, claustrophobic atmosphere that permeates its every scene. Silent Hill might be scarier, but then it has the advantage of being populated with disembodied legs and pyramid-headed rape monsters. The most frightening character in The Trial, by contrast, is a dwarfish court clerk with psoriasis (whatever you do, don’t agree to bathe with him).

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