Richard & Alice Review: One small spark
She is adrift in a world of white. What was once a dazzling rarity has become an unending hell; snow is everywhere. It assaults her vision, and her eyes wince, reluctant to see it again. It envelops her body in a coat of unseen needles, and her extremities cry out in rejection, already darkened by its touch. It drains her, attacks her, as it does the world. A world of cities, now graveyards, pockmarked by homes just as empty. A world driven to chaos, devoid of the bygone novelties of wrong and right. Living? Living is survival, nothing more than hollow procrastination. She lives an unwinnable race against the white. Always the fucking white.
You smash every object you’re currently carrying into the door in front of you in the hopes that a newspaper, diary, cooking tray and ladder will somehow convince it to let you pass.
There’s a bit of disconnect there, don’t you think? Indeed, that’s the sticking point with Richard & Alice, one of developer Owl Cave’s many adventure games. The point-and-click adventure genre is a fine platform for narrative, certainly, but there’s just something awkward about punctuating every twist, turn and tear-jerker with comparably monotonous experimentation, the aforementioned “click everything with everything” moments. Fortunately this is a minor grievance, in a sense one of the genre’s charms, and one handily upstaged by the story that guides the game.
Adventure games are in many ways simple; anyone can beat one given enough time. Collect as many things as you can, combine them, click them about, and you’ll progress at some point. Logic puzzles aside, there are no mechanics to sink your teeth into, no adrenaline-pumping challenges or boss fights to keep you coming back. Adventure games live or die by their script. That’s what makes them powerful.
Richard & Alice is set in a world ravaged by a veritable second ice age, in which our titular protagonists find themselves imprisoned underground. Funnily enough, imprisonment is a blessing. Those up above serve as the rope in a vicious bout of tug-of-war waged between warring gangs and the government’s remnants. Down here, at least, Richard and Alice have food, a bed, utilities, and most importantly, a thermostat.
The surface is less inviting. Refugees pepper the landscape while gangs like the Polar Bears hole up, but everyone competes for entry into the idyllic Zones. Zones are safe, warm, and the last remaining solace for a frozen people. They are the cities on hills to which everyone looks for comfort and leadership, but often in vain. Richard and Alice are proof of that.
What was that? Comfort? Where?
Richard had a family before the weather went south; Alice, a husband, and a son, Barney. However, the game is divided only between the pair’s current prison escapades and Alice’s relation of her past. Richard is met first, but brought to life through exposition rather than gameplay.
So it’s Alice who’ll be doing most of the sporadic clicking here, never deviating from the tried-and-true formula. Find an item, examine it, and stuff it in your bottomless inventory for future use or reference. All the pointing and clicking is nothing more than a crude but effective means of allowing you to interact with the world.
Effective, however, does not equal pretty, and flaws don’t do gameplay the same favors that they do characters. The logic at play in the game’s ostensibly logical puzzles ranges from passable to patently absurd. Like many adventure games, Richard & Alice is prone to fits of JSHS, better known as Just So Happens Syndrome. Avoiding spoilers as best I can, I can say that, at one point in the game, there just so happens to be a can of rust removal spray frozen in a trash can, which you can now unfreeze thanks to the electric lighter you just so happened to find 12 yards away, which just so happens to be exactly what you need to repair your ladder. The logic in the motion is fine—fire melts ice, rust removal spray… removes rust—but it’s a slap in the face with a glove branded contrived.
You can't make this up. Well, I can't. Someone apparently did.
The more offending bits are moments where random items come together in ridiculous ways—a problem exacerbated by convoluted procedures requiring one step of the inane puzzle to be completed first. Case and point: I cannot crack these shotgun shells open with this vice until I knock over a statue of Mary in the nearby church, and I only know to do that after I find the cooking tray to collect the gunpowder.
Several of the puzzles are absolute basket cases while many more are just the next round of Clickmania 2014. Now, I could continue deriding the game’s oversights before I get to its overpowering strength… so I will.
It treats its soundscape like it got it by sending in 25 marked box tops, and frequently missteps during otherwise dramatic moments. Annoyingly, accidentally clicking on a door halfway across the map will leave you unable to click out of the action and, say, move in the direction you meant to, meaning you’ll just have to grit your teeth and enjoy the long walk over and back.
Now if I can just borrow an atomic laser, I can split this final hair: During dialogue, the character image showing who’s currently speaking never changes. The problem with this is that expressions never change, meaning the many emotions conveyed by the script may as well be represented by a paper bag with holes in it for all the emotion Richard and Alice show. This weakens the story’s delivery which is already quite hampered by its limited toolset. The game’s incredibly retro aesthetic—in many cases moving past a love letter to bygone graphics and stepping into genuinely mediocre visuals—doesn’t help in that regard either.
Of course, every game has flaws. At least in this case, those flaws don’t detract from what the game is really about. Richard & Alice is one of the best post-apocalyptic stories video games have ever born. Writers Lewis Denby and Ashton Raze carry the game’s sometimes cumbersome mechanics with a sobering and human narrative that smacks more of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than it does Fallout. It is chilling (no pun intended) and relatable, and genuinely disturbing. A story of loss, struggle and impossible decisions.
Also creepy shorthand.
I found myself truly engaged with Richard and Alice, and even Barney on rare occasions. I knew Richard as a pained man living dangerously close to his personal edge, Alice as an unlikely but persevering mother, and Barney as, well, Barney. I smiled at their quips, their desperate attempts to find humor in a bleak setting. I laughed as they bit at each other like warring lovers, briefly forgetting how desperate their situation is. I hated their weaknesses but paused to consider how I would act in their stead. Would I really make better decisions? Am I really stronger? Hell, am I even strong enough to endure what they have?
Richard & Alice is a lesson in narrative that every video game developer should take a page from, and a testament to the power of its medium. Consistent, harsh and unafraid, it casts the everyman as neither antagonist nor protagonist, but as another survivor. Living is survival, nothing more than hollow procrastination. Richard and Alice live an unwinnable race against the white. Always the fucking white.