The notion of the journey as a metaphor for personal growth and understanding is as old as story telling itself. The traveller who arrives at her destination is different to the person who originally set out and not only is the person changed by the journey, but also the process of change can mean that the final destination is very different from the one intended or envisaged at the start. Rarely has this concept been tackled in a meaningful way in computer games - off the top of my head I can only think of Arxel Tribe's The Legend of the Prophet and the Assassin (parts I and II) and perhaps Funcom's The Longest Journey ... and now Syberia. Created by Benoît Sokal and Microids who previously made Amerzone, Syberia is a beautifully crafted journey of discovery.
Nor is change the only theme on offer here for you will also encounter madness, despair, loneliness, dreams, obsessions and, most importantly, hope.
Kate Walker is an ambitious young lawyer from present day New York City who arrives in the small alpine village of Valadilene on the day of a significant funeral. Kate's a long way from New York in more ways than one as Valadilene seems to have been overlooked by progress - until now. An air of sadness clings to the village and not just because of the funeral. Valadilene was once famed throughout Europe for its automatons (don't call them robots!) and the factory where they were created, owned by the Voralberg family, was once the lifeblood of the village, but that too is failing. The hope now is that the factory will be taken over by a giant multinational toy company and that is why Kate is here. Her simple assignment is to get Anna Voralberg, the aging proprietor of the factory, to sign the take-over deal. Unfortunately for Kate it was Anna's funeral that she witnessed on her arrival.
Nor does the bad news end there, for it soon transpires that there is a missing heir, Hans Voralberg, who was long thought to be dead but now revealed to be alive. Hans suffered an accident as a child that left him in a permanent child-like state and with an obsession with Mammoths. Kate must find him to get the deal signed and it doesn't look as though she will be back in New York anytime soon, much to the annoyance of her boss and her fiance who frequently contact her on her mobile phone. Perhaps something in the family papers or even in the automaton factory will lead Kate to Hans? But that's enough of the plot, to reveal more would only spoil the story that you will experience as you accompany Kate on her journey.
Syberia is a third-person perspective, mouse controlled adventure game and you direct Kate as she tries to track down Hans. The interface is very simple; the cursor changes to indicate the actions you can perform, double clicking will cause Kate to run and a right click opens her inventory and gives access to the usual save, load and quit functions and options for tweaking the graphics, sound and subtitles. When talking to characters (and the voice acting is very good for the most part) Kate's notebook will open for you to select question topics and these are automatically updated as she learns more.
The puzzles generally fit in well with the story, bearing in mind that it involves clockwork wind-up mechanisms on a grand scale despite being set in the modern day. There are some quite fantastic mechanical devices to get working, and a good selection of characters to interrogate, clues to follow and problems to be overcome.
On the whole the puzzles are gentle rather than mind-bending. So long as you search your surroundings carefully there is little chance of getting bogged down. This means that the story stays in the foreground and unfolds at a reasonable pace. If you feel that it's over too soon it won't be because the game is too short, it will more likely be because you don't want it to end.
Syberia is a sensitive and intelligent adventure game enhanced by having a female main character. As Kate commences her journey she is concerned only with getting a signature on the contract. She is herself, in a sense, an automaton programmed by modern society, responding to the needs of her boss, her fiance, her career, her insistent mobile phone. Motivated only by the need to complete her assignment quickly she seems at first unsuited to the challenges that loom ahead. Early on in the game Kate won't pick up an item because it is 'yucky' and wet, and a little later she seems overly frightened by a group of fairly harmless-looking birds. But as the game progresses she proves herself to be more and more resourceful, daring and self-reliant. The powerful and poignant decision she makes at the end would not have occurred to the Kate who first arrives in Valadilene.
As Kate searches for Hans her changing personality is demonstrated in both her actions and her reaction to the insistent phone calls from home. She's an interesting character and could have been even more clearly defined by including more interactivity with the gameworld. The locations are visually so detailed and fascinating it's a shame that sometimes the background is untouchable. For instance, Kate's foray into an attic early in the game ... she might have been a bit wishy-washy at this stage but what did she think of the interesting old clock in the foreground? Would she see it as a valuable antique or a piece of junk? I don't know because Kate wasn't allowed to interact with it. Similarly, in a cave with prehistoric paintings of Mammoths there was no reaction from Kate. Allowing Kate (and the player) to interact more with the locations, if only for a comment or description, would reveal more about her character and add even more depth to the game.
The same goes for inventory items. If only Kate had been allowed to 'look' at and describe them first before picking them up. The wet and 'yucky' item mentioned earlier was the exception only because Kate refused to pick it up. Quite apart from that, this is always a good 'rule' to observe when making computer games as it feels more 'realistic' and gives more of a sense of 'control'. Will you take it or not? After all most of us are aware of what we are picking up ... we don't usually wait until it's in our hand before we determine what it is.
Syberia's graphics are excellent and evocative with some marvellous cinematic cut sequences that you can replay from a menu option. And while much of the game is played in silence apart from sound effects the wonderful music, at times soaring, generally accompanies transitions and contributes greatly to the atmosphere. From the opening scene with Anna's funeral in the rain there is a melancholic strain that permeates the entire game. In every location there is a sense of sadness and of loss. The village of Valadilene, though not picturesque and even eerily forbidding with its imposing factory-sized buildings, seems locked in the nineteenth century. Yet I felt more depressed at the thought of it being taken over by soulless multinational corporations in the name of progress. I just couldn't envisage neon signs, the MacDonald's Golden Arches or the Nike swoosh on billboards as an improvement. Next stop is the University town of Barrockstadt, more like a museum or a mausoleum in memory of an academia that has ossified and surrounded itself with a guarded wall to keep out a threat that has long since ceased to exist. Then there is the industrial complex of Komkolzgrad with nearby military/space centre, both now idle but not worth dismantling, left to rust as monuments to the fading memory of former Soviet glories. And finally, Aralbad on the travesty that used to be the Aral Sea, a desolate salt desert and graveyard to countless ships.
But strangely the game wasn't depressing because hope travelled with Kate at every stage. Not only does Kate grow on this journey but she also changes the lives of some of the people she meets, freeing them from the constraints of the past, or from habit or regulations, and enabling them to see clearly, literally in one case. It even had its lighter moments such as the interplay between Kate and Oscar, the automaton engineer who shares her journey. Oscar is quite endearing but he isn't a lot of help and he contributes to Kate's problems by occasionally losing his extremities.
Syberia is a very fine adventure game, gorgeous to look at and with an intriguing and compelling story. It's tremendously enjoyable despite the air of sadness (and my few criticisms). I'd recommend it for all adventure game players who want a gentle, poignant journey. Because it is so gentle it would also be an excellent choice for new players as well. There must be a sequel, and soon because many players, myself included, simply must know what happens next. And besides, I want to see the Mammoths!
See the metzomagic.com Syberia walkthrough.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2002.
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Minimum: Pentium II 350 MHz processor, Direct3D compatible 3D graphics card with 16 MB, 64 MB RAM, 400 MB free on hard disk, 16X CD-Rom drive, DirectSound compatible sound card.
Recommended: Pentium III 500 MHz processor, Direct3D compatible 3D graphics card with 32 MB, 128 MB RAM, 800 MB free on hard disk, 24X CD-Rom drive.