Home Tech The moody narrative noir of Backbone is unfortunately marred by its absurdity

The moody narrative noir of Backbone is unfortunately marred by its absurdity

The moody narrative noir of Backbone is unfortunately marred by its absurdity

The lavish pixel imagery and intriguing storylines of Backbone are ruined by the game’s uninspired latter act and dull gameplay.
Backbone has a melancholic quality. It seeps into everything, including the settings, the climate, the conversation, the music, the plot, and even the names of the individuals, much as a rancid perfume does. It suits this pixel-perfect, “post-noir” detective story at first, so it’s not exactly out of place, but later on, when the story takes an unexpected and surprising turn, it seems phony. Even a long-con. Because in the end, Backbone is quite different from what it seems to be.

Your existence as a PI The beginning of Howard Lotor, a raccoon detective with a taste for the theatrical and the traditional trenchcoat, is essentially what you would expect. He can’t allow a thought escape his thoughts without adding a good dash of pessimism, and he lives in a tiny, dilapidated flat. Howie is eager for you to understand how unfulfilling his employment is, as it seems to consist only of a never-ending procession of unfaithful spouses.

Though gloomy at times, Backbone’s trip through futuristic Vancouver brings you to some very beautiful locations that are lovingly created in chic pixel art. While jogging up Glanville’s main strip, you can look through the windows of the apartments stacked above the stores and offices to see the creatures inside eating and smoking, silhouetted against the flickering light of their TV sets. Rain is speckling the screen as neon reflections dance in puddles formed in the pavement. For a voyeur like me, it’s constantly interesting, and when combined with a melancholic soundtrack and amazing sound effects, it’s a monument to skillful world-building that manages to create a planet that seems real and accessible even with the anthropomorphic animals filling the streets.

A delightful tingle of self-awareness runs throughout the story, from Howie’s acknowledgment of his predicament—”Look at me; I am a raccoon in a trenchcoat,” he tells a passerby—to his succinct To Do list, which includes calling his mother. Howie is endearing in that grizzled, tough-shell-warm-heart kind of way most fictional detectives are, too. Purchase soap. Pay your bills. Avoid dying. I suppose they are good life lessons to live by.

However, there isn’t much difference in the gameplay. Apart from a few monotonous and egregiously underutilized puzzles and stealth scenes, Howie mostly walks from talkative NPC to talkative NPC, enquiring and obtaining information. The fact that so many of the animals you come across on your voyage are wonderfully rendered, eager to converse, and given names is fantastic, but even while the conversation is often written rather well, the absence of voiceovers may make these meetings seem a bit hollow.

When it comes to Howie’s interviews, there’s simply the appearance of choice. Although he can use different strategies to interrogate different NPCs, from what I’ve seen after playing through twice, it seems that all paths ultimately lead to the same place, regardless of the conversation you choose. Though it’s adorable that we matched up this old Gastown couple in the hopes that they can provide company in their latter years, at times it feels like nothing more than needless busywork. Was it really necessary? Did it make the tale progress more? And because they were standing a good twelve feet apart, did they really need a detective to pair them up?

Renee should really learn how to boil her own filthy tea, you know. There’s also a lot of cult stuff and an odd, dark pivot to the dubious decisions made by the local meat suppliers. A contemplative side story explores what happens when the wealthiest members of society work together to change the law and bend regulations in order to maintain the impoverished under the control of a select, affluent few. Subsequently, you enter the last act. Yes, that last act.

I’ve spent a lot of time playing games. I’ve spent a lot of time playing terrible games. Nothing has ever prepared me for the last third of Howie’s trip, and I have a suspicion that even if you could conjure up the most absurd, outrageous, far-fetched, and completely implausible scenario from the back of your mind, you wouldn’t be able to anticipate the outcome if I asked you to guess. Backbone takes a story turn so absurd that it almost breaks free from its genre. In the process, it betrays its characters and the effort that has been done up to this point, leaving important plot points unanswered and cast members unmentioned. A part of me is happy that Howie has finally discovered a story worth looking into, but it also unravels all of the deliberate, thoughtful buildup in a manner that leaves me dumbfounded and furiously angry.

And, see, I understand. Computer games. These amazing items allow us to completely detach from the world around us. With a medium like this, the enchantment is in its ability to tell stories that go beyond the confines of our reality, so simple basic truths like gravity, rain, death, and love no longer hold true. Instead, we can create implausible worlds with unlikely characters.

But once again, Backbone takes a completely unexpected turn rather than just a strange detour, leaving me utterly disappointed with a disorganized jumble of unfinished tales and narrative gaps.

“Backbone will likely be remembered by all those who encounter it, but probably not for the reasons the developers hoped.”

Even with its shortened duration (you can finish this in one day), there’s not much of a reason to play it again. Though at £18 it’s not exactly cheap, and given there aren’t multiple endings (narrative designer Danny Salfield Wadeson confirmed on Twitter that there’s “just the one ending… [as ]it’s the story we wanted to tell”), I could forgive a brief experience if the gameplay was rewarding and the story worth telling. As such, it’s difficult to suggest Backbone given how brief your experience will be, especially considering that it plays more like a visual novel than the role-playing game it claims to be due to its complete absence of interactive gameplay components.

In the end, everyone who uses Backbone will undoubtedly remember it, although probably not for the reasons the creators had in mind. Nothing will get you ready for the startling, absurd conclusion of the game, even with a great beginning, attractive graphics, and a really endearing protagonist. Undoubtedly, Backbone purposefully left its storylines unfinished to smoothly transition into a later installment; perhaps, a follow-up will build on its achievements and provide gamers with a more fulfilling ending.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here