For a genre synonymous with exploring the unknown and going on grand journeys, adventure games are paradoxically rigid experiences. Rarely are you given the freedom to forge your own path; from beginning to end, you follow a linear story, picking up a sparse selection of interactive items and utilizing them in pre-approved situations to reach the next screen. The challenge comes from deducing what the designers intended (occasionally dipping too far into insanity, like the infamous cat-mustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3), combining items in a way that gels with the world’s limited sense of logic. You are more or less the game’s subject, strictly abiding by its rules if you don’t want to suffer a painless virtual death.
In that regard, The Fall’s ARID might be the perfect protagonist for the genre’s structural limitations. She’s the artificial intelligence for a sophisticated combat exoskeleton, activated when the suit’s inhabitant is rendered unconscious, and she’s subject to a modified version of the Three Laws of Robotics. These Operating Parameters prevent ARID from “misrepresenting reality,” require her to be obedient, and above all else, protect the injured pilot resting in her suit. Additionally, most of her functions are restricted, only activating when they are necessary to save her primary objective from certain death.
The rules that bind ARID essentially put her in the role of an adventure gamer. Her limitations are blatantly laid out for you, which often puts your train of thought in line with the developer’s. You’re still saddled with the occasional puzzle where you desperately try to shove every item into one slot, but such moments are refreshingly rare. Sadly, thinking like ARID is easier than controlling her; any skirmish or interaction requires several buttons held at the same time, which is manageable on a keyboard but feels like Twister when using a controller.
We’ve seen The Fall’s musings on robotic rights, rogue artificial intelligence and good intentions gone awry in countless other stories, but we’ve rarely seen them explored in such an elegant manner. The language is as cold and stark as the scrap metal littering the planet, with words like “repurpose” and “dismantle” establishing a sinister tone delivered with a disaffected cadence. Even amongst the company of life-sized crucifixes, derelict speakers sputtering to life and creatures best left in the dark, ARID is often the most unsettling one in the room; though her intentions still center around saving her suitmate, you can tell that something just isn’t right in that electrical dome of hers.
I’d be remiss if I never mentioned the voice acting, which deserves a special commendation on its own. These fine men and women take an already-stellar script and make it their own; they inject emotion, humor and fear in all the right places, and the effort pays off in spades. One character in particular sent chills coursing through my skin every time he spoke, until I truly felt uncomfortable with the lingering knowledge that somehow, somewhere, he would confront me again. It’s rare to find performances this perfect with multi-million budgets: in a low-budget, independent project, this confluence of writing and acting is practically a miracle.
Even unwieldy controls and the occasional case of “adventure game logic” can’t break The Fall’s stride. Over the course of three hours, ARID’s gripping journey never lets up, though it questions the limits of player choice and the distinction between humans and robots along the way. It’s one hell of a start to a planned trilogy (though it works great as a standalone story), and cements Over The Moon as a studio worth your attention.
The Fall is $9.99 on Steam. A Wii U version is reportedly in the works.