This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
GOG is something of a haven for point-and-click adventures: not only does it provide a platform where most of the old classics of the genre (with a few exceptions, notably most of LucasArts’ output) are not only available again but available at a very reasonable price, but it also offers a comparatively low-cost and low-risk way for people like me, who dropped out of the point-and-click scene after its mid-1990s peak, to catch up on some of the more well-regarded recent offerings.
One game series which adventure game fans went gaga for is Syberia, an offering from Microïds designed by Benoît Sokal, whose other career as a comic book writer and artist had honed both his aptitude for dialogue and his ability to offer up a unique and interesting aesthetic – both skills which come in very handy when presenting an adventure game. But as I’ve sadly previously experienced, the enthusiasm of the adventure game community and the actual quality of an adventure game often fail to correlate. Will Syberia be another such case? I can only hope not…
The first game opens as Kate Walker, high-flying New York lawyer (and the player-controlled character in the game), arrives in the remote alpine village of Valadilène, just in time to witness a funeral procession of clockwork automata entering the village churchyard. Rather than dragging out the opening cut-scene, the game gives you control of Kate shortly after that, and in the first few conversations you have it transpires that Kate has turned up to conclude the sale of the legendary Voralberg automata business to the globe-spanning Universal Toy Company. The Voralbergs, it transpires, are descended from a long line of automata manufacturers, and the capabilities of their inventions go well beyond any other clockwork toys in existence; their factory is absolutely key to the economic survival of the town.
Naturally, it turns out that the funeral procession at the beginning of the game was that of Anna Voralberg, thought to be the last remaining scion of the family. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem; the sale of the business would just be signed off on by her executor rather than her, under the terms negotiated whilst she was alive, and that would be that. But the executor drops a bombshell during his meeting with Kate: there is, in fact, another Voralberg heir. Anna’s brother Hans was believed to be dead, but had in fact left the town to pursue a mad dream – an absolute conviction of his that somewhere in Siberia there existed a hidden population of mammoths that have survived since prehistoric times.
Commandeering a fabulously advanced clockwork train (complete with Oscar, an automaton engineer), which Hans had given Anna the plans for so that she could come and join him in Siberia to go chasing after mammoths once she was done being responsible for the toy factory, Kate sets off to follow the clockwork-powered railroad to its end in the hopes that it will lead her to Hans. At first, her thoughts are only on getting Hans to sign the papers to complete the sale to the Universal Toy Company, but as Kate’s travels take her to more places which featured in Hans’s life and bring her face to face with more evidence that the mammoths really have been kept safe in some mysterious locale, she comes to realise that her old life in New York – subject to the demands of a tyrannical boss and a petulant, controlling fiancé – now seems less real to her than the life of international adventure the clockwork railway offers her.
As far as adventure games go, Syberia is competently presented, with pixel-hunting minimised and most of the puzzles extremely logically constructed; there’s no puzzles of the ”tape shit to cats” variety this time around, and after exploring each new area you come to methodically you should be able to work out what you need to do and the order in which you need to do it. There aren’t any major deviations from the classic point-and-click model, though there are some quite nice improvements in inventory organisation – Kate comes across a lot of documents during the game, and they all get stashed in her document holder, preventing them cluttering up the main inventory whilst keeping them handy to read (or to present to non-player characters) when you want them.
Like most post-Lucasarts point-and-click adventures the game adheres to what I like to think of as the Monkey Island Convention On Adventurer Rights – the player character cannot at any point in killed, and it is impossible to get the game into an unwinnable state. Whilst I think that blind adherence to the Monkey Island Convention has held the genre back – it does tend to preclude establishing any sense of tension or danger if the player knows that they can’t ever fail or get killed – but in this case, I think it was the right call, since the joy of the game is centred around exploring gorgeous Sokal-designed locations and going “ooh, pretty”.
Sokal’s artwork for the game is absolutely gorgeous, blending 2D and pre-rendered 3D elements in a way which somehow manages not to clash, which is a great help – if you’re going to be spending a lot of time wandering around a location it may as well be a really, really pretty location. I particularly like the way the architectural styles in the towns Kate visits parallel the time in which Hans was visiting the locale in question, so Valadilène and the university of Barrockstadt have a cool 1920s-1930s art deco style to them whilst the industrial city of Komkolzgrad has a scary Stalinist aesthetic to it (with a dash of 1950s-era science fiction in the space centre), and the retirement town of Aralbad has a bland 1960s-1970s style.
Backing up the forgiving, slow-paced gameplay and gorgeous locations is some decent voice acting and a nice script, with a cast of characters that are more distinctive than usual for an adventure game. Each person you talk to has their own unique personality (which should really be the absolute minimum you’d expect but is kind of rare in games), and some of the supporting characters are genuinely charming. I got cheerful every time I had to go to talk to the university rectors in Barrockstadt, because their self-absorbed bickering was so hilariously reminiscent of real-life academia.
For games which prize themselves on the quality of their writing, adventure games often don’t do character development very well, so Kate’s emotional journey as presented through the script is particularly impressive. Syberia is a story about a contract and some mammoths only in the same way that The Haunting is about a creepy old house’s mysterious history; the hunt for Hans is just a backdrop which Kate’s decision to turn her back on her old career and pursue an idea that has come to enthrall her is played out in front of. And whilst you, as the player, don’t directly prompt her to do that through the game mechanics, your actions mirror her emotional development; as you solve puzzles to take the actions to locales further and further away from Valadilène, Kate herself gets further and further away from being the person she was at the start of the game.
A particularly nice touch is the use of regular calls on Kate’s mobile from her mother, best friend, fiancé, and boss, which allows Syberia to show the player how the strain caused by Kate’s unexpectedly long separation from her old life in New York puts all her old relationships into a new context. Her boss starts out sounding like a hard taskmaster and as time progresses degenerates into a snarling brute, the already scant respect with which he treats Kate evaporating as the Universal Toy Company breathes down his neck. Her fiancé seems to regard her business trip as an enormous inconvenience for himself, tries to guilt trip her about her failure to be in New York to be a status symbol for him, and generally acts like a complete prick. Kate’s best friend seems to be a fount of support until she ends up doing something to mildly wreck that.
As it transpires, only Kate’s bond with her mother endures the distance undamaged, and it’s notable that Kate’s mother is the only one of the four who both accepts Kate’s refusal to drop the matter and come home with good grace and takes her endeavours seriously. Kate’s conversations with her boss or her boyfriend are particularly well-written; we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been overhearing someone’s conversation and thinking to ourselves “they don’t respect you, they treat you like shit, good god not even a truly fantastic salary/really astronomically awesome sex is enough to justify being talked to like that”, and that’s just what those calls are like.
The development of Hans’s character is also interestingly done, though it unfolds mainly through second-hand sources – in particular, through audio cylinders recorded by Anna and sent to him during his self-imposed exile, and through conversations with the people he met during his travels. The picture created of Hans – a strange, brilliant obsessive, haunted by his obsession with the mammoths and a strange phobia of the written word – is so vivid that when you finally encounter him at the end of the game it’s like you’ve known him forever.
As good as the plot is, the ending is extremely abrupt – emotionally powerful and sufficient to make you want to play Syberia II immediately, but still quite abrupt, and there’s enough of the plot left unsolved that you’re likely to feel unsatisfied unless you have Syberia II right there and ready to run. As I understand the development history of the two games, they were initially planned to be a single release, but the project became sufficiently large that Sokal and Microids were forced to split it in half. It’s nice, then, that most recent physical releases include both games on one disc, though now that both games are available easily on GOG this is less of an issue anyway.
Of course, because the first game finishes with so many loose ends, it could be that if the sequel concludes those plotlines really badly it could sour the first game for me in hindsight. Don’t fuck this up, Syberia II.
God damnit Syberia II, you fucked it up.
To be fair, it wasn’t entirely your fault. After all, Syberia I didn’t exactly leave you with much to work with. After Kate has resolved to quit her job and go mammoth-hunting with Hans, there really isn’t much to do with the story beyond that other than having them actually find the mammoths. You do your best with the whole “Hans is reaching the end of his life so Kate is in a race against time to help him achieve his dream before he snuffs it” angle, but somehow that doesn’t feel like enough to fill the gap.
But let’s not mince words: filling the gap was your job, your responsibility, and you really dropped the ball. The sparcity of plot material on display here is fatal; not only does it make you feel padded and stretched out, but it also means you end up repeating yourself an awful lot – since you don’t have very much to work with. you have to wheel out what you do have to work with over and over again in order to make up for the shortfall. In the long run this feels overblown and irritating; I know that “Hans is dying” and “Kate doesn’t know whether she really believes in the mammoths” and “everyone back in New York City thinks Kate has completely lost her mind” are very important plot points, but when you harp on them in such a simplistic and repetitive manner they stop being emotionally engaging and start being deeply annoying. (It’s even more irritating when you regularly harp on a particular plot thread – the idea that Kate’s firm back in New York has sent a private detective to track her down – but it never actually amounts to anything important at all, to the point where your plot wouldn’t be substantively changed at all if you’d never included that angle.) It doesn’t help that a lot of the plot twists you throw in feel like random tangents added solely to delay the inevitable, rather than interesting events and hurdles that need to be overcome due to the nature of the quest.
On top of that, you don’t seem to have inherited your predecessor’s knack for compelling dialogue. Remember that? Remember how in the first game whenever Kate’s boss or boyfriend or best friend or mother called they had a really amazing and tightly-scripted conversation which illuminated their relationship, deepened our understanding of Kate’s character, and progressed her character development? Evidently you don’t remember, otherwise you wouldn’t have waited until three or four hours into the game before wheeling out the first such call – one from Kate’s mum, a call in which she very, very briefly asks Kate to consider coming home, Kate declares she is not going home, and her mother accuses Kate of losing her mind and they hang up. Not only is this hyper-sparse interaction the polar opposite of the detailed interactions summoned up in the first game, but it also completely misses the point of them because Kate’s mum is supposed to be the one person from her old life who respects her decision good gravy did you even read the script of the last game before setting to work on this one?
That, by the way, was the point where I stopped playing you. Poking at walkthroughs I don’t think I missed very much, and certainly the segment of you I did bother to play was neither memorable nor fun. Aside from the story and dialogue shortcomings, the puzzles and gameplay seemed oblique and frustrating compared to those in the first game. Regularly, I wouldn’t know what you expected me to do, and often that would be because you simply didn’t show or explain things very clearly. I would click on things expecting Kate to give me a little explanation of what they were, but she’d just wheel out a stock line which gave me no useful information, and regularly when I did something which was almost correct but not quite I’d get a similar stock line which I think was supposed to indicate that I needed to do something a little differently, but gave no suggestion as to why I needed to do something different.
It gets worse: some puzzles and plot points just aren’t explained at all. I understand why the Patriarch of the monastery (are the heads of Russian Orthodox monasteries called Patriarchs? I thought that title was a little more exclusive…) isn’t keen on the whole “running after mammoths and buying into the pagan traditions of distant Siberian clans” thing, but what’s the basis for him not letting Hans and Kate go once Hans has recovered from his illness? Why does he think he can get away with this when folks in the town know Kate and Hans are up there, and why does he want to get in the way of two people he clearly considers to be nuisances and heathens leaving his community? It doesn’t make sense on any level and you don’t offer me anything which would help me make sense of it.
I also don’t like the way you kept trying to make me feel that Kate was in physical peril, or that I needed to complete a particular puzzle urgently, because let’s face it – point and click adventures aren’t really a medium which is good at conveying urgency, especially when you adhere to the LucasArts conventions as you continue to do here. Since I know I can’t ever put the game into an unwinnable state, am pretty sure the plot doesn’t branch at all, and Kate can’t die, you really shouldn’t try to convince me that Kate is in physical peril as often as you try to do – especially since in general your ability to convince me of very much at all seems severely hampered.
In addition, and I hate to make these comparisons but I don’t want to be dishonest about my reactions here, but your older sibling… well, she’s just prettier than you? I know, I know, I’m being shallow and rude, but facts is facts. Syberia offered me a coherent aesthetic and an exciting range of settings which were very distinct from each other whilst still fitting the aesthetic. You, on the other hand, have frigid Siberian landscape from beginning to end, so far as I can tell, and you frequently come up with weird little setting features which don’t properly fit the aesthetic you were going for. The youkol tribespeople look like pudgy little caricatures of eskimos from a children’s comic, for instance, whilst the youki – the half-dog half-seal creatures domesticated by the youkol – look even more jarringly cartoonish next to the rest of the aesthetic, as though they slipped in from a cutesy adventure for young children into the middle of this poignant exploration of mortality and the pursuit of dreams.
Look I know it isn’t completely your fault. I can tell that you ran into some nasty budgetary issues which your sibling seems to have avoided. The sparse dialogue in particular is a surefire sign that the voice acting recording budget just wasn’t up to scratch, especially when some lines are simply copy-pasted rather than having the voice actor repeat the same line or give it a little variation. Then again, you could have done a bit more to disguise that – having the exact same line loop three times in one cut scene makes it more than a little obvious, you know? And it’s the lack of effort which I find really off-putting. I was so excited to meet you but when you show up and you clearly haven’t tried to make yourself presentable despite the meagre resources available to you, it feels like you’re taking me for granted – that just because I got on so well with Syberia I I’m supposed to just forgive you when you offer me an experience which isn’t even a tenth as rewarding or rich or multi-layered or emotionally engaging as the one your predecessor offered.
I’m sorry, it’s just not going to work out between us, and I can’t justify wasting any more time trying to make it work. Syberia I will always be special to me but you… well, I can’t describe you as anything other than a mammoth disappointment.