Richard & Alice

Over the past five years or so, there has been no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction for fans of the genre to enjoy.  Whether it is the gore and action of The Walking Dead, the dark humor of Fallout, or the depressingly bleak tone of The Road, it seems as if most everything that can be done with post-apocalyptic fiction has been done lately.  It is possible that if a game like Richard & Alice had been released five years ago, it would have felt more unique and interesting.  In 2013, however, it feels like just another depressing piece of nihilistic storytelling that serves no purpose but to remind us how much human nature sucks.  The story isn’t a deal breaker, but Richard & Alice is also victimized by boring point-and-click gameplay and horrendous production values.  When all is said and done, there isn’t a compelling reason for you to spend your time and money on this rather short and forgettable experience.

One thing that Richard & Alice does do very well is establish its tone and set up its interesting end-of-the-world scenario very quickly.  In the near future, the Earth enters into a sudden, unexpected, and cataclysmic ice age.  An endless snowfall blankets the Earth, causing society to collapse.  Food becomes scarce.  Humanity’s more fortunate survivors live in controlled “zones”, while mercenaries and thugs roam the areas outside the zones.  The two protagonists, Richard and Alice, meet when Alice shows up in a prison cell on the same hallway as Richard.  Through the events in the game, Alice gives Richard (and us) her backstory, describing with flashbacks how she came to be in the prison.  Meanwhile, conditions worsen in the prison, to the point where the pair eventually plots an escape.

The tone is suffocatingly bleak.  Both Richard and Alice refer to the numerous tragedies and atrocities committed by the humans that no longer have the rules of society to govern them, but we never really get to see a whole lot of it.  Herein lies one of the game’s biggest problems – it tells lots, but it doesn’t show much.  Richard & Alice is extremely dialog heavy, to the point where you frequently find yourself in a banal conversation that somehow manages to take five minutes to click and read through.  When the dialog stops, there isn’t much to do besides solve simple puzzles that get you to the next conversation.  Very little happens during the gameplay, which is simple point-and-click adventure fare.  Answers to puzzles are usually immediately obvious.  There is a padlock on a door and you find a gun with one bullet.  There is a rusted ladder and you find a spray can of rust remover.  Even with this simple gameplay, it gets bogged down at times, thanks to Alice’s slow walking speed.  By the time this three-hour experience is over, you will be sick of watching Alice slowly trudge back and forth through the snow to solve simple puzzles and advance her depressing back story.

The gameplay is simple and it isn’t very entertaining, but it least it isn’t offensive.  The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Richard & Alice’s visuals, which rank among the ugliest that I have seen in at least a couple of decades.  Yes, it is an underdog indie game, and yes, it is the product of only two people, but – Gawd.  The opening scene looks like it was done in MS Paint, and the rest of the game doesn’t fare much better.  The objects in the game are so blocky and crude that you can barely tell what they are most of the time.  The walking animation has about two frames, which is especially conspicuous because there is so much walking back and forth in this game.

An adventure game can ultimately overcome ugly graphics or mediocre gameplay if it has a great story.  How you feel about this game when you finish it will probably depend upon you how feel about its take on human nature.  I found it to be overly depressing, to the point where the story has no reason to exist.  What’s the point of telling us that humanity is so terrible that we all might cannibalize each other someday like a pack of rabid monkeys?  Cynicism is so prevalent in popular entertainment nowadays that it can almost be called a fad.  You can’t swing a dead cat anymore without hitting a movie or a book that tells you how abhorrent our nature is.  Even the latest James Bond movie had a dark tone, so what does Richard & Alice bring to the table that is actually new?   It strikes me as cynical one-upsmanship.  And humanity isn’t all bad, is it?  After all, human beings survived through the last Ice Age without any governments or organized society.  It isn’t all dog-eat-dog.  We have cooperative instincts too.

One of the problems presented by such a dark, nihilistic story such as the one found in Richard & Alice is that it is difficult to become emotionally invested in the characters.  After all, if everyone is a survivalist animal, why should you care which animal survives and which one doesn’t?  The game tries a little too hard to tug on your heart strings with Alice’s cute and naïve five year old son, Barney (who is still playful and cheery even when he and his mom have been kidnapped and thrown into a dungeon).  Richard does at least invite a little bit of sympathy, but the same can’t be said of Alice.  In describing her childhood and her background, she strikes you as a perpetually depressed melancholic for whom the Snowpocalypse is just another average day.  She is the kind of person who would be insufferable even in a utopia.

Richard & Alice at least deserves credit for being able to stimulate this kind of discussion.  It also deserves some credit for being engaging enough for you to want to play it to its conclusion, even though that conclusion isn’t very satisfying.  It isn’t a terrible game by a long stretch, and it is possible to like it if you don’t mind playing through what amounts to an interactive novel.  It does have a few memorable moments.  Despite a few redeeming qualities though, Richard & Alice is a disappointing experience that doesn’t provide a lot of entertainment, and doesn’t seem to be saying much that is worth listening to in the end.