You haven’t seen dystopia quite as funny as this, writes Nicholas Smit.
I am an undying fan of black comedy. From Blackadder to the work of Tim Burton, there’s something miraculously compelling to finding the light in the darkness, or indeed the shadows cast by the light. To this end I had a look at the PC only title Traverser to get my fix of both joy and despair.
I suppose I’ll start with the plot since that’s what the game will hit you over the head with first. Some form of awful calamity has occurred, leading to the death of pretty much all plants and the loss of almost all the world’s oxygen. With the planet’s surface frozen over, what’s left of humanity has retreated underground and lives a pretty bleak existence in debt to an oxygen manufacturing company, Raven Corporation.
You can’t get any more literal than having a monopoly on oxygen, so it’s safe to say Raven Corporation are some pretty bad dudes. The resources from this arrangement mean that Raven Corporation pretty much have a stake in everything, with a private militia and spies to boot. And yes Orwell, I can hear you. You can stop using that bird beak as a megaphone now.
You are Valerie Bennett, a young girl who given the dialogue is likely around twelve but from her size in comparison to other characters could very well be four years old. Valerie starts her quest to become a Traverser, a special agent of Raven Corporation among the few permitted travel between the upper and lower halves of society while carrying out their will.
Traversers also have access to the venerable gravity glove, which allows you to move heavy or distant objects by clicking and dragging with your mouse. The brunt of the gameplay revolves around solving puzzles using the gravity glove. While the typical “stacking crates” cliché that we’re all used to is there, Traverser comes up with a startling amount of new situations by combining different objects over time. It feels good to use the gravity gun and move at the same time, given that they’re controlled by the mouse and keyboard respectively. It reminds me of those top-down twin stick shooters. Except neither of the control methods are sticks… Never mind.
Traverser even pits you against some enemies, which feel quite fun and visceral. There’s a certain euphoria that comes from smacking a robot down with a crate thrown at the force you gave it. There’s also some boss fights that are pretty inventive with the engine.
Traversers get their name from the fact that they traverse from the actual topside and underside of their civilisation, with the gravity inversion you’d expect. While a bit ham-handed, the symbolism succeeds in being clear and effective. The upper city of Brimstone doesn’t exactly look like a paradise to begin with, so your first step into lower Brimstone is a pretty jarring one. Traverser draws clever parallels from the literal parallels between the two levels, contrasting a bustling town centre flanked with restaurants and marketplaces with a crippled and desperate bazaar. Little visual cues also remind you which half you’re in, as embers dot the sky of lower Brimstone due to their closer vicinity to the molten core of the earth.
While I had a bit of a go at the plot of Traverser, the key to its value in the story. If you’ve seen any dystopic text before you’ve encountered these themes, Traverser does it through a fine dance between tragedy and comedy. If you’re a fan of dystopia and okay with a slower pace than most games, Traverser will be both hilarious and depressing – just how you like it.
Image: Nicholas Smit