Tuesday 1 February 2011

Stories in Unlikely Places No.3: Cryostasis

Crostasis is an ambitious Ukrainian development whose limited implementation belies its thorough understanding of how to tell a creepily effective tale.

This is part of a series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing the games that further our understanding of interactive narrative. No serious spoilers.

This column thus far has found itself focusing exclusively on older games whose narratives were under appreciated when they first came to bear, so with that in mind I present you Cryostasis - a 2009, Condemned-style survival shooter that probably looks like it's not especially worth your time. The game positions you as a scientist stumbling across the wreck of a Russian nuclear research vessel grounded in the arctic, your goal being to discover just what went wrong, and why the hell everyone's a zombie now.

The first example of the metered approach to design that Action Forms applies throughout the experience is in the ranged combat: it's rubbish, but that's because this isn't really a shooter, it's an atmospheric game of exploration. Its USPs sound exciting but prove to be much more stripped down than they might have been. Modelling temperature as a crucial survival resource could have been inventive, and the moments that mirror Dead Space's haunting zero G scenes - where you fight your way out into the blizzard, surviving moment to moment on the fleeting respite of a hot air vent or partially destroyed cabin - are atmospheric and rewarding; but for the most part all this marketing talk just means the health bar's replaced with a thermometer; med kits with fires, heaters and even desk lamps.

Of greater narrative interest is the MentalEcho ability. Cryostasis builds most of its challenge around environmental puzzles, many of which revolve around the protagonist's ability to embody the mind of a dead guy, go back in time and change his actions in the past in order to effect the present. Again, this has some really inventive gameplay applications (eg posses the stuffed polar bear that's locking your path, then go back in time and save it from the captain's hunting rifle, leaving the path in the present day clear), but they're completely linear and for the most part it's 'Go back to when this guy broke this ladder and, you know, don't.' However, much like games such as Tribes: Vengeance or Second/Sight, less demanding gameplay and a more linear narrative can allow the creative wiggle room for some serious story fireworks.

Cryostasis relates three different, interrelated tales. The first is the most minimal: the active story of the protagonist. Frankly beyond the opening and the conclusion this story amounts to 'Guy trudges through boat, reads some shit.' The next is the eerie Russian fairytale of hero worship and lost faith that acts as foil to the core thread: the discovery of just what went on on the ship in the previous weeks.

These flashbacks tend to be non-interactive, you a ghostly spectator to events whose catastrophic outcomes have already unfolded. The story itself - of mutiny and fate - is nothing too out of the ordinary, but the structure is captivating: too few are the games which understand that the audience often needs a perspective broader than the confines of a corridor and gun barrel. Gradually the scraps of correspondence, scenes of tension in the crew quarters, altered histories and allegorically deformed sailors come together at a single, crucial point in time; finally a point where your actions may have an impact that reaches beyond the next locked door.

Also you fight the god of time. But that's enough of that.

The conclusion is satisfying (that alone is a rarity), delivering on all the dramatic loose ends the devs have sewn throughout the last eight hours, and even the end credits are touching and wistful for the experience you've just shared.

Not that I'd guess it was an inspiration, but there are definite Penumbra vibes at work here: the atmosphere of isolation; the focus on survival, exploration and puzzle solving; and the philosophically inspired backstory. That and the rubbish combat. The developer's site is down as of right now, and they've not been very chatty since this game's release and the formation of a phoenix dev team.

I for one would like to give this game a last breath of life.

Buy Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason at Amazon.co.uk (£6.99)
Download Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason at Amazon.com ($3.25)


  1. Is this series still holding your interest? Am I providing new angles on games you're already familiar with, or bringing new stuff to your attention? Or is it all just old hat?

    Tell me these things! Please.

  2. The series, and concept for the series, is interesting. You've so far pointed me to the Tribes story, which was interesting, and reminded me to play this game...

    I just think it may be more interesting to focus on the interesting elements and how they could be used, rather than give us a quick overview of what the game did...Basically "here's why this is interesting" would probably be helpful?

    I think I'm making sense...

  3. I'd already heard that story was probably Cryostasis' strongest point and that the ending was particularly good. Since I knew the rough outline of what the game was already this article probably didn't add to much to that knowledge since it is mainly an overview of the game for those that didn't know what is what about - useful for those who didn't have it on their radar though I guess. Going into more depth rather than an overview might be best - maybe greater focus on specific moments in a story (like you did for Bioshock 2 in that talk you gave) though commenting on structure also has worth.

    The Tribes article was definitely interesting to me but that was probably helped by never having heard someone talk about it before, at least in terms of story.

  4. I think this all makes sense. The reason I do more of an overview is that if I focus on particular stuff it means spoilers, which means half the point of the series (to get people to play brilliant games) is moot because they either get spoiled or they don't read the post.

  5. I don't think it's entirely fair to label the game's systems as simple analogies of popular mechanics or contrivances - "but for the most part all this marketing talk just means the health bar's replaced with a thermometer; med kits with fires, heaters and even desk lamps.". Perhaps it may have been slightly incomprehensible as to why there were no medical supplies aboard an entire ship, but I found that beyond the tension this created, I found it interesting how you built a fragile relationship with the vessel that presents so many dangers. Health packs would have ultimately alienated the player from an engagement of the world, whereas the constant reliance on its support both provided an interesting change of gameplay strategy and means of interacting and engaging the world around you on a level that the developers may not have realised.

  6. I have a feeling most people who read this site are probably at least somewhat aware of the various games, and plots, so choosing specific sections is probably reasonable and won't reduce the number of readers?

  7. Sounds like more detail is the unanimous recommendation - unless there are any protractors?

    Dissention, I love it! :-) I like this idea of forming a bond with the ship, and as I said some of the strongest use of the heat mechanic was in the exterior scenes where you're sheltering under a bulkhead with only your compass as a guide.

    I'd argue, though, that increasing your health by warming your hands at a desk lamp is really no less contrived or alienating than the healthpack. It's better, more interesting certainly, but not - for me - as fleshed out as it could have been.

  8. Perhaps (asking too much of your time) each game could get two posts. One to give an overview, to create interest in the game. The other an analysis of what made the story worth mentioning in the first place. And maybe provoke some discussion.