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Richard & Alice (PC Game) [Open Letter Series]

Richard_&_Alice_CoverartHey Dylan,
I finished Richard & Alice on Saturday, and I was impressed with the creative use of time in the game. The opening especially, with the scene between the dad and son, and the flash forward to the jail, interspersed with the title shot and credits, struck me as sort of cinematic in terms of mechanics. I’ve seen it in TV shows and movies, but less in games.  In addition, it had the distinctive feature of the enforced pause (I don’t know if this was due to loading, or intentional, but the effect was the same either way), forcing the player to slow down which I both loved and hated at different parts. One thing that drove me a little nuts was coming back to a location to do something and waiting for the cut scenes to finish. This was less of a problem for me when the scenes gave me new back story, and more of a problem when it was Barney being whiney or Alice babbling to herself.

The main question the game asks – what are people when it comes down to it – is, for me, old. Like “yeah, yeah, after the apocalypse people are going to be jerks.”  Alice is no exception to the jerk rule, even though I think the player is supposed to sympathize with her. I wish I could say that I felt for her when she put Barney out of his misery, but frankly, it was difficult to care about Barney. In fact, Alice was the most likeable when she was failing at doing the right thing, like when she yelled at Barney. But the question is, does this make the writing in Richard & Alice bad, per se? With the exception of Barney, the characters are multidimensional, and the writing has a lot of interesting and sometimes intriguingly ambiguous points: talking to the dead at any old grave because there’s no way to know which grave you’re at, a jail that was originally luxury housing, Alice’s apparent choice to put herself in jail.

Most of the game logic was pretty straightforward. It was missing certain hints that a Schaefer game would have, like “hmm, I should put something on the gunpowder to make a wick.” Or, “if only I had something to melt the ice with.” And I thought that it would have been cool if any grave you chose worked at any given time, as a performative way of showing that it didn’t matter which grave the characters went to, since post-apocalypse, there was no longer a system for mapping bodies to graves.

I also noticed playing the game that Richard’s role was basically to be a robot in the jail cell that could listen. He listened to Alice’s story and did all the mechanical things with the objects but outside of the opening scene, his entire story was told through scraps of paper Alice found.  Seeing Richard develop through Alice was a different experience than playing Richard would have been, because Alice is already disposed to think of him as terrible, both as in bad and as in terror-inducing.

Of what I am told are five endings, I played through two – in the first, I had Alice use the ladder to get the box from the center of the frozen lake.  I was pretty sure from the moment I found out that there was a single bullet in the box how the game was going to end and I was right – by sheer coincidence, because there are a few endings where you get the bullet. But in the game I played, after Alice gets out of jail, she kills herself at Barney’s grave, in front of Richard. Alice’s suicide in this situation asks another kind of question about the apocalypse, if you are not one of the (lucky?) ones killed right away, is it unethical to voluntarily become one? Does it come down to what you could contribute if you were alive or whether you could better your own conditions? Or in this special case, is it no longer a selfish act because all acts have become selfish?

The second time, I left the bullet in the box in the lake, which caused her to use the empty gun to knock Richard out in front of the grave. She leaves a note for Richard telling him she’s gone…I think that this scenario is one where she kills herself with the next bullet she finds, that is to say the only reason why she didn’t kill herself is lack of bullets. This is the logical conclusion, on account of everything else happening exactly the same way.

For me, the best line in the game is when Alice says to Richard, “just because I understand you doesn’t mean I’m like you,” (and this may actually be a paraphrasing, but it’s very close), which she says shortly before shooting herself. What makes this the best line to my mind is Alice’s underlying assumption that it is within her jurisdiction to decide about her own nature. Often, we feel we are subject to various systems – biological, physiological, economic, social, etc. – and maybe we are but it’s possible, if morbid, that the fact of the ability to kill oneself means that in reality, no one is actually subject to these systems because they can voluntarily disappear from them.  While obviously most of us in the first world would not do that, perhaps the choice itself changes the power balance between the world and the person. Or perhaps not.


Author’s Note: This is the beginning of a monthly correspondence around short, mostly indie PC games, focusing on one per month. The other writer, Dylan Holmes, can be found here.

This specific post is the first in a four part letter series.  Here are the rest:
Dylan’s reply to this letter (post #2).
My reply to letter #2 (post #3).
Dylan’s reply to letter #3 (post #4)

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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