Review: Buried25 Jan 2016 0
Buried is, in many ways, a classic gamebook. It’s pure decisions, with no statistics or random elements. It also sets out to be a more cinematic experience than the typical Interactive Fiction game, with detailed images of the game’s environments, an evocative soundtrack, and an interesting attempt to auto-pace gameplay.
The game opens in the immediate aftermath of a logging accident in the Kentucky, but it is only the most nominal and necessary of spoilers to reveal that most of the game is actually a survival-horror story set in a secret underground facility.
If that setup has you salivating, then Buried is almost-certainly worth your time. It’s a well-written story that knows the genre conventions it is working with and deviates from them just enough to keep you guessing.
At the same time, Buried is a near-miss in a number of ways, unwilling to go all the way with the most original aspects of it’s design and while it does well with the interpersonal ramifications of the player’s decisions, there’s very little room to deviate from the spine of the plot.
Buried falls somewhere between the straight, no-chaser textuality of a Choice of Games release and the increasingly high production values of games like 80 Days and To Be or Not to Be. However, unlike inkle and Tin Man’s games, Buried weds textual immersion with audiovisual immersion, with dimly lit images of your surroundings presented from protagonist Roger’s perspective, and creepy background music that includes snatches of the same threatening noises he is hearing.
The story is told by Roger, in the first-person (“I,” rather than the second-person “you” we most-often get in games), with mixed effect. It works when Roger is telling us about his connections with the members of his missing crew, but feeling heavy-handed when he repeatedly says that he is frightened, surprised, and uneasy. First-person narration should allow for the development of Roger as a character, but he remains a generic all-American guy, even as the other characters in the story are interesting and nuanced.
The early parts of the game work really well, as the images of the seemingly-abandoned facility are shadow-haunted and creepy, the bits of static in music are unsettling, and the automatic delay before each new paragraph appears suggests that someone–or something–might jump out to menace you at any moment.
But it doesn’t.
No-one and nothing is ever added to those backgrounds. They’re setting only. When you finally see the “monster,” you don’t see the monster. A new paragraph reveal never brings with it a chilling sound effect and pain never makes the screen flash red. If Buried had done these things, it might have been disruptive and unpleasant, or worse, cheesy. It might have detracted from the game, but but this game led me to believe there would be audiovisual fireworks, and when there were no flashes of light, no audible screams, no faces twisted in horror or agony at the game’s most dramatic moments, it was like lighting a damp squib and watching it fizzle.
Perhaps that disappointment impaired my appreciation of the plot itself, but I found the story became less compelling as I learned more of the truth. When you reach the point were much of the mystery is laid bare, the truth felt obvious, even familiar–shocking to poor Roger, but not to me. There are some good character moments, small surprises, and chilling descriptions as the plot moves toward its climax, but we know this story.
This is where the potential for mistakes and sudden death would keep things tense in an action game, but Buried won’t let you screw up. Every decision you make funnels back to the main plotline with no possibility of Roger dying. You can have a good game without loss conditions, but the survival-horror decisions the player is asked to make start to feel hollow when survival isn’t actually at stake.
It’s not that Buried doesn’t play out the consequences of your decisions. When you make a decision about how to treat one of the other characters, there will be consequences, and they are interesting. It just falls short when Roger’s well-being is at stake. You can make the wrong call, Roger can get hurt, things can happen that should have long-term consequences, but none of these things change how events turn out. Other characters’ lives are at stake, just not his.
It reminds me a little of my early days with tabletop roleplaying, when I would have horrible consequences outlined for my players if they made the wrong choices, which they did, and then… I blinked. I didn’t have it in me to kill their characters, and I didn’t want to derail my story by forcing them to retreat. It took me a while, but I learned that I could bluff a little, just not every time.
There are a few other minor quibbles, including a frankly bizarre final choice, a single paragraph written in the second person, and surprisingly high hardware requirements on iOS. Still, Bromoco Games’ first release has personality and could be a sign of great things to come. It’s just a shame that Buried leaves some of its greatest potential, well, buried on the table. [Tof wanted this pun excised, but I refused. I apologize for nothing. -ed.]
Played on an NVIDIA Shield K1