Recently played: Lacuna

If you go and look at Lacuna’s page on Steam, it will tell you right up front what it is. “A sci-fi noir adventure.”

And what we get is exactly what it says on the tin. Our hero lives on the planet Ghara, the big dog in its solar system, working for this universe’s equivalent of the FBI. One evening, you’re preparing to do protection detail for a diplomat…except that he gets shot before you have the chance to so much as say hello, and then we are off to the proverbial races.

What follows is indeed an extremely noir-ish story, both in presentation and content. We have the protagonist with the estranged family and the brooding voice-overs (the only fully-voiced lines in the game). We have the murder plot that leads, in a roundabout way, to something complicated and infrastructural. We have a little blackmail, even, for that extra frisson.

We navigate all this in a very point-and-click sort of way, roaming from grandiose hotels for VIPs to the rough-but-colorful neighborhoods of the lower layers, always taking the train. (And yes, I do mean literally “lower layers” – the stratification of society in this universe means that your only shot at regular doses of direct sunlight is to be wealthy.) At each locale, we meet a character or two, chat with them, and gather clues from the environment. So far, so normal.

And then we get to the tricky bit for any detective-themed video game: How do you gamify detection? How do you make a process that is so very essentially internal to the player’s brain manifest on the screen? How do you try to guide them through working out the right answers to key questions, rather than brute-forcing it with guesses?

Lacuna’s answer to this is…homework.

No, really; when there’s a problem that needs to be worked out you receive a “sheet” to complete with a series of multiple-choice questions, and when the game determines you’ve advanced far enough that you ought to have the clues, you’re invited to submit it. These are typically not incredibly complicated – two or three questions – but in order to identify the right answers, you must first have asked the right questions of the NPCs you interact with, found all the clues in the environments, and then trawled back through your chat logs, etc., to work out what you ought to submit.

I have mixed feelings about this as the major detecting process. On one hand, assembling the pieces into a confident answer can be quite satisfying. On the other, one thing that Lacuna seems to really enjoy doing is obfuscating information. In one early case, you are told very explicitly by the NPCs at one location exactly what the answers to some crucial questions are – except that those NPCs are wrong, and the only way you can possibly know that is to correctly deduce a different set of answers, open up a different location, and then complete a mostly-unrelated side task that will eventually lead to a single casual mention of the right answer you need.

Here’s the wrinkle that makes this especially important: Lacuna does not allow you to manually save. Ever. All choices you make are permanent, so it’s very easy (presumably by design) to lock yourself into a kind of cascading failure state. We did not do this, for the record; both of us have fairly well-honed detective-game instincts, but it seems remarkably simple to end up on a path to doom from pretty early on without knowing it. (A post-playthrough review of the game’s discussion boards on Steam suggests a number of people had this kind of experience.)

There’s also a feature that will add an additional layer of pressure to this by putting a timer on all of your answers to questions. We somehow managed to disable this without ever knowing it was there – or perhaps it defaults to “off” and is only enabled if you want an extra challenge? Some of the choices were plenty difficult even with time to think them through, so I can only imagine how much easier it would be to miss a key piece of information, or accidentally piss off an important NPC with that timer bar ticking down.

I appreciate the commitment to the “choices matter” approach to storytelling here, but I’m not sure I am completely behind these design decisions myself; at the very least, an option to go back and replay some scenes to make different choices without having to start the entire game over again from the beginning would have been welcome.

Oddly, despite the massive difference your choices can make in terms of story outcomes, your actual progress feels somewhat “on rails”; there are a number of occasions where we were barred from trying out something or following up with an NPC rather arbitrarily (usually by someone attempting to move or carry something very large and heavy. The effect is a bit more Marx Brothers than perhaps the designers intended.)

All of this sounds a bit like I didn’t care for the game, doesn’t it? Not quite; whatever I might think of some of the design choices, the story itself is enjoyable and nicely told, and the art – of the “pixels + dynamic lighting” variety that seems popular lately – is evocative and has a lot of fun little background detail that I wish we could have interacted with a bit more for additional flavor.

If any of this has piqued your interest, perhaps it might also be helpful to know that the game is quite short, even for thorough players like ourselves – perhaps 5-6 hours if you’re taking it slowly, and easily complete-able in a session or two. (The ending we got was pretty satisfying, but if you ended up with one you didn’t care for I expect a second playthrough would go even faster.)

If you find yourself with a few hours and the inclination, give it a shot; perhaps you’ll have different feelings about the detective system than I do, and then we can discuss it.

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