Crime Without Punishment

HIGH The air of hopelessness.

LOW Some technically-poor transitions between scenes.

WTF Pretty much everything, but that would be spoiling it…

Backbone is one of the most fascinating videogames I’ve played in a long time, and it’s not even because I was in the shoes of an anthropomorphic raccoon in a dystopian 20th-century Vancouver. In fact, while praise for the distinct art style, smooth animation and gorgeous pixel art is well-deserved, it all takes a backseat to the game’s fascinating ideas.

Backbone is described as a “post-noir detective-adventure RPG” in which this take on the classical point-and-click genre is enhanced with stealth sections, exploration and long dialogue sequences that include choices. Aside from the forgettable stealth, all of these elements offer significant contributions and support its cornerstone — a phenomenal narrative.

We play as Howard Lotor. He’s a private investigator, but not in the Sherlock Holmes sense — he’s actually quite mediocre and confined to investigating wife beaters, cheaters, and criminal kids. He often fails at his job and later, we learn that his failings are associated with his status as a raccoon — this is emblematic of the central theme of the game, social Darwinism.

All the citizens of Backbone‘s Vancouver are anthropomorphic animals like Howard, but some are more equal than others. The city is confined within a great wall which is constructed with neighborhoods that represent levels of hierarchy. At the bottom are hardworking raccoons, foxes, dogs, cats, rabbits and the like, while on top of the system are heavier and stronger animals such as bears, lions, and most particularly, apes. It is obvious what the hierarchy of apes resembles in the real world.

Howard’s weakness as a detective and his social inferiority intelligently intertwine when he stumbles upon a shady conspiracy network between the city’s ape rulers, drug manufacturers and leading scientists. Shocked and disgusted by their malevolence towards the lower classes/species of society, Howard dedicates himself to investigating further with the help of a clever fox who’s a political writer.

Like many dystopian narratives, Backbone is not ultimately a success story. Howard is not the hero of the oppressed, and his struggles and general powerlessness invite an existentialist layer to the narrative where he constantly wonders whether his life has any purpose at all. It is, in a sense, the polar opposite of the traditional videogame narrative. Rather than gradual empowerment, Backbone shows Howard’s increasing decay as a person, both mentally and physically.

Yet, within the heaviness of themes and events presented in the plot, there resides sparkles of goodness in Howard’s few exchanges with nature. We can see Howard become one with the trees surrounding him or see him feeding pigeons in the streets. When his mind temporarily escapes from his societal constrains, we come closest to viewing Howard at peace with himself.

Backbone’s narrative and character work are thrilling, complex, and thought-provoking, and the writing deserves all the praise it can get. That said, there is some feeling of the pacing being slightly off, since the final acts feel like they follow too quickly after the introductory ones. Whether it’s due to a lack of time or inspiration, the story could’ve done with at least two more chapters of narrative substance during the middle stretch.

Any other issues I might raise with Backbone are mostly trivial. With its inspired script that accentuates themes of dystopia and desperation, this detective story delivers one of the most inspiring narrative-driven titles I’ve played in some time.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by EggNut and published by Raw Fury. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: Backbone currently has no ESRB rating. According to PEGI, this game is rated 16+ and contains Strong Language and Use of Alcohol/Tobacco/Drugs. I would add that violence and bloody murder are also implied, and the dialogue contains references to cutting people into pieces.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. This game can be fully experienced without sound, without any hindrance. In my view, it’s fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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