One of the game’s two main characters is Azriel Odin, a former assassin for the mafia who has defected to the police force of Taurus and has now returned to Gemini for some cleanup. The political complexities inherent in the premise aren’t dealt with overtly in the game, but they do help form a sense of a lived-in universe. Azriel has snuck onto the mining planet Barracus to find his brother and remove him from the mafia’s influence.
The other main character has no name because his memory has been wiped. He is known as Delta Six to the supervisors of the facility he’s held captive in, and as Charlie to his fellow inmates. The facility, he is told, is a rehabilitation centre for criminals, and they are purged of their memories to make the process of reintegration into society easier. But not every one of the “patients” believes the official rationale for their presence, and Charlie soon becomes involved in a plan to escape.
It always rains on Barracus, and the place has a distinct noir feel, helped by the fact that save for the existence of spaceships and the occasional SF doodad, the technology level in the world of Gemini Rue resembles that of 1950s more than anything else. The reeducation facility, on the other hand, gives off more of a science-fiction-from-the-perspective-of-the-1970s vibe (think Logan’s Run or THX 1138). The game has that mixture of different time-period styles in common with movies like Gattaca (1997) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as the late and lamented Caprica (2010). Beyond the aesthetic, there are also thematic similarities to those three works, some of which are immediately obvious, some of which depend on late-game revelations I do not want to spoil.
The game’s narrative thrust consists of Azriel’s mission to find his brother and Charlie’s escape attempt. The player shifts back and forth between these two characters and their perspectives: sometimes when the game decides to do so, and sometimes the player can decide for him- or herself when to switch (a welcome option: when I was stumped in the facility, I could take my mind off those puzzles by trying to progress the Barracus storyline instead, and the other way around).
Both stories eventually converge, and they do so with a neat narrative trick I should probably have seen coming sooner than I did. There’s always a twist, of course (and twists do occur over the course of the story both before and after), but the way the storylines come together is more than a twist and goes beyond what is typical even of adventure games. It’s probably the one thing, more than anything else (except for the game’s final act maybe), that is most responsible for the game’s rapturous reputation.
Even without it, however, the world-building is remarkable. It took me about ten hours to complete the game, and while there is some unnecessary padding included in the total (more about that below) and I’m sure it’s possible to breeze through it more quickly, I didn’t mind approaching the game with a relatively leisurely pace. I like to take my time admiring a game’s environments and exhausting all possible dialogue options if the world the story takes place in is interesting. And this one is, with hints of a larger storyline always just out of view. I don’t know what Joshua Nuernberger, the game’s primary writer and programmer, has planned next; another game set in the same world would be an instant preorder.
As long as it’s not a sequel, that is; I think the story of the two main characters and the handful of companions that join them during the game has been told; it would be difficult to improve upon the ending. I don’t want the further adventures, or the prior adventures for characters where further adventures are improbable. Games, even dialogue-heavy games like this one, have certain limitations when it comes to characterisation, and Gemini Rue works really well within those limitations and in the knowledge of those limitations. The characters are defined as much by what they say explicitly as by what they only allude to and by what they don’t say. In lesser hands, letting the player fill in the gaps is a shortcut for lazy writers and tends to result in empty ciphers or stereotypes. Here, the characters are developed enough that they appear to breathe on their own, making genuine interpretation possible. When a game deliberately closes off the most obvious and stereotypical paths for a character to take, the player’s impressions automatically become more interesting as well.
I can’t even talk about the game’s primary themes without spoiling some of the plot, because theme, plot, characters and narrative strategy are integrated so well. They don’t just complement each other, they reinforce each other. It’s not an experience I’ve had very often while playing a computer game.
So that’s the positive, and it’s a really big positive. But the game is not without its headscratchers and annoyances. First and foremost the dozen or so times when the game deviates from its standard gameplay to bring in:
- Myst-style logic puzzles (I know that many classic adventure games have them, but I don’t like them there either);
- minigames (like shoot-outs) which serve no function other than delaying the end of the scene;
- quick time events which require either speed and precision (skills I do not possess in abundance when it comes to video games) or tedious trial-and-error.
All three waste time and are either boring or incredibly frustrating. I like point-and-click adventures precisely because my reflexes are terrible and I suck at action games!
Retro graphics are not a problem for me aesthetically, but items can sometimes be harder to find than they should be. I know there are purists who consider a “light up all the usable objects” option cheating, but I don’t, at least not when the objects I need tend to be very small and not distinguished very well from their surroundings. I don’t like to waste time fruitlessly searching all of the locations again or having to call up an online walkthrough just because I somehow managed to overlook, for instance, a tiny brownish-grey item lying on a brownish-grey surface.
The problem was admittedly exacerbated by the fact that I had to play the game in windowed mode because the dialogue options kept getting cut off by my monitor.
The game also insists on a number of redundant steps where one click would have sufficed. Specifically:
- There are doors in the game you can’t open by clicking on the door; you are forced to interact with the button next to it. Similarly, there are a couple of machines and other devices you can’t activate directly, but where you have to pull a switch, even when there’s only one switch and no other machine parts to interact with.
- Many times, the protagonist will complain that he can’t perform an action because he’s not close enough; that’s fine for puzzles, but stupid in cases where the character could just walk straight to the object in question. I couldn’t find any consistency in when the protagonist would do that and when he’d be smarter and walk across the room without me having to direct him there manually.
- On occasion, another character will briefly join the protagonist’s team and help him out with tasks that require two people. It’s a great feature! Except sometimes you need to talk to the character to get him or her to do something, and sometimes you need to use the interact verb on him. Here, too, I could find no consistency.
- I like that the game lets you move around boxes to get to places you couldn’t reach otherwise, but I don’t like how it’s not the least bit automated even after you’ve completed the puzzle. I do not want to have to “click on the box, tell the protagonist to step on the box, click on a pipe, tell the protagonist to put a foot on the pipe so he’s even closer to the ladder, click on the ladder, and tell the protagonist to climb the ladder” every single time I need to go up a fire escape. The box is already where it needs to be, the protagonist should know how to use it!
I’ve said before that completing the game took me about 10 hours; without the wholly unnecessary minigames, the annoying pixel hunt, and the redundancies you can probably shave two hours off that total.
Despite my long list of misgivings, it’s still a good game. Or rather, it’s an excellent story wrapped up in a good but flawed game. I wish I could say that the whole package was great, but the gameplay peculiarities annoyed me too much for that to be an accurate statement.