If you've ever seen or read an apocalypse story, you know it's not the natural catastrophe that's the real killer (or at least the real horror), but the resulting fallout in the quest for survival, as man turns against fellow man, while governments clamp down in an attempt to maintain order. Such seems to be the case in the upcoming indie adventure Richard & Alice, though it's entirely unclear just what caused the devastating extreme weather conditions afflicting the planet, and who or what is now in charge. I recently had the chance to play through a preview demo of the game, and already I've been swept up in the plight of its titular protagonists and the surreal world they live in.
Created by Eurogamer's Lewis Denby and The Telegraph's Ashton Raze, Richard & Alice tells the story of two prisoners. But these are no ordinary criminals, and this is no ordinary jail. In fact, with food dangerously scarce due to the neverending wintry conditions outside, it seems almost like a barred sanctuary. Richard's cell has its own bedroom and bathroom, a TV showing now-outdated nature documentaries, and comfortably automated climate control. Even stranger, he's been the only inmate around ever since his incarceration, until finally Alice moves into the opposite room. Perhaps there are guards and wardens as yet unseen, but prisoner requests are submitted impersonally through "tickets", and in the demo at least, there's not another soul in sight. What's going on here?
Indeed, "what's going on here?" seems to be the central theme of Richard & Alice. How did the world get in this state? What's the nature of a prison that keeps the bad elements from getting in as much as (supposedly) from getting out? Who are Richard and Alice, and how did they each get here? These are just some of the questions you'll be asking right from the opening sequence, as the two convicts reluctantly get acquainted. The demo provided no answers at all to the first two questions, and all we know about Richard so far is that he's a former military man being punished for insubordination while protecting his fellow troops, his family left to fend for themselves through the global weather disaster.
Alice also has a son, and I got to experience her backstory up close and personal through a pair of flashbacks. These sequences portray a tense, harrowing tale of personal captivity at the hands of a predator, and the subsequent quest for safety following their escape. Barney is a remarkably poised little five (and a half!) year old, but he's also just a kid, prone to boredom and noisy outbursts, a need to question everything, and an innate trust in people who don't deserve it. Alice isn't merely fighting for survival, but raising her son as a mother in crisis, watching her language and protecting him from sights best unseen by a child. Both Alice and Barney are written believably, and in refusing to play the "victim" card for either, the script makes it easy to get behind them both as sympathetic protagonists – a fact that makes the foreknowledge of their inevitable separation all the more uncomfortable.
As a small-team indie adventure, Richard & Alice has a decidedly indie aesthetic, with its retro pixel art and faux-top down perspective that shares more in common with early Japanese RPGs than traditional adventures. Some confined scenes fill only a central part of the screen, surrounded by black borders on all sides. This is clearly not what you'd call a "pretty" game, but nor is it depicting a pretty world. The snow-covered outdoor areas are largely blankets of white, with splashes of colour from dead trees and animal carcasses, while indoor areas (so far) consist of muted brown and greys and greens. The art design is dreary and borderline depressing, which of course is exactly what the desperate conditions dictate.
Character sprites aren't overly detailed, but they're more than sufficient to support the story, the vivid red hair and similar outfits of Alice and Barney reinforcing their bond as mother and son. Close-up portraits appear during dialogue, but for now there's only one per person, with no change of expression. I'd like to see some additional images added before final launch, as without any voice acting of any kind, it makes the lengthy conversations a rather dry affair visually. Music is also fairly sparse, consisting largely of ominous tones to set the mood instead of complex melodies, which again is entirely appropriate given the circumstances. Sound effects are basic but effective; the default foot-clomping is somewhat overdone, but it nicely changes to crunching snow when the action moves outside.
The point-and-click interface couldn't be simpler. A right-click elicits an observation, while left-click interacts. Inventory items are stored in a visible panel down the right side of the screen, where they're easy to select for combination and use. The puzzles I encountered were all item-based and logical, as the developers are committed to having "puzzles provide pacing to the storytelling" rather than being arbitrary obstacles simply to slow players down. Sure enough, the most difficulty I had was finding a slightly elusive cabin in a wide outdoor expanse, and even then the game steered me back on course if I was straying too far outside the intended zone.
Unless the difficulty ramps up considerably, Richard & Alice may not be the game for you if you're looking for a dense puzzle challenge. Rather, at first appearances this game seems to be all about a challenge of a different kind: a story-driven adventure that challenges your emotional and ethical perceptions in times of great stress. Black-and-white are not easily discerned in a world where the prison seems the safest place to be, while a mother protecting her son can be locked away for murder. I'd have loved to learn more about where the characters are coming from and where the story is going, but for that I'll have to wait with everyone else until the game's eventual completion sometime later this year. In the meantime, I did the next best thing, flagging down Denby and Raze to answer some of my many remaining questions...Continued on the next page...