I used to think that no game could effectively achieve the heavy, dark themes nor have as hard-hitting a “Choice” system as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, but Richard & Alice proved that first notion wrong. The second, meanwhile, was not as fleshed out as in TWD, but was just as effectively depressing nonetheless.
Developed by Owl Cave in the UK, Richard & Alice is a point-and-click mystery action-adventure game that revolves around two prisoners who struggle together over the course of a week to come to terms with the actions humans, including themselves, take in order to survive. It is, first and foremost, a realistic story of survival.
Set sometime in the future, the Earth of Richard & Alice is engulfed in a worldwide meteorological disaster. Some parts are freezing cold and/or buried in a seemingly-never-ending snowstorm, while others have turned into scorching hot desert wastelands. The part of the Earth that Richard & Alice occurs in is never specified, but it is a part that suffers from an infinite winter – although the dialogue is littered with British accents.
Richard & Alice excels in its story, point-and-click gameplay, and social commentary. My only complaint is the lack of a satisfying ending.
The title of the game includes the names of the two main characters: Richard and Alice, both of whom get to know about each other and the aboveground world while suffering the doldrums inherent in underground prison life. Richard and Alice have cells opposite from one another, giving them ample time daily to get to know about one another, in terms of both character and past. As the days go by, with Alice and Richard getting comfortable with one another and sharing more and more about each other, a dark secret from the past that inextricably links them together is revealed.
Richard & Alice feels like a good 8-bit game had a baby with an excellent mystery-suspense movie, with an epic twist near the end of the game that you’ll need to piece together and understand from the many time and frame story-shifts. What I mean by that is the multiple flashback sequences throughout the game about Alice’s past as she tells Richard about herself in the present time, the beginning of each flashback being marked by TV-like static on the screen. Pay close attention to the notes you find throughout these flashback sequences.
I really enjoyed the time shifts that make the player think back to what has already been revealed to make sense of what is going on in the present. Time in the game is indicated by a line of text saying how many days have passed since Alice arrived, as well as by in-game dialogue, characters’ private thoughts, email messages, and by the notes you find in the environment. The timeframe of Alice’s flashbacks is revealed shortly before the first one, so be sure to note that to not get lost along the way (think of Cloud Atlas with its story jumping back-and-forth from the past and the future).
True to the innovative and beautifully-simple nature of many indie games, Richard & Alice is controlled entirely by just your mouse. Left clicking on an object/person makes the character interact with it, while right clicking shows a description of the object/person based on what the character thinks about it. When the character is not at the place or in front of whatever the player clicks, the character will automatically move to the place or in front of it.
When the character is engaged in dialogue or interacting with the environment, the normal cursor becomes a clock icon. Somewhat annoyingly, this clock icon disables accessing the game menu, so you can’t save during dialogues and when interacting with the environment.
The majority of gameplay is in the form of acquiring objects and adding them to your inventory along the right side of the screen border and either using them or combining them to create something else. For example, at one point in the story, you need to use a ladder that is rusted shut, but you must use a can of rust remover on it first by combining the items in the inventory.
Music conveys the mood of each scene. Happy music went with happy scenes, but the tracks become darker and moodier as the story goes the same way. Both of the more gruesome scenes of the game include music that is appropriately sad yet creepy at the same time.
Despite the linearity in the game, its replay value comes from the variable dialogue. You can choose different choices of answers or what to ask and what not to ask other people, although this choice system isn’t as robust as the one in The Walking Dead. Regardless of its robustness, the choice to lie or tell the truth in several situations in the game still felt consequential and important. For example, the player must choose whether or not to tell the hard truth about survival in the world to an innocent and naive child multiple times, affecting dialogue down the line.
Early on in the game, Alice mentions the central theme of the game: moral relativity. What is “right” to do may differ between people who are struggling to survive and people who are privileged, a statement applicable to real-life as social commentary, but one that is particularly true in the world of Richard & Alice. The government has totally forsaken all areas outside of secured zones, so it is up to the people outside to provide for and defend themselves. In order to survive, what else can you expect people in such conditions to do but what is necessary?
There is a powerful scene in Alice’s last flashback where someone she is talking to tells her that, when the peaceful options of negotiation and trading don’t get the supplies he needs, then and only then will he resort to violence. To be weak is stupid and will get anyone killed, both in Richard & Alice’s world and the real world.
In my opinion, for all that is awesome about it, Richard & Alice lacks a satisfying and conclusive ending. Despite the major revelation of secrets by both characters, Alice decides to not do something that, with all that we as players find out about her up to that point, doesn’t fit what I would have expected her to do. At the same time, however, the reasons for why she decides to not do something fits the “what is necessary” mentality of survival noted earlier. The inconclusiveness of the ending, however, still left me feeling disappointed following the buildup to the revelation.
Despite an ending that is rather inconclusive, Richard & Alice is a superb work of art that not only plays beautifully, but also tackles the difficult gray area of morality, dignity, and “what is necessary” to survive.