Syberia (Microïds, 2002) is a point-and-click adventure game which contains the most perfectly awful puzzle I have ever experienced. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of all the overlapping cruelties it would be hazardous to stare at the chart for prolonged periods of time. The game is, in spite of this, pretty neat, but even 16 years after I first played the game, I cannot forget nor forgive this particular puzzle.
There are plenty of old school point-and-click games that proliferated absolute nonsense logic-orthogonal puzzles. There is the famous babel fish puzzle from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game — they even sold t-shirts to commemorate it. BUT — and this is a big juicy burger of a BUT — at least in that game it had a twisted internal logic. The world of Hitchhiker’s Guide is absurdist and surreal, and while the puzzle still pushed the limits of human sanity it fit into the larger world by turning a run of the mill activity — using a vending machine — into a Rube Goldberg scenario clearly designed to tease and test the player. Fiendish, but funny.
There are lesser examples as well. We are all used to point-and-click games lazily demanding that we combine every single item with every single other item — they turn players into bots attempting to brute force passwords. These might be irritating, taking you out of your rational problem-solving mode to just mash your inventory-dumpster together like an insane art project, but that’s a one-dimensional anger. You’re mad at the design of the puzzle, but not the larger game, and certainly not with character who is probably just as confused and angry as you.
What sets this Syberia puzzle apart is the unique way it combines the above problems with those of narrative and characterisation. It’s dumb in the same way many old school puzzle games are, adhering to an internal logic that the game refuses to share while completely ignoring many more obvious solutions. It paints the main character as an incompetent and vain usurer — her actions and inaction vying for infuriating supremacy. The accompanying dialogue is dire, replete with painful stereotypes and dismal characterisation. The puzzle in its entirety makes me think less of the main character, the puzzle designers, and the writers.
Let’s back it up. You play as Kate Walker, an American attorney sent to finalise the details of the acquisition of a revered French toy manufacturer by a larger international conglomerate. Upon arrival in the idyllic old-world village of Validilene, Kate is informed that the head of the company with whom Kate’s firm was negotiating has passed away. Her final testament revealed the existence of a previously unknown family member. Kate’s boss directs her to track down this erstwhile heir, which can luckily be accomplished by the repeated solving of clockwork puzzles.
During your time in the first town of the game, you will encounter a young boy called Momo. The local hotelier describes Momo as “simple,” a rather uncharitable description for a boy who appears to be on the autism spectrum. For reasons loosely connected to your search for the missing heir, Momo informs you of a cave containing a painting of a mammoth and lost toy. This is where we encounter the game’s great bungle.
On your way to the cave, your forward progress is blocked by the path of a gentle creek. Picture, in your mind, the platonic ideal of a Babbling Brook — serene, gently curving, barely flowing faster than a slow walk, scarcely a meter wide. Unfortunately, this pristine example of nature’s beauty is in your way and must be destroyed — jumping is not permitted. Luckily, a nearby dam offers the solution.
You’ve got this: just saunter up the stairs, click the mechanism to open the dam and — oh, Kate is too weak to push it, that’s — wow that’s something. Thank goodness there’s this… 11? 12? -year-old boy, built like a pile of twigs. “Momo strong,” he says in the most stereotypical absentminded voice of a developmentally delayed child (I used to work at a school for children with autism — they’re just kids, their condition does not manifest as the mysterious loss of the word “is” from their vocabularies).
You enlist him to come push the lever that you — a full-grown woman — couldn’t budge and he snaps in right in half. Dang. Momo is strong. There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s all bad. We’ve got a woman protagonist who is literally weaker than a child. We’ve got a potentially autistic boy who speaks sans-verbs and has what was once disgustingly referred to as “r-slur strength.” Oh gosh I really did just write that, there’s a real hecker of an urban dictionary definition for it too. That’s a term I thankfully haven’t heard since leaving middle-school but appears to have lingered in the background of Syberia’s writing team. On top (or underneath) all that, the puzzle is already falling apart — true, Momo broke the lever, but it just fell on the ground. I’ve already picked it up, but inexplicably cannot slot it back into the mechanism. Alas, the puzzle gods demand more layers of obfuscation.
A keen-eyed player will remember the conspicuous looking rowboat and its juicy lever-adjacent oar lying next to it a few screens back. The oar appears to be balanced between the boat and a boulder, maybe half-a-meter at most from the path. Ah-ha, now this is a puzzle I can solve: just click the oar.
Kate kneels, extends her right arm towards the oar and — it just phases right through the oar. She wags her mitten back and forth uselessly. “How am I ever gonna get a hold of it?” She asks as her fingers clearly pass through the handle. The voice actor doesn’t sound like she quite believes what she’s saying herself.
I click the oar a few more times, just to ensure the first instance of Kate slapping the oar and then complaining that she can’t reach it wasn’t a fever dream. Nope, that oar is firmly affixed to the background.
I posit: if a puzzle game disallows solutions that you, the player, could personally achieve, it better have good reasons. If not, then it has bad puzzles.
My next thought is: Oh no I’m gonna need Momo again, aren’t I?
I call him over — acutely aware that I am exploiting a child who thinks I’m his friend — and shockingly, he can’t get the oar either. “Oar too far away. Momo not like water.” Ugh, who wrote this? Is this how the writer thought people with learning disabilities speak? He’s clearly afraid as well, the final sentence pronounced with a noticeable tremor. I worry that I’m going to end up drowning this kid just to solve the puzzle.
Given that I only have one item left in my inventory — the original broken lever — it doesn’t take a cyber sleuth to know that it must be used. With it, Kate manages to nudge the oar what can’t be more than 10 centimetres closer. Somehow, this permits her to finally reach out and grab it but wait: “Yuuck[sic]! That oar is all dirty and wet!”
My eyes defocus, running parallel lines out the back of my monitor.
This is not a character arc for her. She is not a germaphobe who eventually must overcome her fears to reach the end goal. She has no compunction with rooting around old rusting factories, dust filled attics, or just picking any other random doodads off the ground. Kate simply doesn’t feel like grabbing the oar.
This is padding, plain and simple, and does nothing but engender hatred for the protagonist. It’s all gross. The double “u” in “Yuuck!” reeks of middle-school squeamishness. The utter refusal to pick up the one necessary item when she is quite literally standing over it makes me ponder how many of the upcoming puzzles will be similarly transparent in their attempts to lengthen the game. If the player already has the solution to a puzzle please do not gate it behind a senseless checklist of additional hollow steps.
I know what the solution is, disgraceful as it may be. Kate, unwilling to touch the oar herself, will cajole Momo into carrying it. She is a psychopath. The game is quite literally compelling you to exploit a developmentally delayed child — who has already expressed fear of the water — to pick up the oar and do all the work for you. Maybe I was mistaken, this could be characterisation for her as a corporate lawyer. Kate is putting a child into an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous position to avoid muddy hands. When I first played the game, this was where I quit. If this was the quality of the opening minutes of the game, then I had no interest in subjecting myself to several hours more.
Since then, I’ve seen what the rest of the game has to offer. It’s neat, but to be honest I never felt the slightest flicker of warmth towards Kate again.
Whether a designer intends it or not, the actions afforded to the player will directly shape our understanding of the main character. In puzzle games particularly, when the obvious and most simple path is not one we are allowed to take then there must be ample reason for it. Contriving additional steps for a puzzle that don’t require problem solving but instead demand a player shuffle between screens with the ultimate solution already formed in their mind is not gameplay.
The entire puzzle is dehumanising in the extreme; a literal child is used as nothing more than a tool to solve the puzzle. The only difference is you can’t stuff him into your inventory. He isn’t a character any more than the dam. Like all puzzle-specific items in the game, he disappears upon completion of the puzzle. Kate’s actions are deplorable, lazy, and childish. Despite this, I do believe we are intended to sympathise with Kate. She is, after all, a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land whose mundane life back home only deteriorates as the game goes on. Her fiancé is likely cheating on her, her boss is threatening and abusive, and ultimately Kate makes the decision to continue her fantastical journey rather than return to her old life. The depressing mundanity of her status quo is set against the backdrop of a wonderful mythical world she never knew existed.
What is notable is that the solutions available to a character in any video game — but particularly puzzle games — tell you a lot about the character themselves, what they value, and what they’re capable of. You could absolutely block off numerous solutions in a way that serves to explore the character. Interactions with Momo could have shown Kate to be an empathetic, gentle person; able to converse with and perhaps even form a friendship with a boy that has few if any real connections in the town. The options given to the player reveal the mindset of the protagonist (see Lisa: The Painful in which the game’s language of violence explores the psyche of the main character). The downside is that this will happen even if the developer does not intend it.
After all, there can be no true division between gameplay and narrative. Experienced players will be able to ignore the litany of “it’s just a game” moments. We are versed in the language of video games and as such we have learned not to look too closely or ask certain questions. For the vast majority of games, the answer to “why is this the way it is” is because it is a game. We accept abstraction and contradiction between the world-as-experienced and the world-as-described because we just want to play the darn game. However, even the most fluent game player will have irreconcilable moments where the meeting point between gameplay and narrative lurches like a tectonic shift. What makes this puzzle so jarring to me is not just the avoidance of obvious solutions or the narrative choices, but also the fact that the character calls attention to it. “Yuuck!” (there’s still something so peculiar about the double “u”) isn’t merely an eye-rolling utterance, it is an acknowledgement of the inherent strangeness of the puzzle genre. It is a character within the media asserting their own will over the player’s in a way that brings the two into conflict. It is the precise moment that the puzzle goes from dull to onerous. Mere moments prior to voicing her disgust, Kate was happily willing to reach out for the oar. Is her eyesight so terrible that bringing it closer revealed the muck and grime? Was that merely a show for the player that she put on knowing full well she couldn’t reach it — have I been lied to? I can’t help but to now imagine a sly wink as she uselessly bats at the clearly within-reach paddle. Whatever reverie I had is broken; like watching a play and becoming acutely aware of the neon-green exit signs in the corners of the theatre. It is a moment that becomes an inflection point in which the designers have me questioning not just the puzzle, but the underlying structure of the game itself. Inadvertently, it creates a beautifully uncomfortable moment in which a playable character seemingly deceives the player of the game by displaying agency without purposefully breaking the fourth wall.
Of course, it is also none of these things. It is simply an ill-thought-out marriage of puzzle and writing that came together in an incoherent way. That it has stuck with me far more than any other moment in the game is because of the alienness of it in an otherwise strong point-and-click game.