Let it never be said I fail to strike when the iron is gone. Remember how a few years ago there was that fuss about the kickstarter for Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure game that would Bring Back the point-and-clickers of the 90s, which were…
The thing is that time period of games isn’t some preserved bubble of media that lives back then and never extended. The point-and-click adventure game never went away, it just stopped being so high profile people were paying $120 for big box releases. The point-and-click genre kept moving, the tools became more available, and with it, we saw more and different approaches to storytelling. It stopped being the spoofy work of the Space Quest franchise, the storybook fantasy of Kings Quest, the high-cinematic weirdness of the Lucasarts franchises.
As it grew and it spread, we got to see stuff like this, The Samaritan Paradox, which I can only describe as an example of, say, European Cinema as an aesthetic in a point-and-click adventure game. So let’s all don our berets and smoke our clovey cigarettes as we delve into the thoughtful, cryptic differently structured work of The Samaritan Paradox.
The framing device of the Samaritan Paradox is a classic for the point-and-click. It starts with the introduction of Ord, a gormless, aimless nobody of a protagonist with a strangely narrow school of expertise, who then interacts with a larger story that’s actually interesting. While some point-and-clickers tended to throw the character into the narrative with no actual intrinsic motivation, and sort of trust you to Solve Puzzles because that’s your lot, the Samaritan Paradox focuses rather on the inquisitive curiosity of the protagonist to drive the plot forwards.
The Samaritan Paradox is very much a game of a down-to-earth drama, a slowly unfolding story of a mystery in a small, coastal town with secrets and vices and investigation in a very mundane, normal way. This isn’t going to be a game where you paint a mummy red, lacking with the Simon the Sorcerer style feeling of mischievousness. Your character has a very specific feeling of what’s normal, and they don’t act outside of it.
Intercutting the story of Ord however, is the story of Freja, a character in a story he reads as he explores this great puzzle and obtains sections of her story. This gives you an interesting kind of mode-switching story, where you shift between an episodic grubby-fantasy kind of story with minimal fantastic elements (but not none), and a real-world Scandanavian political story set in a time in the 1980s when it’s always raining. The story is three-layered, with mysteries surrounding a father’s final message to his daughter, the death of an author, and a greater narrative of government corruption and political duress. This story is layered, and your pursuits will lure you to investigate all three, piece by piece, in time.
The Samaritan Paradox is extremely, extremely complex in its puzzles (I mean, by my standards), and even does one of my favourite things where a character needs to learn something before they’ll pick up some specific object or other. You don’t have a kleptomaniac hero who will just pick up everything that isn’t nailed down on the premise it might be useful later, or a prankster who will jam everything he’s found into everything else he finds in the hopes of seeing them interact at all.
Basically, if you’re interested in complicated puzzles, m-rated adult dramas, political stories and code-breaking as a story axis, The Samaritan Paradox offers you what you’re interested in, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. There are only a few real head-scratcher moments where you might miss something due to the visuals (the smoker, for example), and the things that will hold you up are puzzles that are literally, in universe, extremely complicated puzzles.
The Inevitable But
Fessing up, this game needs a sort of healthy content warning, and the nature of that content warning represents some spoilers. I normally don’t like providing spoilery information here in the reviews, saving that for Deeper In The Pile, but that seems unlikely for this work, especially for something that’s an access issue. I was afraid to start with we’d even wind up using the evergreen tweet from Georgia:
SHALALALALA MAKING AN ARTY GAME, THE ENDING’S ALWAYS THE SAME, YOU GOTTA KILL THE GIRL
— Georgia B hurbgljjsa (@garlicbug) December 31, 2015
Here we go. The Samaritan Paradox features talking about suicide, murder, Alzheimers, and child sexual abuse. What makes this worse is the CSA is a total out-of-the-blue-sky moment that jerks the entire narrative around and then does so almost at the very end. You learn this terrible secret right at the end and it changes how you see characters and the whole narrative itself and it almost makes the story into something of a dead end.
There’s a greater problem here, though. And in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m going to put it in a spoiler tag. You can read it by highlighting the following text: It does ultimately swerve at the end as a game that’s secretly about something terrible happening to a woman, and then another woman taking action, courtesy of being spurred into action by another woman. It’s fascinating that the three characters actually in this story who did things to set things in motion and take action are women. The character of Ord’s story is a personal one, which happens to be about finding direction in his life as a person who’s otherwise fascinated by puzzles and complicated riddles except the events around him are really much more important and I feel would be better suited to focusing on the narrative of these women rather than on his struggle with the mystery. And of course, the finale, where Ord conceives his solution to be to write himself in the place of an abuser and give another, different out-of-nowhere romantic conclusion?
Look, let’s just say the ending of this game is super weak – at THE VERY LEAST, since it could also be called, oh, EXTREMELY CREEPY after its otherwise thoughtful, interesting and kinda cool story elements. Oh, and calling it the Samaritan Paradox is pretty irritating since it’s not something the story ever really highlights. There’s a great narrative twist effect, where you learn something amazing about the new information transforming the storytelling up to that point, and that’s why I think of it as a very European Cinema moment.
There’s something sincere with how this game handles its drama, though. Ord spends a lot of his time in the story sort of ricocheting around, making choices and decisions that make the best sense at the time. Then at the end as all these threads come together, you learn some of your actions weren’t for the best; that acting on your best intentions with the best information created problems, and yet also solved some problems.
There’s also a bit of a dreaded problem in point-and-clickers, the act-then-act-quickly problem; there are timed puzzles, and the fact characters need to learn facts before they can commit actions mean there can be times you’re barking up the right tree but haven’t had a chat with the right person yet to make it happen. Finally there’s some fiddly positional puzzles, and yes, there are positional timed puzzles, which is exceptionally obnoxious especially in an engine that isn’t really of the kind designed for this sort of thing. It even comes down to minor things like exits – fishing around at the edge of the screen for just where you can leave.
Oh and one final thing, the user interface is really badly signposted. I get that it’s nice to have minimalism in your design, but it’s not as intuitive as you think and led to me quitting out and losing progress at one point because I was trying to turn down the music.
In the end The Samaritan Paradox is a bit like Mass Effect 3 in that the final twist really changes the product you bought. At the same time I don’t want to talk like The Samaritan Paradox is like Mass Effect in that it’s competent in its choices, it’s just not something I necessarily think of as wise.
Buy it if:
- You like dense, complex puzzles in a point-and-click adventure
- You want a sort of Beneath A Steel Sky kind of puzzle-solving ouvre
- You want to spend some time wandering around in a detective story with classic problems
Avoid it if:
- Above content warning bothers you
- You’re looking for a long game
- You want a game that focuses on women as characters, rather than as narrative background