“Cryostasis takes the player on a philosophical journey through the cold depths of the human mind.”
Developer: Action Forms
Publisher: 1C Company
Release Dates: 2008 (CIS), 2009 (Rest of World)
Genre: First Person Shooter / Survival Horror
NOTE: To get a better idea of what the purpose of the experimental style of this review is, please read this article.
Frequently, the ultimate goal of an artistically oriented medium is to tell a story. Obviously, books tell stories, but so do films, pieces of music, and even paintings. Anyone who takes interest in art in whatever form will tell you that the story behind the piece of art is at least as important as its physical representation. Why else would man have dedicated so much labour and study to the comprehension and interpretation of art, ever since the dawn of civilisation? The story is not only important, it is essential. A good story can even provide a seemingly random object with a meaning that goes beyond its everyday use. More importantly, it can justify the very existence of art, because where is art without purpose?
Story is not yet an integral and essential part of the video game medium.
With this in mind, it is not wholly surprising that, amidst the polemic surrounding video games as art, the sceptics direct most of their criticism towards the fact that, generally, video game stories pale in comparison to the stories told by established artistic media such as literature and film. This is only logical, seeing as the main purpose of games is still to entertain, and that entertainment is first and foremost derived from fascinating gameplay mechanics, and maybe technical aspects such as graphics and sound. Story is not yet an integral and essential part of the video game medium. Even when developers do make the effort to try and tell an interesting story, they often struggle to establish relevance with the gameplay, with the balance between the two components lacking as a result.
In order to avoid bringing up the entire debate again, it will suffice to say that even sceptics (such as yours truly) might see a potential turning point in Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason. The 2009 PC exclusive is hard to classify. The limited parameters that come with genre labels do not do this game justice. It could be named a first person shooter, but the heavy shooting mechanics are hardly where this game stands out. It could be called horror, but, eventually, the goal of Cryostasis is not to scare us, but to tell us a story, a story from which we may even learn something. The gloomy atmosphere that breathes throughout this entire game may very well be a coincidental side effect of the dark nature of that which it tries to tell us.
It must be said, though, that the setting of Cryostasis certainly aids in stimulating sentiments such as fear and anxiety. Set in the year 1981, the player assumes the role of Alexander Nesterov, a meteorologist whose job is to investigate the mysterious shipwreck of the North Wind, a Soviet nuclear ice breaker that has met its Waterloo in the thick ice of the North Pole. What at first seems like an unfortunate but, within the context, fairly ‘regular’ shipwreck at the hand of an iceberg akin to the fate that befell the Titanic, gradually turns out to be something far more sinister.
As Nesterov quickly learns, he is not alone on the ship. The frozen remains of the deceased crew members turn to life, and they do not greet his arrival with much cordiality. Fortunately, Nesterov is able to resist their attacks with the various weapons he gradually finds and collects as he explores the enormous ship. An axe, several rifles, a machine gun and a cold water gun are among his arsenal. While nearly all of these weapons are heavy and rusty, and require some getting used to, they are enough to repel the attacks of some of the bizarre creations that are encountered along the way.
It is easy to forget that this environment was created by humans.
Fittingly, Nesterov’s health is determined by his body temperature, meaning that enemy attacks can hurt him, but so can cold areas. Although in most rooms, health will only very gradually decrease to the local temperature, the fierce blizzards that Nesterov has to resist from time to time can prove to be fatal eventually. True to the nature of this innovative system, Nesterov’s health can be regenerated by ‘recharging’ it at heat sources such as light bulbs, heaters, and fire. This innovative system helps emphasise the cold, tenebrous atmosphere of Cryostasis. As you make your way through the frozen, decaying chambers of the ship, it is easy to forget that this environment was created by humans. What once was a proud ship now bears more resemblance to a depressing arctic wasteland surrounded by innumerable intimidating walls.
To help underline this contradiction, the game uses ‘interactive’ cutscenes. This means that, instead of the game taking control for a while to show you a cinematic clip, you can instead walk around in these cutscenes to see the action unfold from different angles. These ‘cutscenes’, if they may be even defined as such, are usually flashbacks that display the situation from before the ship was consumed by the forces of nature. Even though the North Wind was not the most cheerful place on Earth even before disaster hit, the contrast with its even darker present is jaw dropping at times. One particular section involves walking through the ship’s old sick bay, and confronts the player with countless flashbacks that give him an idea of what went wrong there. This eerie experience is definitely among the most memorable moments the game has to offer.
Even more important than these flashbacks is the Mental Echo system. This allows Nesterov to penetrate into the minds of deceased crew members, and relive their last memory. By handling the situation differently than the deceased originally did, his death can be avoided. Doing this can even directly influence the present, for example by clearing a path that was previously inaccessible. Along with the combat, the Mental Echo puzzles are the central element of Cryostasis’s gameplay. They can be as simple as ducking in order to avoid being penetrated by shards of glass, but they can also involve shooting hordes of enemies. Some Mental Echoes even reveal essential parts of the plot.
“The game delves so deep into the human mind, that it makes BioShock look like a bedtime story in comparison.”
And plot is where Cryostasis truly shines. The story is revealed to the player in various ways. Alongside the aforementioned flashbacks and Mental Echoes, important information is also revealed through various notes that contain impressive philosophical monologues written by the ship’s captain, as well as passages from an old Russian legend. While the latter may seem irrelevant at first, it quickly becomes apparent that the legend runs parallel with the fatal history of the North Wind. Especially later in the game, the story is provided with an increasingly complicated philosophical context, taking the plot as far as to a point where it mirrors the human tragedy in all its complexity. While this aspect is for individual players to discover and interpret by themselves, it must be said that it is remarkable how far the developers allow this philosophical context to interweave with the very core of the gameplay and presentation. Especially near the end, the game delves so deep into the human mind, and crosses the borders of what is customary in video game storytelling to such an extent, that it makes BioShock look like a bedtime story in comparison.
As with many brave efforts from creative Eastern European minds, it is clear that the Ukrainian developer Action Forms did not have the same resources at its disposal as some of the bigger Western gaming companies. While its presentation is thoroughly impressive in terms of both vision and sound, the optimisation of this game is very poor. As it does not support multicore rendering, it may even bring the most advanced systems to their knees. Moreover, the game relies heavily on PhsyX, special effects exclusive to nVidia cards, so especially ATI users will have to concede on some of the eye candy this game provides in potential. Particularly the framerate suffers from the heavy engine, causing some of the enemy encounters to be way more clunky than they were intended to be. Fortunately, the game itself is fairly stable, and crashes and bugs occur no more than they do in other games.
At times, Cryostasis feels like watching an astonishing film on a shoddy VHS recorder.
Let it be said, though, that Cryostasis is still worth every bit of trouble, even with some of the unreasonably high demands it presents us with. At times, the game feels much like watching an astonishing film on a shoddy VHS recorder. But in that analogy, even the occasional annoyance caused by the questionable quality of the VHS does not change the fact that the film itself is astonishing. Cryostasis, as a video game, is no different. It is a game that requires patience and a certain amount of tolerance on behalf of the player, but once story progresses, Cryostasis turns out a unique video game experience. As more chapters are concluded, the game takes its beholder further and further into the incredible depth it harbours. By means of immersion, atmosphere and creativity, the game slowly charms the player, and it is determined to not let him go before the very end.
Cryostasis truly is a game like no other. On one hand, it differentiates itself by creating an immersive world filled with creative gameplay and unforgettable sequences. On the other, it does so by not only wanting to tell us something, but wanting to teach us something, as well. What that lesson is may depend on the interpretation of the player, but let it never be said again that video games can only scratch the surface in terms of story. In fact, finishing Cryostasis is much like finishing a great book. After you turn the final page, your enthusiasm motivates you to tell what you have just read to everyone you run into. Soon you realise, however, that they must read the book themselves if they are to truly comprehend it, and appreciate it in the same way that you do.
Such is the nature of the true masterpiece, and such is the nature of Cryostasis. As said, finishing the game is like finishing a good book. And a wise man once said that finishing a good book is like saying goodbye to a good friend.