Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
There’s no punching in the opening of spy-comedy The Low Road, which released on PC, Mac, and Linux last July. There’s no bombastic chase scene followed by an explosion. There’s not even one Aston Martin. Instead, you have to talk on the phone.
The Low Road opens with a test of your capabilities. It’s your first day on the job, and you’re Noomi Kovacs, the brand new agent at Pembrook Motors’s Division of Outside Intelligence. It’s the late 1970s. She’s a corporate spy, and you, the player, have got to make her into the best possible agent that she could be. Well-trained, Noomi is prepared to do the kind of knockout work that would make James Bond proud.
Talking on the phone kicked my ass. Noomi is meant to pry some information out of the other person on the line by pretending to be her post-college roommate. Brilliantly, the designers of The Low Road put this in a Papers, Please-ish format, with my mouse controlling the flow of documents on the right and left sides of the screen.
Buried in this pile of newspaper clippings and known former addresses are the right answers that will help Noomi hit the heart of the matter. And as I’m digging through the papers, I keep saying to myself, I know it’s here. And I make my choices with relative certainty that I’m doing the right thing. And I mess up every single choice. Noomi gets screamed at, the line goes dead, and the next thirty minutes of adventure gameplay are riddled with people making fun of Noomi for messing it up.
In general, The Low Road is a brilliant adventure game. It’s well-made, cleverly designed, and has a narrative that just keeps on kicking through a tight two hours. It’s a travesty that I haven’t heard more more people talking about it. But it goes the extra mile, and that extra bit comes almost entirely from how it compresses Noomi, our main character, and the player into one composite being.
Video game culture is comfortable with talking about how we identify with the characters that we’re seeing onscreen. When we talk about representation in games, we’re talking about the ability for a given player to see themselves on that screen and, to some degree, to identify with them.
This is something that’s taken as a granted by most video game promos for the past decade. To be “immersed” is to feel like you’re really there, and to be “really there” you need to be able to shorten the distance between yourself and the character or perspective that you are controlling on the screen. To some degree, it’s about a lack of thought; the less you have to think about what the character on the screen would do and the more you just do things.
When doing the puzzles in The Low Road, whether they are of the information sorting variety or the more traditional adventure game kind, I felt the very edges of what me might call immersion in a game like Skyrim. I, acting as Noomi, was parsing through all of this information about the people I was talking to, sifting through the ways that they interact with the world so that I could respond in the appropriate way.
Importantly, The Low Road is a game where you can respond in incorrect ways. You can fumble a mystery, misunderstanding what you’re reading or remaining obstinate in the face of real data, and the game respects that. Short of some wonderful “you made this choice, the end” moments that immediately rewind you to the start of the conversation you goofed, it seems like there are a number of ways for players to make their way through the world of corporate espionage. While this game is as constrained as any other adventure game is, it doesn’t feel that way.
This matters because of where The Low Road goes. I’m remaining light on spoilers because I very seriously believe that you should go play it. Suffice to say that the game does what you might expect with a young, go-getting protagonist who is thrust into the world of spies and massive corporations. Noomi is asked to make some choices about her allegiances and how she wants to exist in this world, and those choices play out in (sometimes unpredictable) varied ways.
Despite a tone that’s sometimes more comedic, I think that this collapse of player and character forces us to ask some of the same questions that Noomi runs into near the end of the spy thriller. Somewhere in the back half her boss delivers some wisdom: “We’re corporate spies. Selling out is the business.”
And when I heard that line delivered, I paused. I had sifted through all of this information to get the right answers. I had done the adventure game item and object combinations. In first-person mode, I had completed complex puzzles to help my characters move forward. And I was so profoundly unhappy with what I had been given in that moment. Noomi was too.
The Low Road has a comedic tone and a sharp edge when it comes to thinking about how we’re supposed to live our lives, and it uses its first-person puzzles and information gathering sessions to shorten the gap between us, the player, and them, the characters in this fictional world. And the point of it is to say that despite the genre trappings, we’re not all the different.
The way we make decisions and the way we live our lives are strikingly similar. We’re making similar deals, and we’re all being forced to settle for what we get in the same way. When Noomi breaks free and makes her choices (as she has to), we’re supposed to be thinking about how we might do that. After all, we did the same work and made all those choices. Don’t we have the same right at a chance of escape?
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