[31 March 2008]
Based on the popularity of the television series Lost, it’s not at all surprising that the franchise would spawn a video game. Given the nature of the show and its intricate structure, however, particularly keeping in mind that the overarching mystery of the series isn’t set to be resolved for years, making a compelling game experience would seem to be a challenging endeavor. The tone of the show lends itself well to an adventure game, and the choice to present Lost: Via Domus as such seems a wise one. In fact, the presentation of the game in general is actually quite accomplished, from the separation of the seven chapters into distinct “episodes”, bookended by the television show’s trademark opening and closing sequences, to the well-done character modeling.
Some story choices allow Via Domus to avoid making the overarching mystery of the series the focal point, while still maintaining some of its elements for the sake of familiarity. The character you play, Elliot, starts the game having suffered amnesia due to the crash, and through the course of the seven sections of the game, you start to piece together his backstory through flashback sequences, all the while interacting with various familiar faces on the island. In this sense, the mystery elements of the show are somewhat preserved, yet are focused on the protagonist. One problem that undermines this sense of mystery, however, is that since the game and television show both start at the same time, many of the discoveries made by Elliot are already well-known to Lost fans. As such, things that are revelatory to Elliot are common knowledge to everyone to whom Via Domus will appeal.
Given that much of the challenge in developing Via Domus must have stemmed from integrating it into the Lost mythos, and that the game was developed by the very talented Ubisoft Montreal (the developers behind such well-received titles as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six franchises) it is surprising that so many missteps were made with respect to fundamental game design. The conversation mechanic, central to this type of adventure game, is extremely limited. The options of what to say to any given character are discretely separated into story-advancing and optional, and there appears to be no branching whatsoever. Given that these sections contain such a dearth of interactivity, and further, given how wonderfully the game recreates the look of the island and it’s familiar inhabitants, it actually might have made more sense to structure more of these conversations as simple cut scenes.
Puzzles, normally so integral to adventure games, are largely lumped into a single type of logic problem, tasking the player to insert fuses of varying orientations and branches in order to complete circuits. By the end, these puzzles wind up being tedious, if not exactly frustrating. Also, while the initial encounters with the smoke creature are well-executed, eliciting tension and suspense, a section in which you must traverse the jungle, hopping between “safe points” where the creature cannot attack you, is poorly designed, since its appearance is quasi random and navigation through the jungle is somewhat muddled. The jungle navigation might have benefited from a mini map or arrow system, though admittedly the compass and marker mechanic used by the game is arguably more immersive.
If the structuring of a typical episode of the television series were any indication, one would expect the game to be chock full of hidden references to discuss with fellow fans. Somewhat surprisingly, this is largely untrue. By fulfilling certain requirements, you do get to visit some locations from the show that have no direct bearing on progress within the game, but it might have been better if more of the kinds of things that diehard fans of the series like to discuss after each episode were included. Book placements, film references, musical titles…anything that might have teased the overall plot a little more would have been welcome.
What this all amounts to is that too much of Via Domus‘s appeal stems from its ability to successfully evoke sections and locations from the show without being able to further the mystery meaningfully. Certainly the target demographic, namely gamers who are also fans of the show, will find much that is familiar. But since the general discoveries that occur during the course of the game unrelated to the protagonist replicate those that occurred on the show quite some time ago, some of the gravity of plot twists and reveals, so integral to the franchise, are much less so here.
The problem, of course, in developing a game based on an ongoing television series as opposed to a film property is that the development is occurring against a moving target, with respect to plot. This is particularly true in the case of a show like Lost that has heavy elements of continuity from episode to episode and season to season. Obviously, a balance must be struck, in that since television is the core medium through which the Lost canon is explored, nothing essential to understanding the story can be exclusively revealed in another format. It would be interesting to know how much about the current state of the show Ubisoft Montreal knew when they began development on Via Domus. The title was announced nearly two years ago, a lifetime with respect to the progression of the Lost storyline. Still, some late elements of the game’s narrative do tie in to recent episodes of the show. Given these considerations, particularly as a fan, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat impressed by the execution of Via Domus from a purely narrative-oriented standpoint, and again, the recreation of the island is very well done. That said, several pieces of the underlying game design would have benefited from retooling, and as an overall experience in this particular medium, the game itself suffers.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lost-via-domus/