I’m having a difficult time understanding my own reaction to Shardlight. I like the game less than I really want to, while simultaneously liking it more than I feel that I should. What Shardlight gets right is superb puzzle design that matches the game’s narrative arc. The narrative arc itself is at times a refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic world, one that eschews much of the dog-eat-dog libertarian attitudes that many such settings are presented as having in video games. Instead, it favors a more humanistic portrait of existence.
You play as Amy Wellard, a survivor and mechanic in the post-apocalyptic ruins of a city that was devastated by a war two decades ago and is being ravaged by a plague known as Green Lung. You find out early on that you’ve contracted the disease and are performing a job in the hopes of gaining a lottery ticket that will give you the chance at receiving a single dose of vaccine. The vaccine is controlled by the Aristocracy, the government oligarchs that are propped up by the city’s upper class. And where there’s an evil empire, there is also a plucky resistance.
The set up is not quite that simple, though. Like any great piece of complex science fiction, there are more factors at play than the straight forward dichotomy of its central conflict. While the leader of the resistance is a steadfast idealist, whose whole life has been dedicated to the cause, many of the characters around her are more concerned with the end goal of a better life that they believe that the resistance can bring rather than with the ideals at play.
Likewise, while it’s difficult to feel sympathetic to those in power, Shardlight manages amiably to do just that for most of its play time. Guards don’t flaunt their power, but treat citizens with civility and decorum, offering trades for goods needed by the state instead of simply confiscating them. There is also a genuine remorse felt by the aristocrat Tiberius when the situation forces him to commit awful acts in order to maintain stability in the post-apocalyptic, disease-ridden wasteland.
Throw in a death cult that worships the Reaper (a cult that prays for him to take them away from this bleak existence to the promised land), outsiders to the city with no stake in the conflict, and a group of rich people whose main crime is continuing to live life as if the bombs never fell, and you have a tableau rife with parallels to real life. Honestly, while the conflict between the Aristocracy and the rebels drives the plot, it feels like the least interesting thing about the story.
A lot of my positive feelings for the game come from its puzzles. They are designed with none of the catastrophic stalling that has been characteristic of object oriented adventure games since the genre’s inception. There aren’t any puzzles that are outright challenges to credulity. In fact, most of them are ordained by the narrative.
The closest that Shardlight gets to traditional adventure game logic is when you are tracking a trail of breadcrumbs left by a mysterious figure. Were I to describe the path that you have to follow to find said figure, it would sound like a textbook example of adventure game puzzle padding. Yet, this puzzle does much to build up the tension of meeting this character. The puzzles may have no plot relevance, but collected together they have a thematic relevance.
Much of Shardlight feels new and fresh mainly because it takes the path often not traveled by video games in this type of setting. Framing survival as not an all encompassing good, but as an activity that must be accomplished alongside other equally important aspects of life, is just the first of many good creative decision made by the developers.
The game explores what such a bleak situation would do to a people’s belief systems. It adds complexity by shading in otherwise stock characters and developing complex understandings of each side in the conflict, implying that they are not defined by moral absolutes.
So, when Shardlight pushes towards its admittedly well-crafted conclusion, I found myself a little disappointed that it returns the main thrust of the narrative to a focus on the conflict between centralized authority and the resistance. When juxtaposed with the earlier moments of subverting the hard lines of factions and Amy’s resulting spiritual journey after confronting death, it feels a bit rote.
Possibly my feelings towards Shardlight are complicated by the comparisons that I find myself making between it and other adventure games. It follows the same narrative trajectory as the abysmal Dead Synchronicity, so, of course, Shardlight will come out ahead by doing those same things well. Likewise, I can’t help but think of primary writer and designer Francisco Gonzalez’s previous game, A Golden Wake. That was a game that I felt the same sense of joy and disappointment in response to it as I do with Shardlight. It felt fresh, presenting a new setting and narrative arc not seen in video games, but didn’t have some underlying quality to push it beyond being solid.
Shardlight is a game that represents the best of its kind in regards to its imagery, its craftsmanship, and its structure, but when it comes to what’s underneath the hood, it feels like a bit of a lightweight.