The relationship between authors and the games that spring from their work is a curious one.
What would Dante Alighieri think, were he whisked from the 14th century to witness Dante’s Inferno, the delicate adaptation from Visceral Games? Watching his hero hack Death in half, via a nifty quick-time event, would he be gratified to note that his opus was anything but, that it had endured the millennium, or would he merely be desperate to get back? Better the devil you know. Andrzej Sapkowski appears not to care a jot about The Witcher, whose star leapt happily from the page and hasn’t looked back. At the other end of the spectrum, Tom Clancy went as far as forming his own development studio, Red Storm Entertainment, in 1997. I suppose it makes sense. If you have already infused your prose with the beep and tap of technology, why not vice versa?
The thought arises because of The Invincible, a first-person adventure from Polish developer Starward Industries. It is based on the book of the same name by Stanisław Lem, and it centres on Yasna, an astronaut marooned on an alien rock – inasmuch as it can centre, given the narrative blackouts that blight the action. Yasna awakes on Regis III, one of those planets that look great on the covers of pulp science fiction: spooky swirls of rock, Saturn-like rings in the sky, and the odd robot clanking around. The robots, along with the rest of the toys, have a retro charm: saucepan heads and nozzle arms just waiting to flail, plus a shiny hexapod that shoots a lovely scarlet death ray. A similar creature can be found in this year’s Planet of Lana, which sees another young woman stranded on another strange world. What is it about isolation that so appeals?
Not that Yasna is completely by herself. She is accompanied over the radio by Novik, an astrogator, senior in rank, who guides her progress from the ship, anchored in low orbit. Your mission is, first, to get your bearings; second, to look for lost members of your crew; and, third, to find out what gives with the weird metallic structures – like nests of robotic noodles – that have sprouted all over the place. It sounds simple enough, although it soon turns out not to be. The usual hiccups ensue: dead colleagues and dwindling oxygen tanks, faulty machines and winches that run out of rope, as if in solidarity with the story. Indeed, there is a sense of mounting fatigue to The Invincible. When Yasna says, around the halfway point, “This mission drags on so much,” you wonder if she means the pace of the plot, which is difficult to decipher early on, or merely the pace of her legs.
We spend the game sealed in Yasna’s suit, which is like hiking while wrapped in a duvet. Your tread is heavy and muffled, your visor mists over in exhaustion, and the little bronze microphone of Yasna’s headset lurks at the left of the frame. The result is a kind of perpetual and mild claustrophobia. Such is the condition in which real astronauts go about their business, I guess, in the paradox of their profession. They couldn’t be more outside, yet they spend most of their days capped into white tubes like toothpaste.
Even so, Yasna does seem to lather a little easily into panicked desperation. Granted, she appears to suffer bouts of narcolepsy at the most inopportune times, but astronauts are supposed to be level souls, grounded even in zero gravity, and all but unflappable. Yet Yasna not only surveys her predicament and concludes, “I’m pretty much fucked,” but, for a botanist, she is awfully prone to dreamy outbursts of existential philosophy. “I’m becoming more and more convinced that what I know is not the same as what exists,” she says. Then, later on: “I heard that the difference between past, present and future is nothing but a persistent illusion.” I know how she feels. Tenses can be tricky, but try telling that to Stanisław Lem, a man who wrote novels, literary criticism, essays on artificial intelligence, screenplays, radio plays, and a philosophical treatise on the link between human beings and machines.
Lem is one of those writers who make you feel lazy. He passed away in 2006, but I like to think that, were he still with us, he would have insisted on learning to code and steering Starward Industries in the right direction. What would he make of the result? He may be gratified to see that Regis III is a “dull-colored continent dotted with craters” and “swathed in wooly red clouds,” as it is described in the book. And he may be touched to hear Yasna note that “the clear distinction between humans and robots will soon disappear.” However, the clear distinction between books and games shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.
The sparse and speedy paragraphs that open the novel stab nicely through the void of space, and through nebulas of philosophical wrangling. Lem’s prose is solid but light, like a landing capsule; and he catches blasts of beauty (“the reflected fire of the rocket’s nose-cone”) on the wing. The game, by comparison, isn’t as nimble. We are locked into Yasna’s struggle, and the wonders of Regis III are strained through her swaying gaze, the scratched glass of her helmet, and the dull glaze of her back-and-forth with Novik. Most of the mechanics consist of pressing buttons, checking maps, and marching hither and thither. I’d be tempted to call it Firewatch in space, only that game, with its stoked colours, had the chemistry of its two leads to rely on. You didn’t need to watch for fire; you could hear it in the airwaves. Yasna, for all of Novik’s worrying, feels alone.
Still, if you have a soft spot for sixties space chic, The Invincible may be worth an hour or two of your time. The interiors of the ship, which we glimpse in flashback, recall the designs of Galina Balashova, whose drafts for the Soviet space program are a dream of comfort and style. Check out the cigarette packets that litter the meeting rooms, the ashtrays that resemble Aztec pyramids, and the chocolate leather of the seats. Down on terra firma, Yasna, plants a transmitter in the soil: a yolk-yellow cylinder that pulls out like an umbrella and unfurls into a foil dish. If you are on that nerdy frequency, this game is guaranteed to speak to you. When it comes to Regis III, as with The Invincible, I agree with Yasna’s assessment, purely as a botanist: “Perhaps not highly fertile, but not entirely barren.”
Game: The Invincible
Platform: PC / PlayStation 5 / Xbox Series X|S
Developer: Starward Industries
Publisher: 11bit Studios
Release Date: November 6, 2023