Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Some folks in the game industry, like BioShock creator Ken Levine, will tell you there are only so many kinds of stories one can tell with a video game, only so many ideas that can be expressed through the frameworks that define each genre of game. “It’s really tough to make a game about any particular topic…So we tend to have fewer forms in the game space,” he told Kotaku a couple of years ago. That’s not true, of course.
What underlies that mode of thinking is the idea that what a game’s creators want to express with a game must be subservient to whatever established video game framework is being used. BioShock itself could be the poster child for this, being a game that comments on its genre (the linear first-person shooter) but without the last bit of bravery needed to do more than comment. It’s a game that very pointedly tells you what it is—a game, like most others, that offers you the illusion of control without actually providing any—without having any real desire to be something else or to upend convention.
That’s emblematic of the state of video games as an art form right now, even though BioShock is nearly nine years old at this point. The evolution of how games are used as a means of expression is largely stagnant. But some developers are taking baby steps in the right directions. Klaus, an independent game released this month for the PlayStation 4, is one of them.
On its face, it appears to be a standard puzzle platformer with a focus on storytelling akin to Mike Bithell’s breakout indie hit Thomas Was Alone. But making that very surface read is to do Klaus and its creators a disservice. Klaus does exist within an established video game framework (one of the oldest, as the puzzle platformer is a descendant of Super Mario Bros.) but it’s also a game that bends that framework to its will in order to say what it wants to say—something more games should strive for.
The product of a small group of developers called La Cosa, Klaus is the story of a man who awakens in a basement with the word “Klaus” tattooed on his arm. He doesn’t know how he got there or anything about his past, and like anyone would in a situation like that he starts walking. Navigating this basement, though, is not so easy, because it’s essentially a trap-filled obstacle course. Getting Klaus through requires you (the player) to use the PlayStation 4 controller’s touchpad to manipulate platforms and open doors and the like, something that surprises Klaus.
From Klaus’s perspective, these doors are opening and platforms are moving with a clear intent but no apparent cause. He senses that you’re there, helping him, and he begins addressing you directly. Some would call this a subversion, like BioShock or the endlessly self-referential Stanley Parable, but I don’t think that’s the right word. Those games are said to be subversive because they’re deconstructions of gaming—but they’re not ultimately interested in examining anything outside of their own asses.
Klaus may initially feel like it’s going down that same path, but it’s not. The boss at La Cosa is a guy named Victor Velasco, and Klaus is about him. Before moving to LA and becoming a film student (along with several of his peers at La Cosa), Velasco worked in a cubicle as a systems engineer for an insurance company.
“When I made the first version of Klaus I was just trapped in this company, so it was a way to escape from that,” Velasco told me at the PlayStation Experience, a convention that took place in San Francisco in December. “You have this level that is a cafeteria, and there’s a guy just throwing coffee at you all the time,” he said, describing android office worker enemies Klaus encounters midway through the game. His explanation for those enemies speaks to what he’s ultimately trying to do with Klaus.:
“I felt that. You have this social excuse of just going to the cafeteria to get something just to avoid working, because you don’t love what you’re doing in these places.”
The further you explore the game, the more you can see that allegorical intent. Klaus will discover he’s a clone, and that each time he dies a new one of him is made. He meets a man named K1, a cro-magnon version of him who has been stuck in this building for decades. Klaus comes to the conclusion that the player is a quality assurance employee of the company that inhabits this building and that he is merely a test subject. He doesn’t like this, for obvious reasons, and decides to rebel against your commands by doing the opposite of what you tell him to do (e.g. he goes right when you move the stick left). And it only gets nuttier from there.
Littered throughout are “secret” “collectibles” that unlock Klaus’s memories. But unlike what you’d expect from a game like this they’re really hardly hidden, instead lying slightly off the path. And since the path is almost entirely linear it’s not difficult to notice when there’s a diversion from it. Normally I’m one to scoff at pointless video game collectibles but these are fine because they aren’t a distraction. And discovering them does add a lot. Free from the limitations of the narrative, it’s in these memories where LA Cosa really goes wild. Like this:
The red words will kill him and the yellow ones are safe, see. And this is hardly the most outlandish of these segments, though it is one of the best illustrations of what Klaus, the game, aspires to be as an experimental work of art.
Earlier I referred to Klaus as taking baby steps, and that’s because it never completely breaks free of the constraints of being a puzzle platformer (it’s great at being one of those, by the way). “We’re trying to make something that at first looks accessible” before moving away from convention, Velasco told me, an understandable sentiment given the precariousness of the video games business, especially since Klaus is La Cosa’s first game and they don’t have a marketing budget to speak of. I can respect that sort of “the realities of game development” excuse here because I can see the intent that these creators had in making this game.
So while Klaus doesn’t quite have what I would call an unadulterated vision, it’s closer to having one than any other game I’ve played in a long time. As an experiment in figuring out where the line is and how best to move past it, Klaus feels like a triumph.
Klaus is available now on PlayStation 4.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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