Electron Dance
24Nov/217

Fractures

This is the third part of a five-part series on INFRA. The previous parts were Optical Delusion and The Abandoned Church.

INFRA was a game I misunderstood. I had fallen in love with the dream of a game I imagined INFRA to be... and then ignored the unsettling creaking coming from the foundations.

Initially, it was harmless design choices that were easy to dismiss out of hand. NPCs appropriated as an impassable barrier. An elevator which conveniently fails. An unimportant notice to go along with an important one. The endless rows of binders marked “useless stuff”, “nothing” and “random stuff”.

I was confident that INFRA was a serious game and held fast to this conviction for most of its playtime. I find this strange. Because of the mushrooms, man. The bloody mushrooms. Creak.

I was sailing through flooded rock tunnels on a makeshift raft as if I was riding a stripped-down version of It’s a Small World without any of the exhibits or people or music. Well, there were some luminous green mushrooms but they were the opposite of eye candy: eye irritant. Their supernatural glow seemed an act of self-vandalism from the development team, grafitti defacing the modest design that had defined INFRA so far.

The tunnels needed a bit of decoration because they were an uninteresting blend of grey rock and random detritus. So I gave INFRA the benefit of the doubt: I was sure it was a desperate attempt to inject life into the lifeless. But then it seemed like the developers were worried I might have missed the mushrooms because they popped up again later. And again. And again. Eventually they were promoted to plot point. How about some mushroom moonshine? Or a deadly mushroom contagion? But videogame mushrooms wouldn’t be nearly enough to shake me from my dream.

An issue with exploration games is the compulsion to attach mechanics where perhaps none are needed. INFRA has a few tricks to engage the player and offer some challenge; but all its tricks rust over time, causing distress instead of delight. Initially I thought INFRA might be a serious urban photography game, as Mark, the protagonist, is meant to collect photographic evidence of damage and neglect, as well as any documentation he comes across. But there’s no indication there’s any in-game value to them. To some extent this is commendable as it suppresses the importance of this activity which is - and let’s be honest - hunting collectibles.

But the game is long, much much longer than you’d think. At a certain point, it gets boring wheeling out the camera and scanning each room for photo-collectibles. It seems entirely pointless busywork to keep you from your ultimate quest. While certain aspects of material fatigue are easy to spot in the environment, at times it feels arbitrary. Cracks are often meant to be photographed but not all cracks are created equal.

Of course, INFRA is testing whether you can recognise crumbling walls at ten paces, so the developers do not want you scanning areas with your smart camera that identifies photographic hotspots all the time. They made the camera require batteries which run out after mere minutes. A modern game is more likely to shy away from batteries towards a recharge mechanic but, unfortunately, INFRA has you chasing batteries. And while I understand the design motives trying to coax the player into using the camera frugally, I am less charitable towards the flashlight also needing batteries.

It was definitely the right move to invent two distinct types of batteries but I could not understand why the explorer-player was compelled to rush through dark areas and use the flashlight sparingly. There’s no upside: it makes every dark area stressful to navigate and not in a good way like, say, Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). INFRA does reward the player with a battery-less flashlight upgrade towards the end of the game but this should have been handed to the player far earlier.

How can a game that’s all about the glorious beauty of forgotten factories and disused tunnels focus your attention on the mundane, on sifting through drawers and cupboards for batteries? I recommend Mark sees a therapist about his unseemly kleptomaniac urges.

All the photographic collectibles are logged with a ringing sound but there’s a sinking feeling that none of this is important. There are no stats to track and no one ever mentions any of the evidence you’ve collected. And when Stalberg begins to collapse later in the game, I was exasperated to see Mark was still intent on taking pictures of little cracks and burst pipes wherever he found them. And explosions. "Oh, this seems important for my survey, better take a snap for reference later."

The collectibles have one important impact which is never communicated: the more collectibles you have, the better the ending you get. I got a decent ending but there’s no way I’m playing INFRA again to see another. YouTube is your friend.

YouTube is also your friend for the puzzles, which are a huge part of INFRA. At the office, it’s simple time-passing stuff like replacing fuses. Things began to go wrong quickly at the next major location, the dam. There’s a security door panel which must be used to get access to other rooms in the dam complex.

It isn't at all obvious what the panel does and why it might not be working - I was utterly confused. I thought this might just be a single misfire, but this janky puzzle design kept returning like a drunk boomerang, throwing up on the carpet just when you thought you'd seen the last of it. I’d think I'd understood a control panel only to discover NOPE YOU'RE WRONG. For some of these puzzles I resorted to brute force, rattling through different combinations in the hope of making progress, because I sure as Hell wasn’t going to work it out.

I felt the developers had bitten off more than they could chew and INFRA was littered with mistakes. Take a look at the example below. There are two sets of lights by this door. One set is green, but the door does not open. Is it because of the other set of lights which appear unpowered? They are not attached to anything and there are no switches or wires to indicate where I should be looking. Confusion reigned.

And INFRA continued to jettison the “realism” angle. Here is a coffee maker which also doubles as a door opener. I was able to solve this, but it riled me. I suspected INFRA was mocking my attempts to immerse myself in its universe by dangling parodic reality in my face at every opportunity. Eventually, I inwardly groaned every time I encountered a locked door or an obstacle to overcome. I would brace myself, wondering what ridiculous shenanigans INFRA expected of me this time.

And while I battled with machines and heroically repaired water treatment plants single-handedly, INFRA kept pumping in toxic story sludge. A secret nuclear weapons facility that kidnapped scientists and executed everyone on a stray metro train. An illegal mushroom moonshine operation that steals a button needed to activate a drawbridge. Head in hands.

And Mark swears, too.

I honestly didn’t need Mark to swear. It was incongruous, like a kid trying to conjure authentic-sounding SRSLY dialogue. This is a thing which happens with videogames: recently I’ve been putting up with unwanted profanity from Claire De Lune (Tactic Studios, 2021). It’s a personal pet peeve. Sure, I admit I was more sensitive as I was playing INFRA in front of my children, but it just added to my general sense of unease about the game.

The penny only dropped after I returned to Mark’s offices and discovered two of his coworkers had pressed a few too many random buttons on their survey of the Two Gorges Dam, just like Mark had done during his exploration of the Hammer Valley Dam. Their button-pressing mishap, however, led to the dam collapsing, Stalburg flooding and a nuclear reactor heading for meltdown...

I was the real idiot here. INFRA wasn’t a serious tale about what happens when city infrastructure is neglected despite the 2009 documentary The Crumbling of America being one of the game's inspirations. No, INFRA is something else entirely. It would be better described as a black comedy or farce. Although I'm not sure I could describe it as a good black comedy. The different elements just don't mesh together at all; INFRA has as many fractures in its own infrastructure as Stalburg.

But it was too late to see it with different eyes. I had already fallen out of love.

Next: A Game I Didn’t Want

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  1. “Eventually, I inwardly groaned every time I encountered a locked door or an obstacle to overcome. I would brace myself, wondering what ridiculous shenanigans INFRA expected of me this time.”

    How I feel about most puzzles in most games these days :’) just let me see your cool infrastructure, damn it.

  2. Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking piece. I’m afraid I don’t have too much to offer in return, except that viz caves, mushrooms, bioluminescence I got to wondering whether I could rope in a related problem, which I call ‘scenery porn’. This an entirely subjective phenomenon (perhaps local only to me) where environmental design is wrought so exquisitely that it, at a certain tipping point, ceases to be immersive and instead becomes ostentatious, calling attention to itself in an immersion-shattering way. I don’t always experience this gripe; it only seems to occur in playthroughs of certain Dear Esthers. I mean, games.

    Thank God DE didn’t have you chasing batteries though! Just finding the submachine gun was enough of a faff.

  3. Droqen

    I have this suspicion-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: adding puzzles to a game is sometimes seen as a way to fix the ‘gameplay’ of a walksim. But puzzling is not their forte, so the cutprice puzzles mar the experience. Then again, I’m a bloody snob who likes lo-fi block pushers.

  4. CA

    I understand what you mean but I haven’t felt this so far – I’m usually so happy to see brilliance in the art/technicals that I don’t care that it looks too good. It is something I wonder about though – having gone to so many stunning virtual places – I wonder sometimes that I get too addicted to gfxporn. And that it’s diminishing other less sensational environments? I don’t know. Semi-formed thoughts here in the comments.

  5. It’s too bad about the inconsistent quality – of puzzles vs walking. It does seem like it would come from people and teams trying to squeeze in puzzles for “gameplay” without actually wanting it (but just feeling pressured, despite not being creatively compelled). I guess what I mean to say is that I share your suspicion. I’d be very curious to know how close we are in reality; maybe I have some devs to go bother (in the best of faith).

    I’ll make another lo-fi block pusher for bloody snobs like you yet.

  6. Thinking something is one thing (like, say, a serious and immersive sim focused on the discovery of crumbling infrastructure) only to discover it is something else (like, say, a campy farce full of absurd lever-puzzles) is a ticket to an unpleasant experience. Indeed, even if the “something else” it happens to be is pretty good—which does not appear to be a factor in this case—the disorientation can be enough to taint the experience.

    Though you do have to wonder what was going through the developers’ minds here. I mean, did they have a clear vision from the outset, but fail to communicate it clearly in the early stages? Or did Infra evolve over time? Were the puzzles levered in as a way of “gamifying” an experience they thought was maybe too dull otherwise, or was it always intended to be a game of infuriating locked doors?

    As an open message to all game developers, not just those on Infra: BATTERIES DO NOT WORK THAT WAY.

  7. Hey Steerpike, I think the developers had always intended puzzles from the beginning but I don’t think they had the puzzles in mind – it certainly looks to me like the environments came first and puzzles were attached to them. However, saying this, I know plenty of people have enjoyed INFRA. We’ll have another chat about these contradictions in the final part of my INFRA “walkthrough”.


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