Electron Dance
23Apr/13Off

The Secret of Kairo

kairo-lift

Richard Perrin's first-person exploration/puzzle game Kairo (available on Steam tomorrow) is a great example of environmental narrative taken to the extreme, because it tells a story eschewing words almost completely.

Yet after browsing reviews and impressions pieces, I discovered some players had trouble figuring out the story.

At The Border House, Michelle Ealey wrote: “After my first playthrough of Kairo, I was frustrated. I didn’t get it; I really didn’t know what had happened and why.”

John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that "your purpose in Kairo is never explained" and "quite what Kairo is about entirely eludes me".

And Andrew Plotkin: “If I were to level a charge, it would be that the game world never really coheres, beyond the visual level. An adventure can set up its narrative drive through discovered texts and journals (old gag though that is). Or it can build a narrative out of its artistic details, the discovered connections and implications hidden in the visual world. Or this structure can come from the gameplay itself -- the connections you discover between the puzzles and mechanisms that make up the game. By solving, you learn what it's for.”

I'm going to let you decide. In this image-heavy post, I'm going to take you through my deconstruction of Kairo's story, start to finish. This means spoilers, of course. Massive spoilers the size of the Death Star.    

Auxiliary Power

We start in a white void, staring into a fog of questions. Who are we? Why are we here? What is this place? Is this a virtual construct or real?

kairo-white-void

We only really have one option - to explore the structure in the distance.

The game, at this early stage, suggests we are exploring the ruins of an ancient culture. Just inside the building, we find a throne – a recurring theme in Kairo – which suggests this was a seat for a monarch or similar figure, someone of importance. This is also the first time you see the tree symbol; perhaps it is the insignia of a leader or clan? We’ll come back to what this represents much later.

kairo-throne

However, we are already made aware of the tone of this place, signalled via the disquieting ambient soundtrack by Wounds (Bartosz Szturgiewicz). In the original alpha, the soundtrack also demonstrated feelings of wonder and awe which lead me to write that Kairo was “calming and reassuring”. In the release version, this positive spark has all but been snuffed out and Wounds' music is mysterious and threatening. We are in an alien domain. Perhaps we do not belong here.

kairo-auxpower-hub

Soon, we will find the first hub chamber and from here we can find four puzzles that await us. Before I get to what these puzzles represent, there are a few rooms that carry information for us, if we're willing to take notice.

There's a pink space containing a platform that erupts to life when we step onto it. The crackle of static fills our ears and several panels appear, each one depicting an image of destruction. Is this a warning? A prophecy? Has this already happened? If we listen carefully, the ambient music develops a more sinister undertone when we stand on this platform. These visions are important.

kairo-screens

There's also a corridor that I refer to as the mausoleum, because it contains nothing but coffins. Our current theory of ancient ruins suggests that these are the bodies of the people who built this place. But each coffin bears a screen and all of them display white noise… except two.

kairo-mausoleum

One of the screens relays a scene where we are moving through a continuous series of arches; the “camera” is heading into the distance. On the other screen, the image moves and twists as we step around the coffin. Examine it closely enough, and we will observe that the screen is reflecting what we are seeing. What does this mean?

kairo-coffin-travelling-screen

The first structure in Kairo provides only questions; answers are for later.

It is time to review the puzzles, each of which has a particular function. Before we can descend into the underground chamber below the hub room, we need to accomplish four tasks.

One – generate a concentrated beam of light. I refer to this as the “sun room”.

kairo-sun-room

Two – release water into channels that feed into the hub room.

kairo-water-channel

Three – activate the power generator.

kairo-generator

Four – touch a tree symbol.

kairo-key

Impossibly large locations seem to overlap, suggesting each doorway is more of a gateway between constructed spaces, as if we are moving through the infinitely complex bowels of the TARDIS from Doctor Who. The light beam that goes up from the “sun room” comes down into the hub.

The hub will only open once all four puzzles are completed. We can interpret this in many ways, although here is my breakdown: the tree symbol unlocks the lower chamber; the generator enables the “lift” which takes us down; the water powers the chamber through hydroelectric conversion; and the light beam... well, that's the whole point. (I’d argue, however, that Kairo does not provide enough feedback to let us figure out exactly what each component is for.)

kairo-reflector

Our task is to redirect the light beam out of the structure which, once we are back outside, activates a vast new structure that was previously hidden. This is a momentous moment that will trigger euphoria in any explorer-player: if you thought the first structure was big, well, zowee, look at the size of that.

kairo-awaken-engine

The purpose of the first building is to awaken the second and we can think of it as an auxiliary power supply. It is in the second building, however, where Kairo begins to spill its secrets.

Engine

Inside the second building, we are funnelled through a chamber containing a sunken column and a battery of empty screens. Once we trigger the column, the screens activate – and it looks like someone is watching us. Who is out there? Who is the Big Brother of Kairo?

kairo-big-brother

Beyond this chamber, we encounter another throne, bearing a new mouth symbol. It soon becomes clear that the symbol is the structure's name and not representative of some past clan or political power.

kairo-engine-throne

After this, a new hub area awaits us which connects to three new puzzles. Each puzzle has a specific role as in the first structure.

Let's consider the first puzzle, deep underground, in which we have to activate a machine for mining. But inside the machine is a clue that changes the meaning of the game. On the wall is a map.

kairo-engine-earth-map

This alien world has something to do with Earth. Now we begin to connect some worrying dots – images of ruin, coffins, a map of Earth. Is Kairo carrying the last humans after Earth was devastated? Is Kairo, in fact, a man-made artefact?

The second puzzle is a manufacturing machine, which converts mined materials into useful products. Once activated, it starts processing the mined “cubes” into different colours. But what will these materials be used for?

kairo-manufacturing

Once the machine is active, we can see materials being carried alongside an adjacent corridor. There's another slight narrative hiccup here, because the machine will process mined cubes even if the mining machine puzzle is not solved first and unable to provide raw materials.

kairo-materials-carried-away

The third puzzle appears to be a giant reactor of some sort. Kairo needs enormous reserves of power for something. But what is that something?

kairo-reactor

All together, these elements are the “engine” of Kairo. Once the three machines are activated, we are permitted to use a domed elevator that takes us to the second level of the complex and face a new puzzle hub.

There are four new puzzles that need to be solved here, which do not appear to relate explicitly to machinery. Here's where I think Kairo becomes a little unstuck, because these machines do not appear to have any direct purpose and are more like challenges. In fact, I wasn't able to figure out their meaning without, uh, looking under the hood of the game. It seems that they are merely challenges, designed to test your worth before we are allowed to proceed to the next section of Kairo.

Possibly there is a more metaphysical explanation for these chambers, but that feels unsatisfactory. Up to now, each machine has had a specific purpose, so the thematic switch feels inconsistent and Kairo appears far more game-like.

However, all four puzzles contain images from human culture – again reinforcing the connection between Kairo and Earth. Kairo knows humanity very well.

kairo-human-culture

There is another hint in Kairo’s structure. In one connecting tunnel, a wall is broken revealing DNA. Why does Kairo carry DNA in its memory?

kairo-gtca-leak

After besting the four new challenges, we ascend to the monitoring station to discover the identity of the Kairo Big Brother. We know how 3D games made on shoestring budgets play out, so we know there isn't going to be a fully interactive character to meet. So in a sense, the revelation shouldn't be a shock – but it is.

kairo-skeleton

It's disheartening to discover someone was here before us and died alone. While it felt like Kairo was a safe place and would never let any harm come to us, we discover someone else has already died here, deep in the bowels of Kairo. Were they also tasked with solving the mystery of Kairo… and failed? Or did they accept the task of maintenance, watching over Kairo so that it did not collapse?

They've scratched on the station throne in English. This suggests Kairo is not man-made, because there is no recognizable human script used in Kairo – merely characters taken from an alien language. We humans are trapped here.

Now recall the mausoleum. There were two coffins with functioning monitors. One of them twisted and turned as we gazed at it, reflecting our own view. The other was travelling forever into the distance. It is now much more likely the coffins contain humans; the first human emerged, got as far as the monitoring station, and died. Kairo eventually reset and let out a second human. We are that second human.

We might wonder if we are still in that coffin, but it's unlikely considering we have discovered the corpse of our predecessor.

Kairo has woken us to complete the mission. But what is the mission?

Control

Beyond the monitoring station, we find four pads. Each one takes us to a different destination. We recognise only two of the symbols.

kairo-floor-pads

The torii symbol on the far left takes our starting point in the void and the one of the far right, the fern, is where we are headed next. The third and final complex which reveals Kairo's true purpose.

We enter a vast hub area in which three puzzles are hidden. The first puzzle is a machine that collects the prepared materials from the engine complex.

kairo-delivery

The second puzzle is a machine that produces water. The interesting point about the water room is that the puzzle involves four bodies. Four bodies means they are unlikely to represent the Earth, Sun and Moon. Do they represent the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Earth? Or something else?

kairo-water-bodies

Once the puzzle is solved, it begins to rain outside the water machine and streams form in the hub area. The machine produces real water, not the “Kairo water” we saw in the auxiliary power section.

kairo-rain

The last puzzle unlocks Kairo's genetic memory.

kairo-dna

Once we solve it, birds fly overhead the “life temple” which contained the puzzle.

kairo-birds

And images of Earth animals dot the hub landscape.

kairo-animals

Kairo is Noah’s Ark. The purpose of Kairo is to breathe life back into Earth after some terrible disaster in the distant past. Kairo is part-machine, part-test. Only if the few survivors can figure out how Kairo works will Earth be reborn. They are tasked with proving themselves worthy, worthy of a second chance.

After the puzzles, there is just one place left to go. There is another room in the hub area that offers no puzzle, but is home to plenty of interesting imagery.

First note the final throne, before which is a map of the world. This rough, stone-looking map evokes a dead world more than some of the other images we have seen.

kairo-control-throne

kairo-stone-map

And here is something that bears closer inspection; a ghostly image of a dead Earth, with two spheres either side.

kairo-dead-earth

Look at the projection of the image onto on the floor. We’ve seen this peculiar shape only once before in the game: on the Kairo title screen.

kairo-title

That symbol, which has been staring us in the face from the very start of the game, is Kairo. Two artificial moons orbiting the Earth. That's why the water room had four bodies: the Earth, the Moon and Kairo.

We proceed onwards to the final chamber that contains a single floor pad. Once we step onto it, we witness the Earth being invigorated by two spheres spinning about it. In the background, a statue of a humanoid figure is illuminated.

kairo-living-earth

All of Kairo's machines awaken and perform their mighty work. After the credits finish, we are allowed one brief glimpse of life on Earth, now reborn.

kairo-second-chance

The Biggest Secret

I wrote last October that “Dear Esther doesn't need collectibles. Neither does Proteus. Nor Kairo.” Well, I was wrong. Kairo has collectible runes hidden in the most obnoxious places. These runes contribute nothing to the story of Kairo and only count towards the “secret ending”, unlocked if you discover all of Kairo's secrets. Further, the secret ending is a fourth-wall breaking tribute for dedicated players and yields no additional revelations about Kairo.

Yet, there are some secrets that do require discussion because they have narrative importance.

If we solve the optional music room puzzle in the auxiliary power structure or the hex room in the final control complex, we will be offered a brief vision of Earth in ruins. These merely confirm our understanding of the story and do not actually add anything.

kairo-hex-portal

However, if we solve the Skylab puzzle – which can only be done if multiple Kairo players work together – we will be rewarded with a very special vision.

kairo-skylab-portal

This vision allows you to witness dead Earth from space, its signature blue replaced with a dark, caramelised brown. But move the mouse. The first thing we notice are the two artificial satellites of Kairo.

The second thing... is a NASA Space Shuttle drifting in space.

kairo-shuttle

It is my belief that Kairo's human survivors are the astronauts stranded on this shuttle when the disaster occurred. (See Manny Coto's aborted series Odyssey 5 for a similar storyline.)

Conclusions

This, of course, is just my interpretation, but I dare say close to what Richard Perrin envisioned. And Perrin wanted to foster some ambiguity so there are no perfect answers to some of these questions. Maybe Kairo is man-made? Maybe the previous human in the monitoring station was simply watching over Kairo? As the Moon is not visible in the shuttle scene - maybe Kairo was constructed from the Moon?

But I'm unsure why Kairo was left for such a long time. It’s possible that Kairo was searching the universe for a “job” to do and happened upon Earth. It’s even possible that Kairo was responsible for the devastation of Earth but, considering the final message of the game as deserving second chances, this seems unlikely. Were the surviving humans dead when Kairo found them on the space shuttle?

There are also some narrative oddities throughout, some of which I've discussed. Let me pick out a few others. I find the distinction between “Kairo water” and “Earth water” strange. Also, Kairo sometimes implies every location is physically connected but at other times it embraces my TARDIS analogy.

In the latest build of Kairo, there's an addition to one of the secret rooms that clashes with the mausoleum. In the secret room, there are active screens just like on the coffins except instead of the camera travelling into infinity, it shows the view in the monitoring room from the perspective of the corpse. This suggests a little retconning and perhaps it would have been better to fix the mausoleum screen to match. Then again, I can see issues with that approach.

Also, I was unhappy most of the secrets build towards the fourth-wall breaking secret ending, which undermines the sense of place. I had hoped the secrets were part of Kairo's strange tapestry... but most of them weren't.

Nonetheless, I fell in love with Kairo and enjoyed every hour I spent in its company. The game delivers an environmental narrative showcase that stands apart from what we typically see in AAA titles and relies on it exclusively, doing away with exposition.

For that achievement alone, I congratulate Richard Perrin.

Bonus Crazy Theory Corner

I spent an absolute vomitload of time playing Kairo. To prove how far down the rabbit hole I went, here is one of my crazy theories. Is the garden near the start of the game actually a representation of the apocalypse?

kairo-garden-crazy-theory

Secret Addendum (25 Apr)

I just gave the new version on Steam a quick go, which is Kairo version 2.0. The above essay was prepared using version 1.2. The game has had some graphical improvements since then, but Perrin has dabbled with a few important additions that are relevant to the story.

There's indecipherable text on the back of the first structure, for example, lending more weight to the theory that Kairo is of alien origin.

kairo-text

Also, each of the three visions now reveals signs of previous life. The city ruins shows a sleeping bag with a knife beside it; the desert sports a tent and extinguished campfire; the space shuttle now has an astronaut floating near it, obviously dead - or at the very least, we are looking at an empty space suit.

It's now clear that these locations are where Kairo took its three "survivors" from. You are obviously one of these survivors. Another is dead at the monitoring station. Where is the third?

There is a purple-coloured secret room that has monitors tracking all three. The third survivor is apparently here:

kairo-where-is-third-survivor

The location shown on the monitor is unfamiliar and doesn't seem to be a part of Kairo that we are able to explore. So it was time for crazy theories again. I suspected there was one brief moment when we would be able to check this place ourselves.

I finished the game, waited for all of Kairo's other machines to wake up - and took the following screenshot.

kairo-third-survivor

We were never alone.

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Posted by HM

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Comments (62) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Thanks for passing me on, though. I play video games far too late at night and if I want to get any sleep I usually have to physically type all the madness out of my head.

  2. Also, I can now tell my friends that the creator of a game commented on a game commenter’s comment on my comment on his commentary of a game.

  3. Albert, here’s the tweet for your reference. And more crackpot theories are fine! Never in a million years would I have guessed the true interpretation of the second set of challenges in the second building were to “build a holographic brain” which was what Richard Perrin did let slip in Twitter after reading this breakdown of the story.

  4. I just played Kairo – About the text on the first structure: If you look in the “museum” area before the secret ending – The text is right there.

    This makes me think that the text you see first thing is just corrupted or faded away somehow.

  5. Hi Scott, I haven’t played through Kairo to its secret ending in the later build – in the original, the text was not there – hence I missed this. Thanks! I’ve now looked it up on YouTube. However, the secret ending is so fourth-wall breaking (it’s essentially behind-the-scenes) I wonder if anything there can be considered to be canon for the story. That is, is Perrin telling us “the text is just scrambled English” or is he saying “I made up some alien text using this as a baseline”?

  6. I know I’m late to the party, but there is one “colonization/recolonization of Earth” trope that I’m surprised no one else has picked up on.

    Of /course/ there has to be a second survivor. There’s always got to be an Adam and Eve. ;)

  7. Oh God Scolopendra, two people wouldn’t be a big enough gene pool! Hmm, how many coffins were in the mausoleum…?

  8. Very interesting insight. Thanks. Just a couple of points to add. Kairo = chi-rho, which is the ancient Christian symbol for Christ (the first two letters of his name in Greek). This ties in with the theme of resurrection. Secondly, I’m not sure whether this is just fanciful thinking, but the final symbol in the last throne room, which you refer to as a fern, looks more to me like three lines on one. That is, three-in-one, a symbol of the Trinity. Vast empty thrones, trees of life, arks. Is this the Judeo-Christian metanarrative or is this drawing from the Egyptian-alien creation myth? Or some amalgam of several myths?

    Nevertheless, I’m still not sure who the figure(s) in the TV screens is (are) – I originally thought these were the souls the lost waiting for resurrection. I was expecting their release at the end of the game…

  9. Reedmace–I always thought the name, Kairo, was just the Japanese word for circuit. You know, what with death and rebirth and ouroboroses and so fourth. And solving the puzzles is a lot like completing circuits.

    We know there are at least 3 people in Kairo: the player, the skeleton, and that guy in the crucifix position that you glimpse during the end. At first I thought the creepy TV big brothers were images of the people dead in the coffins, but the numbers don’t match up. There are 24 coffins but more than 24 images of that watching head, and they’re all identical–what’s the chance that every person in the coffins has the same hairstyle, shape of head, thickness of neck, lack of beard or whiskers, etc? So it’s very likely just one guy. We know it’s not the player, so that leaves the skeleton and the crucifix guy. The skeleton can be ruled out easily: his neck is waay too thin, being just the bones, and doesn’t match that of the screens. So by elimination it must be Mr. Crucifix. The omnipresence is, as with the crucifix and the rebirth, very religious. Either that, or the screensaver on the Kairo computer is just unreasonably creepy.

    What’s more interesting, I think, is the coffin situation. I surmise that the people inside them were dead, maybe on the space shuttle or just lone survivors on post-apocalyptic Earth after whatever disaster killed not only the rest of the humans, but apparently all animal and plant life too. Kairo picked up these people, and either killed them or they were already dead. Probably the latter–Kairo doesn’t seem malicious. So it stored away the dead people it found, and woke them up one by one so they can fix the mess their kind made of the Earth.

    But note that there are 3 people in Kairo. However, it’s indicated that only 2 coffins have been opened. So one of the people wasn’t dead when they arrived, or, couldn’t die (or, at least, didn’t stay dead long enough to be put in a coffin). I agree with you, Reedmace, that although on the surface this is a sci-fi game where you need to fix the world using alien technology after an apocalypse, this seems to have strong elements of several religions in it. I mean, apart from the blatantly obvious ones like the Buddha picture or the torii Shinto gates. As much as it irked me, it reminds me of that film Promethius, where the aliens are so advanced that spirituality and science have become intimately intertwined.

  10. @Reedmace, @Gordelphus: Hi there! Yes I do believe the original intention was for Kairo to reflect the Japanese word for circuit (because each room involves “completing a circuit” is my guess).

    The symbol I call the “fern” represents the final section of the game which, in the registry, is referred to as “Garden”, so I’m feeling confident it is meant to be fern or tree or plant of some type.

    I originally thought Kairo was some sort of seed ship, full of frozen bodies ready to be woken up – but after completing the game I abandoned that theory.

    I’ve always assumed the watcher was the skeleton simply because a screen with the shadowy head obscures the skeleton as you enter the monitoring station at the top of the tower. The implication seemed to be – here is the person who has been watching you.

    I didn’t pick up on religious symbolism in the game but, then again, I wasn’t looking for any.

  11. Gordelphus, HM: Thanks for the replies.

    OK, so clearly Kairo is intended to ‘reflect’ the Japanese for circuit. But I am still left wondering whether there is intentional double entendre. ‘Gardens’ are where creation (and recreation – thinking of the Easter story) takes place.

    The 2 catacombs each contain 12 tombs – a religiously significant number indicating ‘completion’ or ‘all people’ (12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, 12 lots of 12,000 in heaven, Rev 7). Presumably it wasn’t present in the version of Kairo HM reported above, but there are three (not two) tombs or coffins that don’t have white noise in the version I played. If we start numbering them from left to right from the entrance, the ‘wayfarer’ on his (or her) infinite journey is from (or in?) tomb 7. This must be the same one ‘swaying’ in the monitor in the final secret room, and spotted as a crucifix in the final screenshot above.

    But on tomb 10 is the static image of the control panel in front of the skeleton. This is the skeleton’s coffin. Ours is tomb 4 in the second catacomb (or 16 if you continue counting).

    The fact that we are faced with a skeleton in the control panel room means a physical body was wandering around, rather than some ethereal consciousness still linked to its body in the coffin. Also, we hear our own physical footsteps as we walk or run. Clearly, however, there is still some connection with the coffin, but what is it? Why does it display what we see? It must mean we are somehow still an integral part of Kairo itself. Maybe these ‘coffins’ are life support systems. Or maybe Kairo is somehow using a neural link between us and the coffin to monitor our activities – which is why we find our vision displayed on a screen in the secret room. Kairo, it appears, ‘knows’ more about humans than humans do.

    There are also still questions about the outside area. Why do we start the game at an abandoned throne? Why do we return to it before beginning each new phase? And why is the light beam reaching to the huge tower black, and the surrounding emptiness white, like a negative? It seems like this is ‘negative’ space – not meant for us?

    And where does the second Kairo satellite fit in? Do we unwittingly space-jump between the two as we progress through the game? What is the relations between the two satellites and ‘city’ that is revealed in the closing scenes of the game? Dunno.

    At first I thought all the thrones were huge, implying some giant alien species that had abandoned its kingdom or empire. But then seeing the skeleton sitting in one reveals that the are human size. Meant for us?

    This theme of thrones runs right through the game. Clearly it is a central motif. Power, solitude, authority, control. And yet each throne has a limited domain, defined by its symbol. All except the first, which is symbol-less and appears to be the primary one.

    But thrones and advanced machines don’t mix – at least not in modern sociological contexts. So how does this fit with a machine of human construction?

    This brings me back to the Egyptian-alien creation myth – that humanity was planted on earth, or at least influenced, by some advanced alien species several thousand years ago, resulting in an instant high culture and advanced mathematical and cosmological understanding. Everything in Kairo is built out of blocks, like the pyramids, and Kairo (Cairo – a triple entendre?) is this strange, but vaguely familiar, rescue machine devised and constructed by these same alien ‘deities’ experienced by ancient culture. Even the indecipherable writing on the back of the first ‘temple’ looks like a form of eroded Hebrew script – with shapes that look like words running in horizontal lines.

    So my take on it at the moment is that Kairo was built by an alien species, who genetically created or modified humanity at the dawn of history, came back (if they ever really left?) to save a remnant (12 + 12, symbolically the human race) from self annihilation, because ‘everyone deserve a second chance…’

    This could, of course, all be baloney – it is, after all, only a game!

  12. @Reedmace – you’re now reaching at all those questions I couldn’t answer! I’m not sold on the religious angle, myself, although I can see there might well be overlap with creation/resurrection myths in theme.

    I’m still unsure who create Kairo and why – Richard Perrin does, but I don’t find the game particularly strong at projecting that information. Maybe it was deliberately subdued. I don’t know. Alien species seems much more likely but why does it need activating? Why does some of it seem “in ruins”?

    In terms of the two Kairo satellites, I thought of Kairo as an advanced structure which manipulates spacetime – think of something like The Way in Greg Bear’s Eon or the TARDIS from Doctor Who. The space within both satellites are connected in ways we cannot comprehend. They are one and the same, but not. Some of the locations and directions in Kairo don’t make a lot of sense and there are plenty of voids.

    YMMV!