Last month I played through Industria (Bleakmill, 2021), a most curious first-person shooter. Developed over several years, a brief glance suggests an homage to the Half-Life series with glossy to-die-for production values.
Yet it twists and squirms against this blueprint: it doesn’t want to be just another gun game.
You play a scientist called Nora, starting out in her apartment in East Berlin. Over the phone, her colleague Walter tells her their computer ATLAS is “out of control”. Walter needs to stop it, but the Berlin Wall is coming down and the Stasi are taking everything apart to bury evidence of whatever the Hell they were doing. Walter is “leaving” to stop ATLAS but Nora is confused – leaving? Where is Walter going?
The obvious issue with this early section in East Berlin was that everything looked like a beautifully-designed “walking simulator” level: ripe for exploration, but misconfigured for humans. There were no people nor significant traces of them. A Stasi car rushes past you but when you find it parked at the offices, the car is empty and its occupants are never seen.
That, however, continued for the rest of the game. Nora follows Walter into a parallel reality, to the city of Hakavik which has been overrun by machines. But in this defeated world, there are no bodies or skeletons, no signs of human life except for someone on a radio. Industria uses the dead world solution to simplify the game’s interaction engineering but fails to remember it has to convince as a dead world rather than just be an empty world.
But what an empty world! It was more familiar than I expected – it felt like I’d returned to the streets of City 17. I don’t mean this in a bad way as the desolate Hakavik is its own beast, a blend of different cities from 1920s Chicago to Berlin to Prague. This city, strangled in a web of wires, is just gorgeous. And there’s little music; Industria puts architecture in the driving seat.
Although all that pixel goodness on the streets can sometimes claim its pound of flesh in performance. Bleakmill is still working on enhancements and fixes but there was a late period in the game where rendering fell apart for me. Here is the emotional climax of one story, which focused on a key photograph:
Narratively speaking, it is a mixed bag. Nora’s primary goal is to find Walter not necessarily to fix anything or save anyone. That, in itself, is refreshing in terms of first-person shooters where the protagonist is always on a mission of some kind. Although her sudden transformation into a Freeman-style trigger-happy scientist perhaps should not have gone without comment.
The plot propels you forward, although it’s nothing you haven’t witnessed before. While the execution is competent, I’d file the finale is in the cabinet drawer labelled Abrupt Non-Endings. And that’s because Industria was meant to be the first of three parts. I present Exhibit A from David Jungnickel of Bleakmill:
Biggest game dev learning based on INDUSTRIA reviews: don’t make your game too big. Internally it was always supposed to be part 1 of 3, but how can players know that. We did not wanted to call it part 1 and commit for another 10 years of development. Price would not have changed anyway. It’s the perception the player naturally has, which does not get approved by the developer calling it part 1. Not the players fault. Totally oversaw this!
So Bleakmill shied away from stating “part one” outright, fearing players would demand a continuation through the medium of pitchforks. The developers didn’t want to spend every waking minute on Industria for the next decade; the first part had already devoured years. But what are we left with? A story, truncated. I’m not convinced we’ll ever see the remainder of it.
Knowing this turn of events makes sense of why the interstitial Library sections go entirely unexplained and possibly why a fully-developed Chemistry mechanic is used just once and never again.
Naturally, players were bothered by its lack of conclusion. It got worse, the apparent high-production values meant that other under-developed aspects, like the enemy AI, conjured dissonance:
The look and feel of INDUSTRIA has raised expectations that we cant deliver. This is not a smart marketing trick but something that organically happened over the years of us just trying to get the best out of the Unreal Engine. This is not an excuse, but rather the attempt to talk to you dear players at eye level.
But, seriously, I don’t give a shit.
I had a decent time with Industria which felt like a strong “walking sim” with a bit of shooting instead of rummaging through piles of rubble for 9 of 23 collectibles. The pacing is magical in parts, where you tread fearfully through ambush-perfect locations only for nothing to happen. While nowhere near as terrifying and disturbing as The Light Keeps Us Safe (Big Robot, 2018), Industria poisons Hakavik with an unsettling, desolate atmosphere despite your adversaries turning out to have no teeth.
I applaud Bleakmill for this passion project they’ve crafted, but it is a passion project. I doubt it will see a decent profit with reviews pointing fingers at the elementary AI, short play time and sudden ending. But this is work to be extremely proud of.