An Analysis of Material Fatigue
This is the final part of a five-part series on INFRA. The previous parts were Optical Delusion, The Abandoned Church, Fractures and No Hill To Die On.
If there’s one thing this essay series on INFRA (Loiste Interactive, 2016) shares with the game itself, it’s that it has taken way too long to reach a conclusion. Writing these INFRA essays was harder than I expected, the words refusing to seep from brain to blog.
Let’s not glorify the reason for this: I was bored of INFRA. Not only had it gone on and on and on, but INFRA had transformed from a simple “photography” game into uncovering a batshit nuclear conspiracy peppered with poop jokes.
Some end of game spoilers follow.
Until I’ve written up my official Electron Dance verdict on any title, I’ll keep the game safe on my hard drive. No post, no uninstall. That’s why Inscryption remains on my hard drive and why the 20GB hulk of INFRA is also resident there. This final article is the physical manifestation of an uninstall. Every paragraph is a literal deconstruction.
The story goes that INFRA was inspired by a 2009 documentary The Crumbling of America that investigated the ongoing disintegration of America’s infrastructure. I had expected it to be a sobering reflection but it had a pop doc texture closer to World’s Wildest Police Videos; rapid cuts, over-earnest narration. Perhaps it was a stronger inspiration than I had thought.
I liked the gentle photography game but stubbornly ignored the signs that INFRA was eccentric until, finally, the dam broke. There was no going back after that. INFRA became a task to complete instead of a joy to behold. As I neared the nuclear power station at the end of the game, I hoped INFRA might steer clear of gloomy, degraded brown spaces reminiscent of an AAA FPS, and return to the bright colours of the modern office block where this tale began. Give me some jazz, INFRA.
If you recall, protagonist Mark was “speeding” towards a nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown. Everyone else took a helicopter but you took the scenic route by foot because it was believed you would get there quicker instead of waiting for air support. Well, during the last leg of this journey, while you’re navigating a maze of reeds in an underpowered boat, you witness the heli overtake you. It’s meant to be amusing but I was already hostile to INFRA’s tricks. It made Mark’s ridiculous task of getting through Turnip Hill even more pointless.
Generally, the power plant was well-lit and more entertaining than all that creeping around in the dark that had dominated INFRA since Mark had departed the flooded city. And a nuclear power plant has to have rooms with buttons; INFRA delivered – but it wasn’t going to stop at paltry control rooms.
If you bring players to a nuclear power plant, surely you need to let them poke around inside the reactor itself? That’s right, if we need to stop a meltdown, Mark is obviously going to have to get his hands dirty and move fuel rods around. This also gives INFRA the hero’s ending it’s been searching for… although there is no guarantee Mark will save the day.
Visually, it recalled INFRA’s halcyon opening but I could not ignore my distaste for the farcical turns in the story. Was a nuclear meltdown the original destination when we were just taking snaps of a hydroelectric dam?
While I had initially bridled at the idea Mark was accidentally blowing things up as he moved through Stalburg, simply because he loved pressing buttons, it did bring a wry smile to my weary face discovering that his colleagues had done exactly the same thing. Someone had pressed the wrong button at the dam, flooding all of Stalburg and engineering the nuclear crisis. The infrastructure investigators became the infrastructure devastators.
In truth, most of Stalburg’s collapsing infrastructure is due to shady forces, but I never followed the obtuse storyline nor understood who were the various people speaking in the audio logs. I should confess I didn’t try hard to follow because I wasn’t in it for the story, but the tone was all over the place. There’s poop and mushrooms! Mark is an idiot! And there’s a secret underground base that has a room full of innocent people who were executed to hide a nuclear weapons project! It’s hilarious!
The funny thing was, INFRA never seemed to be interested in your original mission – to take photographs of problems in the Stalburg infrastructure and any important documentation you came across. While INFRA appeared to make a note that you’d acquired a photo collectible, over time it felt utterly pointless. The collectibles kept coming but there was no acknowledgement that you were achieving anything at all. I don’t need stats, I needed a reason to give a shit.
Surprise: it turns out the mission matters at the end. And, in a stroke of highly questionable genius, INFRA doesn’t even tell you it matters.
When you reach the reactor core, there is a simple branch to the game: did you stop the meltdown or just run to the chopper because you were out of time? But there’s more going on here. The kind of post-game life Mark ends up with depends entirely on how much material on the Stalburg conspiracy he’s collected. Do well and Mark will be rewarded with a nice place in the suburbs. Do poorly, and Mark finds himself scraping together an existence in Obenseuer.
If you’ve done really well, acquiring over 90% of INFRA’s collectibles, you won’t even need to enter the reactor room and put Mark at risk of a radiation overdose and cancer. There’s a secret door opposite the reactor chamber which you can only open if you have enough evidence to challenge your boss about the conspiracy. Once you’re in there, you can fix the reactor chaos just by solving a puzzle.
But let’s look in the mirror. There’s a bitter edge to my negativity.
I wanted to shake my fist and lament that INFRA betrayed me. INFRA stares at me from across the desk; it has no idea what I’m talking about. I saw in INFRA what I wanted to see: a serious exploration game. But like my beloved Miasmata, INFRA gets so much wrong. It is no open world; it’s Half-Life without bullets and horror. Start at A and follow the path to B. Exploration with steel guardrails.
But even that is an unfair slight because there is so much hidden in INFRA. Everything from a psychedelic experience, an ARG, and even a moment of genuine horror. It’s rich with easter eggs for the determined, especially if you’re up for a replay. Take a look at this video “The INFRA Iceberg” by RemmitingFall. I was surprised by how much I had missed.
Also, if you want to know how dedicated the INFRA community can be, check out the amazing online map of Stalburg which even shows where the levels take place.
And perhaps the Stalburgverse isn’t finished. There’s been chatter over the years about an INFRA DLC expansion called Whiprock Island; however, as I previously related, developer Loiste Interactive have already released an RPG spinoff set in Obenseuer called Open Sewer. It’s been in early access for five years and I have noooo intention of playing it as it looks like everything I disliked about INFRA, distilled.
INFRA was a game I misunderstood. I’ve come to realise the question of whether I love INFRA or hate INFRA is not just impossible to resolve but… simply not a question that needs answering. It’s got “labour of love” spliced into every strand of its DNA. It has more in common with the hobbyist FPS mod scene of the late 90s and early 2000s, yet has the length of a commercial release. It’s peculiar and personal, has a janky character that is very much its own. It is the kind of sprawling project you could not imagine anyone setting out to build, yet here it is.
I’m in awe of INFRA, the game that shouldn’t exist.
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10 thoughts on “An Analysis of Material Fatigue”
I believe it was Andy Durdin who first clued me in that INFRA was reminiscent of oldskool mod culture. The more I tossed that thought over in my mind, the more I realised he was dead on.
I was never sure if we were on the same page about Infra, but now finally I think we are. It’s not love *or* hate – if anything it’s both, but it takes so so long to reach that conclusion. And I totally agree with Andy and yourself about it’s mod vibes, which for me includes both a willful smashing together of genres and themes, and an element of proving that you *can* make the thing, without necessarily considering whether you *should*. I came from there, and I can see it in the things I make now. I enjoyed the game, but the message I send back in time to my younger self says enjoy something else instead.
MrBehemo: “It’s not love *or* hate – if anything it’s both, but it takes so so long to reach that conclusion.”
yeah, it goes on a whole lot longer than anyone would expect. there are plenty of parts of it that i really dislike: the raft sequence. the collapsing ceilings. and that abysmally awful reactor fuel rod puzzle! and yet i cant help but love it for all the chaotic enthusiasm and the genuine delight it takes in the architecture of infrastructure.
i want to play it again sometime, but i am genuinely anxious that on a second go all the little annoying frustrations might outweigh the joy i found the first time. hopefully not.
and congratulations Joel on reaching the end of your writeup!
I showed this article to my son briefly – scrolling down, just seeing all the pictures really – and he was instantly nostalgic. He still hopes to play INFRA himself some day. It’s one of his all-time favourite games he’s watched me play.
I don’t know if I’m quite there with you Nick on instructing my past self to give it a miss; I’m still glad I’ve got the experience in my head. I had a similar response to Recursive Ruin which I just finished yesterday (I’ll probably write something up on this) – altogether shorter, but the same feeling of “labour of love that feels unique yet frustrating”.
Andy, I have also installed INFRA. It is an ex-game. I can now move on. (Deletes 23 INFRA-related tabs.)
Joel: i suddenly realise a factor i had been overlooking: being a dad, you probably get more than enough chaotic exuberance—and poop jokes—from other sources, and dont need that from videogames
Ah, I don’t think that’s a big factor! I don’t mind poop jokes so much from kids and I make some myself. I’m not against poop in games as a thing. But there was too much thematic friction with Serious Explorey Game vs You Can Pick Up The Poop. I couldn’t deal with that dissonance. And then there’s the whole mushroom thing.
Having a dream game in your head that doesn’t match up to what comes out of the monitor is classic gaming dissonance, and I’m glad to see it happens in even the sober, measured and erudite quarters of the hobby 🙂
Reading these articles, I’ve found myself wondering if the wacky tone was due to a surfeit or deficit of confidence. Let’s assume for the moment that the mechanics drove the development – the big picture original vision was about exploring detailed urban-industrial infrastructure, taking pictures and witnessing what happens when Things Go Wrong.
Is the arc of the story testament to the developers’ confidence that this vision was so solid that they had room to express themselves more vivaciously in the narrative? Or perhaps it’s reflective of an anxiety that a game about looking at buildings wouldn’t carry the audience, and that some hijinks and humour should be added to jazz things up, get the game some traction in the meme economy?
Not sure whether this is the correct line of enquiry since these may not have ever been conscious concerns during development. But I doubt they never thought about their potential audience at all. Was a Serious Explorey Game simply too niche? As I don’t play games like this, I genuinely don’t know – it’s equally possible to me that it wasn’t niche enough.
Hello CA. A late response, I know. I’ll try to do better next time. *sobs*
I am not sure how Loiste mapped out the game. It definitely feels more reserved in the early sections, but quite quickly it gets into mushroom farms, a dead body and an “resistance”. I imagine there were several types of infrastructure they wanted to explore: a dam, waterworks, rails, mining, sewers. At some point, a nuclear reactor.
I imagine they wanted it to have some story (the trailers showcase this) but looking through the credits and their site I don’t think they have a “writer” and likely they ended up with contributions with everyone.
Ha ha. I’ve just noticed I’ve been quoted on the Loiste page: “INFRA is an incredible achievement – a huge and expansive explorer’s dream.” That’s been taken from my tiny piece on INFRA in 2019.
I don’t think Loiste was trying to make a breakout game. I think they were making something they wanted to make because Loiste is not their main business – their main business is 3D solutions for clients. I had once thought they were trying to sell their expertise through INFRA but I’m not sure that’s true.
Joel, you and I share an aversion to a certain type of humor, at least when it’s deployed in an INFRA-like context. Sure, who doesn’t enjoy a nice poop joke, but only in poop-adjacent narrative. Otherwise you have Jar-Jar Binks wafting flatulence and stepping in… what was that? Bantha poo?
Indeed, this alone can be enough to ruin an otherwise reasonably good experience for me. Often the darkest stories are stronger if they have the right moments of humor–the right kind, the right amount, the right timing. But humor is difficult, like baking. Both require care and precision and effortful measurement. One pat of butter too many and your souffle is a quiche (Or not, I don’t know, I don’t anything about baking). Similarly you have this game INFRA painted as such a fascinating, eerie, beautiful world in your early essays that I trotted straight over to Steam and added it to my Wishlist. It was sad to see your disappointment and frustration grow, because this struck me as something that could/should have gone in a different direction.
Indeed, I submit that you did not misunderstand INFRA; rather, INFRA misunderstood itself. Mad respect to those who’ve enjoyed it and done so much work to bring the things they liked about its world to the fore. As a Souls afficionado, it goes without saying that I like stuff that can be analyzed, so from that perspective INFRA clearly deserves some appreciation. But the things that didn’t resonate with you were specific and strongly argued, and to my mind had little to do with your understanding of the game. Anyone who’s able to dive as deeply into The Witness as you and find things that might never have otherwise been found is not someone who willfully or carelessly misunderstands content.
It also seems like INFRA stumbled a bit in its overall design. By the end it (or rather, the latter half up to maybe just before the end) it seemed to have become a completely different game–different from the one you’d started, different from the one I’d come to expect based on your writing, and disorienting in those differences. As with humor, this kind of shift must be carefully considered and well-implemented.
Now, if they always had this in mind when they set out to make INFRA, more power to them I suppose. It’s not my place to tell them what to create. But based only on your comprehensive writings about the subject, my takeaway is that this is a disappointing game that didn’t need to be disappointing. Frankly, I commend your patience in getting all the way to the end. I’d have splattered this thing at the second poop joke.
Little poop humor for you there. Eh? Eh? *cough*
An earlier draft of this article included the line: “I misunderstood INFRA. Did th e developers?” It had occurred to me that Loiste didn’t know what they were actually making; the pieces do not cohere. It’s a bit of this and a bit of that. Whatever ingredient they wanted to add.
My sense is that if I’d approached INFRA as some scrappy indie venture, more like a passion project mod, I probably would have liked its zaniness. But those early levels seem to set a certain tone as a game I could believe in. There were warning signs about the trajectory but they were easy to dismiss.
But I know INFRA has some enthusiastic fans who absolutely adore it. I did have to explain on Twitter to someone why it can get some hate. Just like I can’t understand why it is loved, they cannot understand why it is denigrated.
“A disappointing game that didn’t need to be disapponting.” I’d argue it couldn’t be any other way – only sheer bloody-mindedness saw Loiste through this incredibly large project. If they’d stop to think “what made sense”, I don’t think they ever would have made it.
It’s like my film work these days is so, so much harder because I am much more aware of what my images and words are doing – it’s very hard to get things just right. But back In The Day, I’d just edit stuff together and be done fairly quickly. The Minecraft Industrial Revolution was a weekend project.
These days, there’s too much thinking.