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.