This is the first part of a five-part series on INFRA.

I still think about INFRA (Loiste Interactive, 2016).

Over the course of eight months in 2019, I worked my way through this behemoth of a game. After an enormous Twitter thread of my progress, I wrote about it briefly and labelled it “one of my top love/hate games of all-time”, definitely right up there with NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014).

Why? Because INFRA was a game I misunderstood.

Thursday 24 January, 2019. A YouTube user, who no longer exists, commented under my archived Miasmata stream: “Did you ever try Infra? Different style, not a survival anymore, more of an urban exploration game, but the story and the atmosphere are also great and for some reason I think these two games have a lot in common.”

Okay, you have my absolute goddamn attention if you’re going to associate a game with the most holy Miasmata.

I checked out the trailer and was beguiled… yet confused.

What was this game? An “adventure through infrastructure” with some sort of plot to uncover? Was this actually the same INFRA game I was being encouraged to play? My YouTube friend came back with more details: “Infra is an exploration game, with some puzzles part (but dont expect the standard puzzle game). You play an engineer whose mission is to check a city whose installations (bridges, power plants etc) are in a very bad shape. You must explore to get your way throught and the puzzles are mainly about fixing the installations. In the meanwhile you get to know the story of the city and why the situation is that bad. The story is really well done and complex, and the atmosphere is rather unique in my opinion.”

I couldn’t quite connect the dots to Miasmata but the commenter seemed adamant. It was a pricey purchase – it’s over £20 on Steam still today – but I bought it. The fact that I couldn’t get a handle on INFRA‘s contents seemed a recommendation in itself.

The opening was a long, slightly dreary, cutscene where you’re sat in front of a presentation. I didn’t have any sinking feeling from this: it was what it was. Watching presentations obviously wasn’t going to be a regular feature of INFRA (if that’s what you’re into, there’s always Control). As soon as I got out of the presentation room – which developer magick then permanently sealed behind me – I was surprised to find myself free to explore a modern office block.

For a videogame, this felt more novel than you might expect. It wasn’t the evilcorp office panopticon of the future with OBEY imagery blasting across the cubicles, but something more familiar. Could this game, God forbid, be grounded in reality? No magical realism, no technological contrivance where you fix things with a sparkling blue beam from your repair multitool? Coworkers were talking in the corridors. People at their desks, asking not to be bothered. Someone’s desk had been cordoned off with boxes as a prank. I was already engrossed.

But perhaps I should have taken more notice of the chatting coworkers appropriated as a wall in the environment, preventing passage along an office corridor. Perhaps it’s a developer joke about how videogames rationalise their barriers as diegetic in ludicrous ways. And here is where I began to misunderstand INFRA: I took it seriously. I saw the coworker wall as a misstep rather than as a sign of INFRA’s true identity.

Here’s a sign.

Again, it’s not serious and there’s joke material like this strewn throughout the entirety of INFRA‘s world, from boards stamped with “Morning Wood Co.” to binders labelled “Random Stuff”. I suffered from an optical delusion, seeing INFRA as a serious, real game until much too late when most of its foundations had collapsed into parody. But we’re back to those honeymoon hours when I couldn’t possibly know what INFRA was and, instead, was captivated by the game I imagined it to be.

INFRA forces you to take a silly route to escape the office building, involving a lift which loses power and a trip down an emergency stairs. I didn’t mind. Any excuse to explore a beautifully designed virtual building. It didn’t bother me that much of INFRA‘s exploration was on rails because if you don’t take your time to stop and look, there’s plenty to miss in INFRA. What was labelled as “exploration” in INFRA is not what I’d typically call exploration. It’s like the exploration you get from Half-Life, a long, glorious tunnel that takes you from point A to a very distant point B. And along the way, it’s the details that count. In some ways, INFRA reminds me of the strange and sad Cradle (Flying Cafe for Semianimals, 2015), another beautiful game which needs a player eager to obsess over tiny details.

Details. Instead of marching all the way downstairs and making straight for the car park, why not take a moment to wander around the canteen level? I wonder how many players actually explored the building thoroughly. Plenty to miss.

Through the lobby doors, I gazed out onto the street. I spied the little security cameras monitoring the entrance. The details. Yes, it was a world out there with people I couldn’t interact with but it was fine. It’s always going to be locked doors, invisible walls or “I don’t think I need to go this way” internal monologue walls. Freedom has to give. Except there was another entrance out the back of the building which gave you that chance, that small chance, to stand outside and take in the city streets. Details.

I lost my grip on the plot early. The player-character is a guy called Mark, sent out to survey the ageing infrastructure of Stalburg. That was pretty much all I gathered and it didn’t seem to matter. I was here for the sights not for the talk. Shut up and dance.

I eventually made it to the parking garage, in my own time.

There was no driving cutscene, sadly; the car was a teleportation machine which whisked me through a fade out to Hammer Valley. And here, finally, Mark’s “job” was revealed. At least, that’s what I thought. Your boss reminds you to take photographs of documents and any signs of disrepair. So… this was a photography game? It sounded like just my kind of thing! Ah. I misunderstood so much back then.

No good view goes unpunished. Developers are drawn to weaponizing environments with challenge: in INFRA’s case, it is puzzles. Some of which don’t make a whole hoot of sense but, hey, there’s plenty of time for griping later.

Oh, I’ll make time.

Next: A Game I Loved

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26 thoughts on “Optical Delusion

  1. a five-part series? you spoil us, joel!

    INFRA is one of my favourite discoveries from last year (and your tweets were a big part of starting that brain itch that led to me buying it). its just bursting with that late-90s early-2000s-indie-and-modscene enthusiasm and love for what theyre making. and the scale of it is really astonishing.

    anyway, i am excited to read the rest of your written thoughts on it!

  2. Every time I’ve sat down to write about INFRA – that’s every time in the last two years – it’s just been too much to talk about and couldn’t get a handle on it. I’ve finally cracked the problem. Five parts! Progress!

    Considering how much is in the game and how much time I spent on it, I think it deserved a bit more than a stream, a tweet thread and a Christmas mention.

  3. Shaun: quick, you still have time to play and discover its wonders for yourself! 🙂

  4. I commented on a Joel-tweet recently something about a hypothetical game that tricks you by switching genre halfway through, and whether that can ever be good thing. A pleasant surprise rather than a shock and a refund. Infra’s somewhere in between, I think.

  5. “I commented on a Joel-tweet recently something about a hypothetical game that tricks you by switching genre halfway through, and whether that can ever be good thing.”

    Up next in the dock… Brütal Legend…

  6. You know CA, that Brütal Legend switcheroo totally worked for me, weirdly, but I’m not into rts or tower defence, so whaddoiknow?

  7. I didn’t mind it either, mostly because the antecedent third person action hadn’t exactly been setting my world on fire. And it kinda-sorta reminded me of Sacrifice, which can never be a bad thing. But it was a game that I think I ultimately enjoyed in spite of mechanical qualities and more as an experience. Which I guess is appropriate from a studio headed by a former luminary of adventure gaming…

  8. Never heard of INFRA before, but your description strongly reminds me of Broken Reality, an exploration game with silly but fun gameplay and tons of sights that captures the dreamy atmosphere in a vaporwave world. Still find it hard to describe my feelings about this kind of game. Maybe I will try INFRA sometime.

  9. (I’ve never played Brütal Legend, but I remember hearing reports that it was an RTS and I was like, wait, did I just not watch the trailers closely enough?)

    Nami – I find it difficult to recommend INFRA without underlining several caveats. The main one: it’s a very long game and that can become wearying… I haven’t played Broken Reality so can’t comment at this point, but I did buy a copy a whillllle ago. Although who knows when I’ll put it on play rotation.

  10. You remind me that I should just buy Cradle, at some point. Infra seems intriguing, as well. The comparison with Broken Reality is promising, but the latter is a bit too long and I lost steam partway through Geocity. Sounds absurd, but too much “gameplay” was getting in the way of the joy of exploring.

    Reading the comments, I was thinking: would a genre-switching game be ruined by spoiling the switch? Brutal Legends (a game I liked and even played a couple times through to the end) is weird because the switch to RTS seems so… antithetical? to the promise of the game, but I think it works up until the battles become just too large to manage efficiently with the control scheme. But I don’t think that the genre switch is the point of the game, like it is in something like Frog Fractions.

  11. Lorenzo: It seems both Infra and Broken Reality suffer from being too long? I completed Geocity, but gave up in the brutal final level.
    However, what I learn from this game is, an exploration game does need gameplay. I love wandering in games, so I tried some “pure exploration” titles with minimal gameplay, but then… I felt totally empty, no matter how amazing the game looks. This bothers me for a long time. My assumption is, a proper amount of gameplay/interaction is essential for making the player “closer” to the game world. Without a close relationship, the player (at least, me) will have limited desire to explore the game. Enjoying the sight of Geocity from its top is cool, but it gets cooler only after I did some silly missions in the streets. And then I’m able to say, “Woah! I can see that shop from here. It has a story.” This makes the exploration meaningful.
    Of course, gameplay can be annoying sometimes. My opinion is, it does not imply there should be less gameplay. Instead, there should be more gameplay encouraging exploration that makes the journey. (I found the “taking photos containing n marked sights gives you n^2 points” mechanic in Broken Reality amazing.)

  12. I totally get that, Nami. It’s almost as if every act of exploration needs a sort of gameplay ‘coda’ to validate the player’s visit. Otherwise nagging questions of ‘why did I come here? was there something I missed?’ can start to creep in. For me, anyway. And this isn’t necessarily about the player being greedy, or demanding constant gratification or empowerment..

    I was talking to the guy who runs our D&D group and he the difficult he recently had with having casually mentioned a watchtower the party passed on the way between places. He had introduced it for a world-building purpose – it was being built as the response of the main city to a threat the party was in the process of uncovering. Now the party certainly has no roleplaying reason to investigate every structure they happen to walk past, but because the DM had specifically mentioned it, the players assumed there was some gameplay significance and progress stalled as we talked about whether to go inside. And of course, it was empty.

    My suggestion to him was that as good as it was to be fleshing out the world with these kind of details, there had to be some token reward (not necessarily a material one) prepared for exploring it, just so we could set the explored ‘flag’ to complete and move on. It’s a silly thing from one angle, but I also think it really matters from another – this is, like, one of the primary vectors of player/game interaction, y’know? It’s like critics complaining about how ridiculous it is that the player interacts with the world of an FPS by shooting everything – in a narrative/logical sense, sure, but what’s actually happening there is akin to the player reaching out and touching.

  13. See, I’m not entirely sure I agree. Sometimes, an excess of gameplay (and here we stumble on the nebulous definition of ‘gameplay’) can be detrimental. Sometimes, exploration can be in itself a reward, for me at least. And some mechanics encourage you to find joy in exploration, some detract from it (I’m echoing Joel’s own “Into the black” article/video, I guess). Taking pictures in Broken Reality is a great example: it’s rarely necessary to “farm” for likes, but the pictures suggest multiple possibile perspectives through which you can see the world.

    It’s not universal, obviously, and not everything is going to work for everyone. CA’s D&D example is very interesting, because when I played with my old group, I loved the idea that not everything in the world was there for interacting, that I was “existing” in a space that did not revolve entirely around us. But again, different tastes and motivations.

  14. Lorenzo, I think that’s completely fair. I’m not an ludic absolutist by any means – perhaps I should have prefaced my comment by saying that I find I’m generally happy for exploration to be accentuated over gameplay, up until I suddenly miss it.

  15. Thinking about games that switch genres–besides the classic Frog Fractions there’s the best clickers, A Dark Room and Candy Box and to some extent Universal Paperclips. Which may be necessary because a clicker that doesn’t switch genres is deadly, and also the need to switch genres puts a lid on how much content there can be as opposed to Numbers Go Up Forever. Or more positively, these games are about discovering what happens when you break through a threshold; the bad clickers give you more ways to make numbers go up, the good ones give you something completely different to do.

    7 Grand Steps had a thing where it could turn from a boardgame to a management sim in the very late game but I could never get the hang of the management sim at all.

  16. Oh, Evoland 2 is constantly switching genres, but maybe those are more like minigames. Anyway it’s hardly a trick, it’s right in the blurb. I found it charming for a long time but when I got stuck on a hard boss at what seems to be the 26th part of a 55-part walkthrough, I decided I had got my money’s worth out of it.

  17. I’d say INFRA feeling too long is a function of its tedious gameplay and something else which I’ll get into later on. Maybe Broken Reality has a little bit of that – the “gameplay” which is used to give the exploration game-purpose is just not fun at a certain point? Then again I am the guy that wants to remove gameplay crutches from exploration. 🙂 That said, there are ways in which exploration and gameplay can they live together in perfect harmony (Miasmata, Subnautica).

    (And Chordian, I think we’re more or less of like minds on INFRA, although I will probably lean hard on some the negatives as I write the later parts of the series.)

    I think the tension in the D&D example and others can be one of expectations. If I play a long game with lots of “incidental” detail then I’m not expecting all of that detail to be of Gameplay Significance. But my DM sometimes throws out details for my attention then… maybe I’m going to be taking a closer note of everything. It all gets a little Pavlovian at some point and you feel that letdown when a beguiling castle on the horizon is just an empty box. I do forgive games when they get this right 70% of the time though, one way or another. I rarely felt cheated by Miasmata although a lot of the island is empty.

    On switching genres, I remember back-in-the-day, genre switching was a mind blower. If you recall, a game would normally only offer one type of gameplay, but when it offered multiple game styles, it was WHOOAAAA this game is like THREE GAMES. Like Beach-Head with its multiple scenes. Genre switching back then was viewed as extra content. Frog Fractions is definitely of this ilk, but there’s more going on there than simple genre switching. That’s a goddarned secret box. Today, games are so expansive and large that genre switching could feel like bait-and-switch. Or worse: why isn’t this part of the game any good? Did they not test it enough? Like the bloody ending of Botanicula which needs arcade play.

    Hey Matt is 7 Grand Steps a good game?

  18. In my slow progress through the archives of the CRPG Addict, I found this entry which discusses an occasional penchant among RPG developers in the 80s to dramatically change up the gameplay in the final section.

    Which sounds appropriate enough for the time, before genre convention and codification were still just getting underway, although it did remind me that last level genre-bending in particular has remained a thing. I think of Halo’s protracted Warthog-riding finale, Half Life 2’s gravity gun gratification gallery, Helltaker’s (awkward) shift from Sokoban-with-waifus to rhythm-action boss fight, to name just a few.

    When I was a nipper I had this game creation program, Klik n Play. I would always try to make every level a different genre – this one would be a breakout knock off, that one would be a platformer, a bossfight that assumed some completely nonsensical perspective so I could make the sprite as big as possible, then an Operation Wolf-style static shooter..

    I don’t think this was a question of my boundless free-wheeling creativity, so much as a (naive?) sense that, as you put it Joel, stuffing in as much ‘extra content’ as possible could only improve a game. I don’t think it was until I read a review of the Die Hard Trilogy, which suggested that splitting attention between three different games had resulted in each of them only being one-third good, that this assumption was challenged.

  19. waifus seem silly, Sokoban with step limits is the worst Sokoban, switching from Sokoban to a rhythm action fight seems like something they would do to me in literal Hell, yet here I am with Helltaker’s itch page open.

  20. Joel! Hmm, I don’t know. I felt like the boardgame part (by far the most of it) in some ways evoked the passage of time well, which is to say it was kind of tranquilizing? And I felt like I was making choices for my family in kind of a simulationy way but it was kind of overstretched. The results of the CYOA sections seemed totally arbitrary which again is kind of Like Life but not super satisfying.

    Bottom line, I don’t regret playing it, and if you already own it you might give it a spin if you are curious, but I wouldn’t buy it for non-bundle prices. If there were supposed to be six more sequels I’m not surprised they didn’t happen.

    …oh this reminds me: Maybe I don’t usuallyhave the thing where I have to start Steam every time I play something because most of my own games aren’t on Steam, because I try to avoid Steam; though I’m convinced that there are some I didn’t have to go online to get. But I started Uurnog to check whether this happens and it plays fine, albeit with an error message at the beginning, which disturbs me a bit because Steam says Uurnog isn’t comparable with OS X Catalina. Which makes me wonder if some of the other games that have that warning actually run under Catalina fine, but they didn’t pay Apple to let the program run without you having to press “OK” twice first? Aaargh!

  21. The itch autorecommender recommended a game about a ghost who is trying to help her cats escape her apartment which is some scary microtargeting: meow

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