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