Richard Perrin’s first-person exploration/puzzle game Kairo (available on Steam tomorrow) is a great example of environmental narrative taken to the extreme, because it tells a story eschewing words almost completely.
Yet after browsing reviews and impressions pieces, I discovered some players had trouble figuring out the story.
At The Border House, Michelle Ealey wrote: “After my first playthrough of Kairo, I was frustrated. I didn’t get it; I really didn’t know what had happened and why.”
John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that “your purpose in Kairo is never explained” and “quite what Kairo is about entirely eludes me”.
And Andrew Plotkin: “If I were to level a charge, it would be that the game world never really coheres, beyond the visual level. An adventure can set up its narrative drive through discovered texts and journals (old gag though that is). Or it can build a narrative out of its artistic details, the discovered connections and implications hidden in the visual world. Or this structure can come from the gameplay itself — the connections you discover between the puzzles and mechanisms that make up the game. By solving, you learn what it’s for.”
I’m going to let you decide. In this image-heavy post, I’m going to take you through my deconstruction of Kairo’s story, start to finish. This means spoilers, of course. Massive spoilers the size of the Death Star.
We start in a white void, staring into a fog of questions. Who are we? Why are we here? What is this place? Is this a virtual construct or real?
We only really have one option – to explore the structure in the distance.
The game, at this early stage, suggests we are exploring the ruins of an ancient culture. Just inside the building, we find a throne – a recurring theme in Kairo – which suggests this was a seat for a monarch or similar figure, someone of importance. This is also the first time you see the tree symbol; perhaps it is the insignia of a leader or clan? We’ll come back to what this represents much later.
However, we are already made aware of the tone of this place, signalled via the disquieting ambient soundtrack by Wounds (Bartosz Szturgiewicz). In the original alpha, the soundtrack also demonstrated feelings of wonder and awe which lead me to write that Kairo was “calming and reassuring”. In the release version, this positive spark has all but been snuffed out and Wounds’ music is mysterious and threatening. We are in an alien domain. Perhaps we do not belong here.
Soon, we will find the first hub chamber and from here we can find four puzzles that await us. Before I get to what these puzzles represent, there are a few rooms that carry information for us, if we’re willing to take notice.
There’s a pink space containing a platform that erupts to life when we step onto it. The crackle of static fills our ears and several panels appear, each one depicting an image of destruction. Is this a warning? A prophecy? Has this already happened? If we listen carefully, the ambient music develops a more sinister undertone when we stand on this platform. These visions are important.
There’s also a corridor that I refer to as the mausoleum, because it contains nothing but coffins. Our current theory of ancient ruins suggests that these are the bodies of the people who built this place. But each coffin bears a screen and all of them display white noise… except two.
One of the screens relays a scene where we are moving through a continuous series of arches; the “camera” is heading into the distance. On the other screen, the image moves and twists as we step around the coffin. Examine it closely enough, and we will observe that the screen is reflecting what we are seeing. What does this mean?
The first structure in Kairo provides only questions; answers are for later.
It is time to review the puzzles, each of which has a particular function. Before we can descend into the underground chamber below the hub room, we need to accomplish four tasks.
One – generate a concentrated beam of light. I refer to this as the “sun room”.
Two – release water into channels that feed into the hub room.
Three – activate the power generator.
Four – touch a tree symbol.
Impossibly large locations seem to overlap, suggesting each doorway is more of a gateway between constructed spaces, as if we are moving through the infinitely complex bowels of the TARDIS from Doctor Who. The light beam that goes up from the “sun room” comes down into the hub.
The hub will only open once all four puzzles are completed. We can interpret this in many ways, although here is my breakdown: the tree symbol unlocks the lower chamber; the generator enables the “lift” which takes us down; the water powers the chamber through hydroelectric conversion; and the light beam… well, that’s the whole point. (I’d argue, however, that Kairo does not provide enough feedback to let us figure out exactly what each component is for.)
Our task is to redirect the light beam out of the structure which, once we are back outside, activates a vast new structure that was previously hidden. This is a momentous moment that will trigger euphoria in any explorer-player: if you thought the first structure was big, well, zowee, look at the size of that.
The purpose of the first building is to awaken the second and we can think of it as an auxiliary power supply. It is in the second building, however, where Kairo begins to spill its secrets.
Inside the second building, we are funnelled through a chamber containing a sunken column and a battery of empty screens. Once we trigger the column, the screens activate – and it looks like someone is watching us. Who is out there? Who is the Big Brother of Kairo?
Beyond this chamber, we encounter another throne, bearing a new mouth symbol. It soon becomes clear that the symbol is the structure’s name and not representative of some past clan or political power.
After this, a new hub area awaits us which connects to three new puzzles. Each puzzle has a specific role as in the first structure.
Let’s consider the first puzzle, deep underground, in which we have to activate a machine for mining. But inside the machine is a clue that changes the meaning of the game. On the wall is a map.
This alien world has something to do with Earth. Now we begin to connect some worrying dots – images of ruin, coffins, a map of Earth. Is Kairo carrying the last humans after Earth was devastated? Is Kairo, in fact, a man-made artefact?
The second puzzle is a manufacturing machine, which converts mined materials into useful products. Once activated, it starts processing the mined “cubes” into different colours. But what will these materials be used for?
Once the machine is active, we can see materials being carried alongside an adjacent corridor. There’s another slight narrative hiccup here, because the machine will process mined cubes even if the mining machine puzzle is not solved first and unable to provide raw materials.
The third puzzle appears to be a giant reactor of some sort. Kairo needs enormous reserves of power for something. But what is that something?
All together, these elements are the “engine” of Kairo. Once the three machines are activated, we are permitted to use a domed elevator that takes us to the second level of the complex and face a new puzzle hub.
There are four new puzzles that need to be solved here, which do not appear to relate explicitly to machinery. Here’s where I think Kairo becomes a little unstuck, because these machines do not appear to have any direct purpose and are more like challenges. In fact, I wasn’t able to figure out their meaning without, uh, looking under the hood of the game. It seems that they are merely challenges, designed to test your worth before we are allowed to proceed to the next section of Kairo.
Possibly there is a more metaphysical explanation for these chambers, but that feels unsatisfactory. Up to now, each machine has had a specific purpose, so the thematic switch feels inconsistent and Kairo appears far more game-like.
However, all four puzzles contain images from human culture – again reinforcing the connection between Kairo and Earth. Kairo knows humanity very well.
There is another hint in Kairo’s structure. In one connecting tunnel, a wall is broken revealing DNA. Why does Kairo carry DNA in its memory?
After besting the four new challenges, we ascend to the monitoring station to discover the identity of the Kairo Big Brother. We know how 3D games made on shoestring budgets play out, so we know there isn’t going to be a fully interactive character to meet. So in a sense, the revelation shouldn’t be a shock – but it is.
It’s disheartening to discover someone was here before us and died alone. While it felt like Kairo was a safe place and would never let any harm come to us, we discover someone else has already died here, deep in the bowels of Kairo. Were they also tasked with solving the mystery of Kairo… and failed? Or did they accept the task of maintenance, watching over Kairo so that it did not collapse?
They’ve scratched on the station throne in English. This suggests Kairo is not man-made, because there is no recognizable human script used in Kairo – merely characters taken from an alien language. We humans are trapped here.
Now recall the mausoleum. There were two coffins with functioning monitors. One of them twisted and turned as we gazed at it, reflecting our own view. The other was travelling forever into the distance. It is now much more likely the coffins contain humans; the first human emerged, got as far as the monitoring station, and died. Kairo eventually reset and let out a second human. We are that second human.
We might wonder if we are still in that coffin, but it’s unlikely considering we have discovered the corpse of our predecessor.
Kairo has woken us to complete the mission. But what is the mission?
Beyond the monitoring station, we find four pads. Each one takes us to a different destination. We recognise only two of the symbols.
The torii symbol on the far left takes our starting point in the void and the one of the far right, the fern, is where we are headed next. The third and final complex which reveals Kairo’s true purpose.
We enter a vast hub area in which three puzzles are hidden. The first puzzle is a machine that collects the prepared materials from the engine complex.
The second puzzle is a machine that produces water. The interesting point about the water room is that the puzzle involves four bodies. Four bodies means they are unlikely to represent the Earth, Sun and Moon. Do they represent the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Earth? Or something else?
Once the puzzle is solved, it begins to rain outside the water machine and streams form in the hub area. The machine produces real water, not the “Kairo water” we saw in the auxiliary power section.
The last puzzle unlocks Kairo’s genetic memory.
Once we solve it, birds fly overhead the “life temple” which contained the puzzle.
And images of Earth animals dot the hub landscape.
Kairo is Noah’s Ark. The purpose of Kairo is to breathe life back into Earth after some terrible disaster in the distant past. Kairo is part-machine, part-test. Only if the few survivors can figure out how Kairo works will Earth be reborn. They are tasked with proving themselves worthy, worthy of a second chance.
After the puzzles, there is just one place left to go. There is another room in the hub area that offers no puzzle, but is home to plenty of interesting imagery.
First note the final throne, before which is a map of the world. This rough, stone-looking map evokes a dead world more than some of the other images we have seen.
And here is something that bears closer inspection; a ghostly image of a dead Earth, with two spheres either side.
Look at the projection of the image onto on the floor. We’ve seen this peculiar shape only once before in the game: on the Kairo title screen.
That symbol, which has been staring us in the face from the very start of the game, is Kairo. Two artificial moons orbiting the Earth. That’s why the water room had four bodies: the Earth, the Moon and Kairo.
We proceed onwards to the final chamber that contains a single floor pad. Once we step onto it, we witness the Earth being invigorated by two spheres spinning about it. In the background, a statue of a humanoid figure is illuminated.
All of Kairo’s machines awaken and perform their mighty work. After the credits finish, we are allowed one brief glimpse of life on Earth, now reborn.
The Biggest Secret
I wrote last October that “Dear Esther doesn’t need collectibles. Neither does Proteus. Nor Kairo.” Well, I was wrong. Kairo has collectible runes hidden in the most obnoxious places. These runes contribute nothing to the story of Kairo and only count towards the “secret ending”, unlocked if you discover all of Kairo’s secrets. Further, the secret ending is a fourth-wall breaking tribute for dedicated players and yields no additional revelations about Kairo.
Yet, there are some secrets that do require discussion because they have narrative importance.
If we solve the optional music room puzzle in the auxiliary power structure or the hex room in the final control complex, we will be offered a brief vision of Earth in ruins. These merely confirm our understanding of the story and do not actually add anything.
However, if we solve the Skylab puzzle – which can only be done if multiple Kairo players work together – we will be rewarded with a very special vision.
This vision allows you to witness dead Earth from space, its signature blue replaced with a dark, caramelised brown. But move the mouse. The first thing we notice are the two artificial satellites of Kairo.
The second thing… is a NASA Space Shuttle drifting in space.
It is my belief that Kairo’s human survivors are the astronauts stranded on this shuttle when the disaster occurred. (See Manny Coto’s aborted series Odyssey 5 for a similar storyline.)
This, of course, is just my interpretation, but I dare say close to what Richard Perrin envisioned. And Perrin wanted to foster some ambiguity so there are no perfect answers to some of these questions. Maybe Kairo is man-made? Maybe the previous human in the monitoring station was simply watching over Kairo? As the Moon is not visible in the shuttle scene – maybe Kairo was constructed from the Moon?
But I’m unsure why Kairo was left for such a long time. It’s possible that Kairo was searching the universe for a “job” to do and happened upon Earth. It’s even possible that Kairo was responsible for the devastation of Earth but, considering the final message of the game as deserving second chances, this seems unlikely. Were the surviving humans dead when Kairo found them on the space shuttle?
There are also some narrative oddities throughout, some of which I’ve discussed. Let me pick out a few others. I find the distinction between “Kairo water” and “Earth water” strange. Also, Kairo sometimes implies every location is physically connected but at other times it embraces my TARDIS analogy.
In the latest build of Kairo, there’s an addition to one of the secret rooms that clashes with the mausoleum. In the secret room, there are active screens just like on the coffins except instead of the camera travelling into infinity, it shows the view in the monitoring room from the perspective of the corpse. This suggests a little retconning and perhaps it would have been better to fix the mausoleum screen to match. Then again, I can see issues with that approach.
Also, I was unhappy most of the secrets build towards the fourth-wall breaking secret ending, which undermines the sense of place. I had hoped the secrets were part of Kairo’s strange tapestry… but most of them weren’t.
Nonetheless, I fell in love with Kairo and enjoyed every hour I spent in its company. The game delivers an environmental narrative showcase that stands apart from what we typically see in AAA titles and relies on it exclusively, doing away with exposition.
For that achievement alone, I congratulate Richard Perrin.
Bonus Crazy Theory Corner
I spent an absolute vomitload of time playing Kairo. To prove how far down the rabbit hole I went, here is one of my crazy theories. Is the garden near the start of the game actually a representation of the apocalypse?
Secret Addendum (25 Apr)
I just gave the new version on Steam a quick go, which is Kairo version 2.0. The above essay was prepared using version 1.2. The game has had some graphical improvements since then, but Perrin has dabbled with a few important additions that are relevant to the story.
There’s indecipherable text on the back of the first structure, for example, lending more weight to the theory that Kairo is of alien origin.
Also, each of the three visions now reveals signs of previous life. The city ruins shows a sleeping bag with a knife beside it; the desert sports a tent and extinguished campfire; the space shuttle now has an astronaut floating near it, obviously dead – or at the very least, we are looking at an empty space suit.
It’s now clear that these locations are where Kairo took its three “survivors” from. You are obviously one of these survivors. Another is dead at the monitoring station. Where is the third?
There is a purple-coloured secret room that has monitors tracking all three. The third survivor is apparently here:
The location shown on the monitor is unfamiliar and doesn’t seem to be a part of Kairo that we are able to explore. So it was time for crazy theories again. I suspected there was one brief moment when we would be able to check this place ourselves.
I finished the game, waited for all of Kairo’s other machines to wake up – and took the following screenshot.
We were never alone.