There is very little room for mystery in modern gaming. With everyone’s constant desire for instant gratification from the down time they spend in this pursuit, mystery has been shunned in favour of twitch trigger-happy titles. This perhaps explains the collapse of the Adventure game genre and the rise of the First Person Shooter. The joy of the indie gaming world however is that developers do not have to stick to market trends or keep publishers happy. The results of this are solo projects such as Richard Perrin’s Kairo. And Kairo is certainly a mystery.
It is not just the complete absence of a tutorial, or the dearth of any words save the developer’s name in the opening title. It isn’t even the unceremonious dumping of the player at entry into a bleak world filled with strangely beautiful angular alien architecture, splashed with dangerously lo-fi repeating textures or the haunting soundscape that wraps around the player. Rather the entire experience of Kairo is a mystery, leaving one baffled until the very end.
What we can discern about the game is that it is played in first-person, yet lacks any form of shooting. The controls are standard for the genre if tainted slightly by that overly sticky feeling that the game’s Unity engine often applies. Without death or threat of any kind the time spent playing Kairo is taken up with wandering through the derelict angular halls observing and attempting to comprehend what it is that you are observing. These mysterious rooms are littered with puzzles and in that way the game closely resembles the adventure gaming classic Myst, yet often the biggest puzzle the player confronts is understanding whether something needs to be solved in the first place.
There is a dark and (obviously) mysterious plot underlying the world of Kairo, and as the player progresses glimmers of light break through the bewildering dark curtain. Haunting shadows of faces rise out of static filled screens, scratches of eerie radio are caught on the wind and recognisable human symbolic images appear out of nowhere. Meanwhile solving certain puzzles seems to bring machines to life, yet the purpose of resurrecting these alien machinations, other than to proceed, is left unclear until the rather wonderful end. Often we find that the best plots are those ambiguous and obtuse enough to let observer draw their own conclusions. Kairo certainly achieves this.
It seems rather perplexing that, given the above, the greatest issue Kairo has is in its simplicity. The puzzles, perhaps the core of the experience, are too often weak and unfulfilling, solved with surprisingly little thought. There is also a shortage of variation with an over-reliance on matching symbols or positioning oneself correctly. It certainly lacks the ingenuity of Myst, its sequel Riven or even modern equivalents such as Fez or Antichamber and at no point will it force you into manic scrawling on paper as the mentioned games required. That being said there are a number of secret riddles that will test those little grey cells, it is just a shame it is such a small proportion of the overall game. Much like Fez, Kairo feels like a game that could, and should, be filled with ingenious touches such as translatable alien languages or alternative logic yet it never reaches the maniacally brilliant heights of that pixelated masterpiece.
Yet one could argue that more complex puzzles would hold the players back from the full mysterious experience of Kairo, and that really is the overall essence of the game. It is hard not to love and be amazed by its cold dark world, particularly for anyone who pines for the days when games were still filled with such mystery. Everything about it is highly original and just wonderfully weird. It cunningly utilises its tiny budget to its own advantage to create a frightening atmosphere. The fantastic touches such as bizarre monoliths swinging around to your movement, or crazy bridges taking shape as you step across them or entire buildings being summoned before your eyes ensure Kairo is strangely uncomfortable, creepily crazy and ultimately highly memorable.