Under Review

Under Review: Backbone (Video Game)

Bryn Shaffer

It’s a rainy night in Vancouver when I fire up my console, the screen illuminating with a lush scrolling pixel rendition of… a rainy night in Vancouver. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this Vancouver is much more noir, dystopian and fantastical. Our character, a raccoon detective named Howard, walks along what looks to be Granville Street. The side-scrolling cityscape is lit with neon signage, and humanoid animals mill about the nightlife along slick sidewalks overflowing with trash. Raindrops pelt through the 4th wall onto the monitor, and synthy jazz beats fill the air. This is the world of Backbone, the latest indie game for PC and console from Vancouver-based developer Eggnut.

Backbone is a dialogue-centric mystery with choice-driven exploration mechanics, and atmospheric 2D pixel environments. Humans are long gone, and anthropomorphized animals inhabit eerily familiar regions of this walled-off post-apocalyptic city. Classism fuels a corrupt system that connects the powerful animal groups who run this community, and it’s up to the player to discover what’s truly going on in neo-noir Vancouver. 

The plot starts with a client hiring you for a basic cheating spouse case, and quickly morphs into a mystery centred around criminal cults, missing persons (animals?), horrific science experiments, and metaphysical psychedelic trips. An accurate comparison would be True Detective, with a pixelated Raccoon. The plot is full of twists, with writing that will keep you engaged and invested in exposing the conspiracy underpinning the world of Backbone. 

Down on his luck, searching for the next big case, Howard embodies all the tropes of a hardboiled private eye. His less than expert detective skills and his existentialist internal monologue make him sympathetically flawed. The player guides Howard to interact with or ignore the many characters found throughout the city. Using branching dialogue options, the player chooses whether Howard acts with empathy and compassion or cruel intimidation.

Make no mistake, this is a dialogue driven game — a true return to the Carmen Sandiego era. Those of you looking for platforming or stealth elements may be disappointed. Although these mechanics are present, Eggnut has opted to incorporate them sparingly. The game has a particular story to tell, and it will guide you through its narrative. It is by no means, however, a click-through spoon fed experience — the conversation options, location exploration, and character development all work to inform how the player opts to accept or deny the horrific reality of the mystery they uncover.

Above all else, the visuals are the star of this game. Its intricate pixel art led me many times to stop playing and simply stare at the landscapes. As a Vancouverite it was delightful to see neighbourhoods like the West End, Gastown, and Granville Street transformed into something charmingly uncanny. As developers Eggnut state: “fair warning — it’s a VIBE”

The parallels with Vancouver’s current lived reality are clear, and the developers haven’t shied away from putting these issues on full display. At the forefront is the subject of housing and the disparity between various characters’ living conditions. The world’s parks and waterfront areas feature characters experiencing homelessness, while the sparkling and gated off condos are inhabited by the ultra-rich. At its core, Backbone is about class and the hardships, even trauma, that derive from living in a community where vast wealth gaps exist.

I was surprised that after spending so much time drawing me into this beautiful world, the game ended extremely abruptly. With a lengthy exposition and stretched out first act, I was ready to spend several days as Howard, slowly gathering evidence and wandering around apocalyptic downtown. Instead, the conclusion left me with several unanswered questions, and simply wishing that I’d been given more time. Whether this was due to budget or time constraints, it would have been nice to see the story more consistently paced.

With its dazzling environment, emotional dialogue, and darkly intricate plot, Backbone is a game that will hit home, quite literally, for many players and will leave you wanting more. I look forward to Eggnut’s next creation, hopefully its some DLC content, or even a sequel, bringing us back to dystopian Vancouver, and the bleak vision that is Backbone. — Bryn Shaffer