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Opinion: The Easy Genius Of  Steambot Chronicles

Opinion: The Easy Genius Of Steambot Chronicles Exclusive

August 20, 2009 | By Quintin Smith

August 20, 2009 | By Quintin Smith
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this opinion piece, columnist Quintin Smith looks back on Irem's dainty Steambot Chronicles, explaining why and how the perfect adventure is found in its whimsy, non-linearity and distinctive features.]

There's been a lot of chatter over the last few years about the death of the adventure game, and that's never sat right with me.

It seems a sentiment spread mainly by Schafer-ites who have an unhealthy amount of nostalgia for the point'n'clicks of their youth, folk who'd rather wax sentimental than look forward. I say: The adventure game is enjoying a new lease of life in Irem's Steambot Chronicles for the PS2, and this year the sequel comes out on PS3.

Steambot's lack of recognition as an adventure game can probably be blamed on it getting categorized (correctly) as a mech RPG set in the 1920s. It takes place in a Japanese re-imagining of the past where the rise of the automobile happens side-by-side with the rise of the 'trotmobile'. Imagine the penny farthing of the mech world and you're there. Your rakish, shipwrecked, amnesiac (!!) protagonist owns a trotmobile, and a big chunk of the game is in piloting, upgrading and customizing your little machine.

But that's not what I want to talk about, because where the design of this game gets really interesting is in absolutely everything that happens around this central concept.

As I said before, Steambot Chronicles is a great adventure game, and this is because the guys at Irem understand that an adventure isn't about fighting or leveling up or sex scenes or a funny script or idiotic puzzles, it's about a journey. So they made Steambot Chronicles a game with a positively fierce focus on the mundane; a game about all the little stuff that happens on the way.

Things first get curious when you arrive at the first town. The yarn up to that point, which had you fighting bandits and making moral decisions in the name of fostering a bond between the player and the character, suddenly stops. The girl you were escorting home... gets back home. And suddenly you're just the stranger in town, and you have very little money and no place to stay.

Eggs and Sausage

It's not so much that the game asks you what you do next- it simply loses interest in you as everyone around town goes about their business. So maybe you go to the town's museum, or maybe you visit a bar where the people make fun of you for being too young. You shoot pool. You hustle. You sit under a streetlight and busk with your harmonica.

You check the status screen, realize you're hungry and buy a snack. You stumble across a stray cat. You check out the town's hotel and wince at the prices. But that girl you met, she's a singer, and she's performing a concert in a couple of days. So you stick around. It's like The Catcher In The Rye, but with a protagonist who owns a robot and isn't generally pathetic.

There are a couple of reasons why this lack of direction ends up being as powerful as it is. With something like GTA IV all of the side-treks and fooling around felt like just that - trivial, a waste of time before you got back on that heavily scripted horse.

By contrast, as impassive as Steambot Chronicles feels when you're not actively engaging in the main plot, it is always keeping an eye on you. You're always being asked what you say, how you reply or what you do.

During any conversation someone might ask you something about yourself, or give you advice or tell a secret. Even when you find the stray cat you're given the option of feeding it something from your inventory. And whenever you wake up to a new day the game lets you know how people are referring to you, their mysterious new stranger. Because I did nothing of note on my first day in town but eat well, people started referring to me as The Sated Kid. So it goes.

But the real nugget of genius in Steambot Chronicles, and the real reason the mundane stuff works (and therefore the real reason the game succeeds at feeling like an adventure) is how it plays with nonlinearity. Some 80 percent of these incidental decisions and activities have no repercussions whatsoever, so the developers can afford to throw tons of them in and make the world feel refreshing, alive, reactive.

But because you as a player have no idea which choices make up the percentage that have repercussions, or even what that percentage is, you have to treat every choice as important. If someone approaches you in a bar in Mass Effect or Final Fantasy, you know it's a plot device or side-quest. If someone approaches you in a bar in Steambot Chronicles you have no idea who he is, if he's important or if he will be important later, and that's immersive. The whole game is a masterful display of smoke and mirrors.

The same principle is applied to the game's combat. Everyone's familiar with the RPG trope of featuring battles which aren't meant to be won. Well, Steambot Chronicles features a few battles which can be won or lost, with the game changing slightly depending on the result.

So, occasionally a fight has things at stake, you just have no idea which fights these are. As a result every single fight that ties in with the game's story or a side quest becomes that much more dramatic. If you lose, you have no idea whether the game will just carry on.

All Smiles

What's a shame is that the true extent of Steambot Chronicles' success as an adventure game isn't in design decisions anyone can break down or copy, it's in the memories it leaves you with. Like arriving at a romantic desert oasis with a girl, remembering those swimming trunks you neglected to buy back in town then catching a cold after going swimming with her in your clothes.

Or being told about a Trotmobile battle tournament happening that day (that your nemesis is entering) when you're really not in the mood for a fight, but you enter anyway and get panned by some jerk you've never heard of with a huge trident of in the first round.

Or attaching a flatbed to your Trotmobile and choosing to help out at the lumber yard for a spell. These are memories that make me smile. By contrast, the immediate punch of remembrance I get with Grim Fandango or Monkey Island is in finally finishing those few idiotic puzzles that had me all but eating the monitor in frustration.

In closing, I want to talk about Steambot's stock market. Because Lord, it'd be criminal if this idea sank without a trace.

One of the many optional elements of Steambot Chroniclesis a stock market where the player can buy or sell the shares of most companies present in the game's world. That's it. That's the entire feature. The reason it's brilliant is that it takes a problem present not only in games but in all stories, that of being able to see twists or developments coming a mile off, and turns it from something tiresome to a risky subgame that has you giggling in excitement every time you're proved correct. It's design alchemy.

Say your character can't catch the train to the next town because the tunnel is full of dastardly bandits ('If only someone would clear them out!'). You immediately make a trip to the exchange and practically sell your shoes trying to buy as many bottomed out Pencil Railroad Company shares as possible, knowing that sooner or later you're going to get slurped into a story arc where you clear that tunnel yourself and get the train running again, and your shares will double in value.

Thinking about it, what I'd really like to see is this stock market idea appearing in a kind of corrupt Mass Effect. Wouldn't that be fun? Let the player control a respected Spectre with his own ship and crew, but give them the secret goal of manipulating their position to amass as much wealth as possible.

So you could, say, do a bad job of protecting certain areas or organizations because their destruction would ease competition for the businesses you chose to invest in. Or you could spend all your time trying to indirectly start wars, having tied all your funds up in the arms industry.

I don't know. It just seems a shame that the only game where this feature has found a home also boasts a protagonist called Vanilla Beans and his adorable robot Earl Grey II. C'mon! It's time we picked up that baton already.

[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him either wearing ill-fitting clothes in embarrassingly cheap Montreal bars or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]

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