The first game developed and published by Parabole, Kona is an “interactive tale” that places the player near Atamipek Lake, Northern Canada, in 1970. Calling this game an interactive tale puts it in the ranks of “walking simulators” – like The Park, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – in my mind. None of these games are bad, per se – as products and art pieces they demonstrate game-making skill from an environmental perspective, and tell stories largely through their worlds. In such games, events have transpired – usually grizzly ones – in a way that changed things for the worse, and now it’s the player’s job to search every nook and cranny for bits of the bigger story. Developers often give themselves freedom through mechanical emptiness to avoid many potential technical complications and balancing issues, and players can aimlessly wander their works of art until they feel they’ve seen enough.
Kona is different. Not only are there a number of beautiful and interesting places to explore, and a well-voiced narrative to complement them; there are things to do. Things beyond hitting the interact button to do something and further the story, or picking up a series of tokens and collectibles. Many of the game’s obstacles are overcome through a mixture of exploration and application, as several seemingly-useless “Special Items” can be found and used to unlock new interactions with the world. What’s more, some ever-present constraints prevent the player from endlessly meandering through the bitter Canadian cold; the player even needs to manage stress in order to keep the character engaged and capable of making keen observations.
At times, I found myself being most immersed in the game when the constraints affected my behavior – when I was forced to decide, “Do I feel stressed enough to have a cigarette right here, or should I wait until I’m warmer?” Each of these little moments – barely seeing an abandoned house in the distance through a tumultuous blizzard, rummaging for where the firewood is kept, rushing inside and lighting the wood stove – make Kona more than another pretty mystery. They make it feel real.
The big picture? Something’s caused wildlife to savagely attack the residents of Atamipek Lake. Locals have inexplicably fled in a hurry, some reporting an evil entity’s arrival to the small, quiet village. Some are missing, having left only traces of the horror they witnessed behind. A man is even found frozen solid in a block of ice. The main goal in Kona involves exploring each of several buildings and learning how locals are connected to each other and recent supernatural events. Interestingly, the moment-to-moment play in Kona seemed more engaging to me than the bigger mystery; this might be because the game is “the first installment in a series of four games” according to its Steam description and feels likely to ramp up the supernatural factor as it progresses. After a few hours in-game, all I know for certain is that the antagonistic force seems adequately powerful and destructive, and has ruined at least a handful of lives as it’s swept through this lonely village.
Kona‘s quality comes from its saturation of both aesthetic and mechanical appeal, which creates a balance between the challenge of a hardcore detective game and a stop-and-smell-the-roses experience. It doesn’t feel rushed (aside from some cinematic moments, the game’s events move entirely at the player’s pace), but there are time constraints derived from the player’s need for health, warmth, and low stress. Everything – from foliage and structures to the intricate trinkets and details you’d find in an occupied home – has been made at an extremely high level of fidelity; and while rewarding in itself, getting up-close and personal with the game world is also rewarded with notes and items that actually help the player succeed. An added luxury, and what probably helps all players who aren’t from Northern Canada, is the game’s narrator: a proper Canadian with a comforting northern brogue who explains how things are in Quebec and guides the player with a stream-of-consciousness response to current events. Each location, item, and past event discovered by the player has a wonderful weight to it, because it feels like the game truly knows what the player needs in order to understand and survive in the harsh conditions of Atamipek Lake. Even smaller details further enrich the experience: the way Carl has to put the car in reverse and lean around to see through the rear window in order to drive backwards; the properly-oriented footsteps he leaves behind him and the ones left behind by animals; the fine grain in each log making up a hunter’s shack, and the evidence of boring pastimes littering the dining table.
Parabole didn’t skimp on the visual and audible beauty that fills Kona – but more importantly, they didn’t skimp on the mechanics. The game’s constraints and interactions make it a welcome addition to the world of interactive tales, and in my eyes hold it high above the host of “walking simulators” available today.
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