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République’s study of control is a physical success but not a cerebral one

République is about control. Controlling how young people view the world. Controlling the art of a populace. Controlling personal space. And knowing when to surrender control of your decisions. The game is not just thematically concerned with the nature of control. This debut title from the developer Camouflaj is a mission statement proclaiming that game makers need to reimagine how we control video games. The popularity of touchscreen devices like the iPad doesn’t mean we need to throw away classic game structures. Just because you don’t have buttons doesn’t mean you can’t still make Resident Evil—you just need to rethink how the player moves your heroes. On that level, a physical level, République is a great success. But this first chapter isn’t up to the standard of the smart literature about oppression that it regularly name-checks.

Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and other works about how people bend others to their wills are the explicit inspiration for République’s dark world. Metamorphosis, the setting, is a sort of fascistic mixture of Hogwarts and BioShock’s Rapture. It’s a Utopian society free of the excess and individuality of the outside world, and it’s also a school where young troublemakers can be brainwashed into becoming the foot soldiers and leaders of tomorrow.

Hope is one of the young ladies trapped inside Metamorphosis. The game opens with your screen taking on the appearance of a smartphone receiving a call. It turns out that Hope got her hands on a smuggled phone and is desperately trying to reach an outside number. She connects to you, the player, who can’t speak to her but can control and manipulate the many security cameras, locks, and other electronics throughout the compound. It’s your task to help Hope escape a scheduled reprogramming at the hands of Mireille, the brutal mistress of the student body.

Controlling the game takes some getting used to. PlayStation-era classics like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid are good reference points for how you view the world. As in those games, you see Hope’s surroundings from fixed vantage points with limited views of the action. It’s not just an arbitrary dramatic effect. As an outside accomplice, your perspective is limited to the views of the compound’s security cameras. Where older games would have put you directly in control of Hope as she tries to reach the secretly benevolent librarian in Metamorphosis, here you instead tell her where to hide from roving security guards by tapping on your screen.

République’s rhythm is also atypical. You can pause the action at any time, freezing Hope and the security guards in place while you pick the camera that gives you the best view. The complexity of each scenario ramps up smoothly, at first asking you to keep Hope hidden from lone guards and then throwing more at you in bigger open areas. Sneaking through a cafeteria while also trying to tell Hope to pickpocket a taser-wielding guard sounds like a tricky task when you don’t have direct control over your ward, but the game does a good job of interpreting your intentions as you tap the screen. There will be times when Hope doesn’t crouch behind the plant you want her to, but they’re few and far between. It feels as precise, tactile, and rewarding as a three-dimensional game steered with more traditional buttons and joysticks.

As good as the “how” of République feels, the “why” can’t keep up. This being the first of five planned episodes, Camouflaj works hard to get you invested in Hope’s plight. Metamorphosis is perfectly mundane and creepy. Its empty gilded hallways and propaganda posters evoke a feeling of imprisonment in a seemingly innocuous place. The characters aren’t as well crafted. You don’t learn much about the headmaster of Metamorphosis or his motives. Hope is pretty much a blank slate as well, a teenage girl with a crush on the quiet boy in her classes but no personality otherwise. She just takes orders from you, and while you play the role of guardian and good Samaritan, little is done to create trust or a bond between Hope and the player. The basic tools a first chapter needs to ground an audience are missing.

It doesn’t help that République spends so much time talking about other, superior art along the way. Scanning around rooms can help lead Hope to banned literature like the aforementioned books by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Each one is accompanied by a monologue from the headmaster on why the books were banned. It’s effective shorthand for illuminating the headmaster’s philosophies, but it still leaves the specifics about Metamorphosis strangely blank. There are also other video games. Every time Hope picks a security guard’s pockets, she comes away with an Atari 2600-style game cartridge for popular indie games like Bastion and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP. These come with oral treatises on good game design from Cooper, a security guard helping you through the facility. They’re cute asides, but they do the game a disservice, bringing life to a side character while Hope remains as flat as ever.

République diverts too much attention away from the matters at hand with these distractions, spending more time talking about other things when it needs to be talking about itself. République “forced me to completely reconsider what the purpose of what game controls actually are,” Ryan Payton, the game’s director, told Gameological in a 2012 interview. “I just wanted people to be able to touch where they’re viewing, so they still have agency, and they’re still moving thingsm but in a logical way that ties the fiction around it.” There’s no doubt that the members of the Camouflaj team have figured out how to let players move through the world it created. Now, they need to work on how we connect with it.

République: Episode 1—Exordium
Developer: Camouflaj, Logan
Publisher: Camouflaj
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal)
Played on: iPad
Price: $5
Rating: 12+