Syberia: From Komkolzgrad to Aralbad and Back and On

The remainder of Syberia went rather smoothly, despite a couple more missed hotspots. The final two stops are interlinked in a way that the first two were not, so I felt it made sense to take them both in a single sitting.

What happens is, Kate’s quest for Hans is temporarily replaced by a quest for hands. In the abandoned industrial town of Komkolzgrad lives a disfigured creep who, in the tradition of his kind, is obsessed with an opera singer named Helena Romanski. He steals the hands of the automaton driver of Kate’s train, and tells Kate he’ll give them back when she brings him Helena, to perform for him once more, like she did many years ago. This prompts a side-trip to the moribund resort of Aralbad, where she’s living out her twilight years. Since you can’t take the train, you instead go by suspiciously convenient dirigible. The combination of airship and opera put me in mind of Final Fantasy VI. I even briefly entertained the notion that instead of hunting the diva down, I could impersonate her like Celes impersonated Maria, but this story isn’t quite that silly.

The reason that the disfigured creep stole the hands in particular was to use them on an organist automaton of his own creation (after Hans Voralberg’s designs), specifically designed to accompany Helena. When he reneges on his bargain and tries to keep both Helena and the hands forever, Kate has to detach the hands from the organist with a screwdriver. When I reached this point, my reaction was “Why didn’t she do this before?” Kate had both the screwdriver and access to the organist back in her first visit. She could have skipped Aralbad altogether if the game had put a hotspot where there was one now. Thinking about it afterward, I think the intention was that the hands I first saw on the organist were not the stolen ones: they were cruder ones, without the dexterity to properly play an organ or drive a train. But this was not clear to me at the time. As with the mammoth drawing, it would have clarified matters enormously if I were allowed to try and fail: I could have detached the hands and brought them to the train, only to be told that they were the wrong ones.

Oddly enough, the train also goes through Aralbad, and it is on returning there that Kate quite unexpectedly finds Hans, a little old man with an unworldly manner. I didn’t expect to find him before reaching Syberia, but that doesn’t happen until the sequel, and I suppose Sokal wanted to end the first game in some kind of victory, even if the story is left unresolved.

Ah, but whose victory? Well, Kate does achieve her original goals. But Hans accepts the news of his sister’s death and signs away the factory with remarkable equanimity. His man-child incomprehension means the adult world cannot touch him, and that is his triumph. Kate can do nothing in the face of this but defect: throwing her career to the wind, she joins him on the train for further adventures. For my part, I think I’ll take a bit of a break before joining them.

Syberia: Reaching Komkolzgrad

Socialist realismKate proceeds to Russia, where Hans’ miraculous wind-up train winds down again. I call the train “miraculous” because it takes only about a second and a half to wind up, and this apparently stores up enough energy to propel a few dozen tons of steel halfway across Europe. But this is a story told in a world that hasn’t quite grown up yet. Kate, a corporate lawyer pursuing a sale resulting from bankruptcy due to unpaid bills, is the personification of its adult side. Hans Voralberg, a toymaker who’s described as both physically and emotionally stunted, is destined to remain a child forever. And it’s Hans who made the train, so it conforms to childish expectations. It’s only the adult world that knows about limitations like conservation of energy, or financial hardship, or death.

This contrast is really central to the game’s mise en scène, from the opening shot of a wind-up automaton leading a funeral procession. Barrockstadt University is ruled by ridiculous fussy men in gowns and mortarboards, caricatures of the learned out of old storybooks; what little you can glimpse of the town outside the university walls shows it to be a crumbling ruin. Kate’s quest to find Hans can be seen either as her pursuit of renewal, trying to rediscover the childlike vitality she’s missing, or as the inexorable hounding of youth by grim reality, as she seeks to bring him news of his sister’s death and to make him sign away the toy factory to a soulless corporation.

Note the window at the statue's waist. There's a room in there. Kate is currently inside it, operating the controls.At the moment, it’s getting grimmer. The latest stop is at an abandoned mine, which is to say, it’s industrial without the industriousness. Only a few rooms are available from the beginning, giving it a more claustrophobic feel. The previous two chapters had people hanging around just to make it clear that the place really was inhabited, but the only human being I’ve seen in this new place was a glimpse of someone furtively running away, possibly after abducting the train’s automaton driver. When Hans passed through here, a magical boy leaving wonders in his wake, it was ruled by Stalin. Hans left behind a couple of mechanized colossi wielding hammers and sickles.

I haven’t got far in this chapter yet, and seem to be stuck again. More unnoticed hotspots? Probably. I’ll say this for it: Remember how I said that the fanciful machines in this game were essentially just glorified lock-and-key puzzles? That’s not the case any more. There’s at least a little bit of Myst-style reversible environment manipulation going on.

Syberia: What the Telephone Communicates

I don’t know if this is a typical experience, but I’ve had a much better and easier time with the Barrockstadt chapter of Syberia than with Valadilène. I completed the chapter last night, and at no point was I stuck from failing to notice a hotspot. There were moments when I mistakenly thought I must have missed something, and roamed about for a little while scanning the screen with my cursor, but the actual key to getting unstuck was invariably some mental connection I hadn’t made. In other words, I was actually finding solutions by thinking, which I don’t think happened at all in chapter 1.

I’d like to describe one such moment of insight in particular — the one I mentioned having in my last post — because it illustrates how expectations can create mental blocks where they really shouldn’t exist. There’s a device that has a sign attached to it giving a phone number to call in case of emergencies. There’s also a phone attached to the device, but it’s broken. What do you do? What a lot of us would do in real life: pull out your cell phone.

So, why did I have a hard time thinking of this? Mainly because the there are a number of things about the phone that work against thinking of it as a something useful. For starters, there’s the simple fact that it hadn’t been useful before this point. The phone has an interface with a few pre-set numbers in it — Kate’s mom, her boyfriend, her boss — but calling them never seems to produce anything other than an answering machine, so one gives up on trying to use it early in the game. Also, although the phone can only be accessed through the inventory interface, it’s not an inventory item: it has its own button that stands apart from the grid of inventory slots, and pressing that button brings up the phone interface rather than selecting it for use on the environment. So it’s not part of what you look at when you look through your inventory hoping to find something useful. It just fades into the background.

The strange part of that is that the phone also keeps calling attention to itself. Every once in a while, shortly after you’ve accomplished some major goal, Kate’s mom or boyfriend or boss will spontaneously call her up and chatter about their own needs to emphasize their physical and emotional separation from Kate right now. But this actually helps the phone to fade into the background, because it’s such a background event. The calls inform you about Kate’s emotional ground (or at least the first couple of calls do; subsequent calls don’t really add much), but they’re useless to your situation. Their uselessness is part of the point.

Syberia: Entering Barrockstadt

Having reached Syberia‘s second chapter, my chief experience is one of relief: suddenly, I’m not treading the same ground any more. Every room is new. Of course, this only lasts so long, and by now I’m back to hunting for hotspots again. Or perhaps not: just thinking about the game as I write this, I’ve had a flash of insight about how a certain feature might be used. I’ll find out later how that pans out.

Still, I spent most of my last session either exploring new ground or deliberately pursuing known goals. The latter consisted mainly of talking to a series of people: person A tells me to talk to person B, person B tells me to talk to person C, person C sends me back to person B who has different dialogue this time, etc. In short, they gave me the runaround, and most of the time spent on this was in fact spent running around. Is this so very different from walking from one end of the map to another, hunting for hotspots in a self-directed way? I think so, because it at least provides some reason to think that every step you take is taking you towards something. All the backtracking did, however, make me annoyed at all the stairs involved. This is a game where you normally have two gaits: clicking makes you walk, double-clicking makes you run. But stairs have their own special movement animation, which means you can’t run on them.

Barrockstadt is a university town — in fact, it seems to consist entirely of a university and a train station, and the train station is pretty much part of the university facilities, serving as a greenhouse and aviary. For just as Valadilène’s automaton factory filled the place with fanciful contraptions, Barrockstadt University’s famous biology department seems to be an excuse to theme the place around exotic wildlife. There are still touches of clockwork, though. Hans Voralberg, contraption auteur, did pass this way at one point, and gave the town the only sort of gift he could give: an automated eagle, a no-man band. But also, the way the birds move when they’re on the ground seems extremely mechanical to me. As with the automaton-nature of the NPC dialogue, I’m assuming that this isn’t deliberate, that the animators were just trying to imitate the motions of birds, which have a certain amount in common with the motions of robots to begin with, that an accidental lack of fluidity in the motions made them seem a bit more mechanical and that context takes it the rest of the way. But I could be wrong about this. I suppose that by the end I’ll know enough about the game’s intent to see if such suggestions of mechanicality in the organic reinforce it or not.

The most important of the birds in the train station, and the only species I’ve seen identified by name so far, is the Amerzone Cuckoo, a callback to Sokal’s previous game, Amerzone. Just as Syberia conerns a voyage to Siberia, Amerzone was about a journey by river through the jungles of South America. However, in both cases, the title seems to refer to something more specific than its homophone. In particular, the scholars of Barrockstadt dismiss Syberia as a myth, but accept the news that Hans is thought to be in Siberia without batting an eye. I imagine this would be confusing if I didn’t have subtitles on. How the characters are supposed to be telling the difference, I don’t know. Perhaps there’s more of a difference in pronunciation in French. Or maybe it’s just a cartoonist’s typographical joke.

Syberia: Getting Unstuck

I’ve finally made it out of Valadiléne! I really thought I was going to have to use hints, but I found one difficult-to-see hotspot, and then, after exhausting what I could do from that, another. The first hotspot led to an area that belatedly gave me the motivation for certain random actions I had been performing just because I could. The second was the one that let me use that voice cylinder, so I was still looking for that right up to the end.

Syberia uses what used to be called a “smart cursor”, but nowadays generally isn’t called anything because we take it for granted. All it means is that the cursor changes according to what it’s pointing at, like how the pointer changes into a pointing hand when over a hyperlink in your web browser. Syberia‘s default cursor, indicating the action “walk as close as possible to this point”, is a ring, flattened by perspective into an ellipse. I don’t know why this shape was chosen, but most of the other cursor shapes are variations on it. Mostly they add a stem to the lower right of the ring: a simple squared-off stem turns it into a magnifying glass for the “examine” action, characters you can talk to give it a pointed stem that turns it into a speech balloon, and a gap in the ring opposite the stem makes it into a robotic pincer for a generic “use”. The subtlest change is the cursor for “exit to a different room/area/camera angle” action, which puts a glowing halo around the ring. (A halo with a halo?) This is the one variation that doesn’t change the cursor’s shape.

Now, the first hotspot I was missing was a case of two “exit” actions positioned very close to each other. There was a gap between them where the cursor would turn back to its default form, but at typical cursor speeds, this happened very quickly, and, because the cursor didn’t change shape, it was easy to not notice. Exit hotspots tend to be quite a bit larger than the doorway or whatever that they send you through, so it didn’t seem at all strange that one hotspot would extend over the area covered by the two of them. Should I have known that there were two exits from the art? The art is often ambiguous about this; there are a lot of visible openings that you can’t go through, and there are paths that you’re not able to step off of despite the area to the sides being completely open. (Which is yet more evidence that the natural environment for an adventure game is a cave.)

Actually, I don’t know how valid it is to say that I failed to notice that hotspot because it blended in with the other, given that the second hotspot, which took me longer to find, was a “use” in the middle of nothing. It was an undistinguished book in a bookcase that, when clicked, opened a secret compartment. I had swept over that bookcase multiple times over the course of my general hotspot-hunt without noticing it. I suppose my week-and-a-half pause is to blame here: when I came back to an obviously relevant bookcase and couldn’t find anything to click, I assumed that I must have already taken something from it and rendered it inert. (See previous post.) Perhaps I would have spent more time on it if it still had things to click — if, say, every book were clickable, rather than just the one important one. This would run the risk of having the hotspots blend into each other like the exits described previously, but at least it would give the player some reason to believe that the books were interactive.

Syberia: Machines that Die

Another day of little progress. I found one, and only one, previously-unnoticed hotspot. What I wouldn’t give right now for an in-game hotspot-highlighting feature, like the one in Jolly Rover (a game that, ironically, was easy enough to not need it). That one hotspot led into a chain of actions culminating in the acquisition of a “voice cylinder”, but I haven’t seen anything I could use to play it. So the search for hotspots resumes.

The really frustrating part is that I’m running out of things to do. Finding the voice cylinder was actually a bit of a relief in that regard: Aha, a new inventory item that I can try clicking on things! My inventory had actually been empty at that point. Syberia is the style of adventure game where inventory items usually have only one use, and that use absorbs them. Worse, the same applies to a lot of environmental hotspots: once you’ve successfully unlocked a door or wound up an automaton, it goes inert. Contrast this to, say, Myst. Superficially, it seems like the Valadilène section of Syberia should have a certain amount in common with Myst: they’re both about foggy environments dominated by fanciful contraptions. But Myst‘s contraptions were more fully realized as machines: you could fiddle with the controls multiple times, change settings in various ways, flip switches back to their original positions with attendant effects, etc. The puzzles there were all about figuring out how the machine operates so you could operate it correctly. As far as I’ve seen, the apparati in Syberia are mostly facades. They’re AGT-style lock-and-key puzzles that play a movie clip of a machine on successful use.

Syberia: Roaming Valadilène

Now then. Where were we?

Although I’m still in a part of Syberia that I know I’ve played before, I’m not having much luck making progress. I’ve gotten a little beyond my last post, but I’m in that stage of the game where I have no option but to walk the length of the map repeatedly until I find something hitherto missed.

The worst of it is the artificial gating, managed here mainly through literal gates. For example, there’s a churchyard that’s closed up for the duration of a (plot-significant) funeral when you start the game. It opens when you’ve reached a completely unrelated point in the story elsewhere. Knowing that this sort of thing can happen anytime, I don’t dare to limit my wanderings to places where I know I need to go, or to think of any place as useless for now. There’s something to be said for not directing the player, for allowing them to make discoveries through free exploration. But right now, I’m exploring the same couple dozen areas over and over, and it’s growing tiresome.


The alpine town of ValadilèneSyberia (not to be confused with the cheesy 1994 FMV game Cyberia) is an atmospheric point-and-click adventure by Benoit Sokal, a Belgian comic book artist and game designer. What is it with Belgian comics and adventure games? Well, in this particular case, I think it has a lot to do with living in the shadow of Hergé. Like the adventures of Tintin, Syberia is a story of traveling to distant lands where everything and everyone is a little odd, rendered in a style that’s fanciful and caricatured, but at the same time oddly restrained about it. This is one of those adventure games with pre-rendered backgrounds under 3D characters and other animated elements. The art is gorgeous, very old-world picturesque with intense clarity of detail and a very pleasing distance haze.

The story starts in an alpine town called Valadilène, where the player character, Kate Walker, a lawyer from New York, has come to arrange a large corporation’s purchase of the old toy factory that forms the basis of not only all the town’s wealth, but much of its machinery and architecture: there’s hardly anything, even in the office of the town’s elderly notary, that isn’t in some way connected to a custom clockwork automaton in a metal top hat. The opening cutscene begins with a funeral procession composed entirely of automatons. Of course, in a sense every single character in the game is an automaton, a machine with fixed inputs and outputs, canned dialogue, and scripted motions that play out as if driven by an uncoiling spring. But I don’t think I’m supposed to have made that connection.

The factory deal is complicated by the owner’s death, which forces you to track down a lost heir, who apparently went off to Siberia on a special clockwork train to look for mammoths or something. Presumably in the process Kate will learn valuable lessons about what’s important in life and stuff; in the beginning, she’s pretty clearly the city slicker amongst simple rural folk, and there’s really only one way that can develop.

I recall getting just past Valadilène to the second chapter before stopping playing this back when it was new. I’m not quite up to that point yet now. I’m finding that I’ve forgotten most of the first chapter, and have to rediscover the solutions to puzzles. There was one particular bit that I remembered quite clearly, though, because it stuck in my craw so badly the first time. At one point, a boy demands that you draw a picture of a mammoth for him. You cannot progress further into the game until you comply. You have a pencil and paper (treated as a single inventory item), but I could not for the life of me figure out how to use them to draw a mammoth. It turned out that you have to apply them to a small carving of a mammoth that I had failed to notice etched into a nearby wall. The problem here isn’t just that the carving is easy to miss, it’s that there’s no clear reason why it’s necessary. Can’t Kate draw a mammoth freehand? Everyone knows what a mammoth looks like. Or, if that’s unacceptable, the game should at least tell us that it’s unacceptable: have the kid look at Kate’s unaided handiwork and say “That’s not what mammoths look like!” or something.

So anyway, that’s what I’m anticipating in the later parts of this game. Lovely art and lousy puzzles.