Richard & Alice is probably one of the dullest and most uninspiring names I’ve seen for a video game. The game itself, however, is anything but. I went into this game with no expectations and left impressed by its quietly powerful storyline and bleak atmosphere. I know it sounds cliché, but this is one of those games that asks the question “what’s in a name?” and exemplifies the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
It is difficult to deeply discuss the story without revealing massive spoilers, but I will try anyway. Basically, the setting is post-apocalyptic. An ice-age has blanketed the planet in snow, and the only secure places are heavily guarded, government-restricted zones with exorbitant prices of admission for the scantest of resources. The story begins with Richard watching another rerun on the TV of his holding cell at an underground institutional prison. His routine is broken with the appearance of a new inmate in the cell across from him: a mysterious woman named Alice. The storyline focuses on Richard’s lengthy conversations with Alice, namely about her past. These jaunts into Alice’s past are presented as playable flashback sequences. Players will learn a lot about the hardships Alice and her 5 year-old son Barney face as they try and survive one despairing situation after another. There are some truly harrowing moments, and a few subtle actions can influence the ending received. The only issue I have with the story is that the dialogue is a little bit stiff, so the necessary “exposition dumps” don’t always feel natural.
The gameplay is bread and butter graphic adventure gameplay. Players explore their surroundings, collect sundry items, and manipulate them with other items or environments to get out of sticky situations, MacGuyver style. The interface is simple and the puzzles mostly make sense, but the slow character movement is sometimes a drag when going back and forth between places to solve logic puzzles. Perhaps it’s a conscious design choice that’s there to really give players a visceral connection with the isolated bleakness of the world. The game is not very long (it can be completed in about a day) and is quite linear, but it feels pretty long, and not in a bad way.
The sprite and tile based graphics, as well as the MIDI based music and sound effects hearken back to the bygone era of 16-bit SNES games. This actually works both for and against the game. Some of my favorite video game storylines came from SNES RPGs, including the often bleak Final Fantasy VI, but I think that the more harrowing moments of this story could have had more impact with higher-definition graphics. Larger character portraits with multiple facial expressions could have added extra dynamism to the storytelling and overall sparse visual design. The MIDI-based music and sound effects are wonderfully atmospheric and judiciously used, but perhaps better quality sound could have further punctuated the game’s unsettling feel. The aesthetics are fine as they are, but some gamers may be left wanting better.
Richard & Alice may have a generic name, but it is anything but generic. Some gamers will find the aesthetics to be hit or miss and the gameplay is pretty basic, but the bleak, vexing storyline and the hopeless world it takes place in are something special. Whenever I play games where the odds are against me, I dream of being a heroic part of those games’ worlds. Not so with Richard & Alice. I did not envy them, their situation, or their world. I appreciate taking a journey with them, but their setting is too depressing for me to go back to. For that emotional impact alone, I think this game is worth trying for adventure fans and gamers who want something more from their video game storylines than cavalcades of reused tropes.