It’s been ages since I’ve played a good puzzle game. I had hopes that The Franz Kafka Videogame would break this trend, but instead, it left me disinterested and annoyed. Developed by one man (Dennis Galanin), it manages to both be a beautiful, whimsical journey and completely insubstantial. Every time the game would start to pull me in, it would turn about face and proceed down an irritating or dull path. I kept waiting for things to stay good, and sadly, they never do with The Franz Kafka Videogame.
The Franz Kafka Videogame, in essence, is a mixture of Myst, an interactive piece of literature, and a moving piece of art. This works great for its visuals and sound design. The charming art aesthetic and softly whispering audio design brings to mind a children’s book, but don’t let that deceive you. If anything, The Franz Kafka Videogame is built for adults who enjoy extremely esoteric puzzles. Except, even then, you aren’t going to get what you want.
Difficulty can be hard to gauge with a puzzle game, and it’s clear that was the case here. The difficulty curve in The Franz Kafka Videogame is about as sporadic as a cantankerous car that backfires every time you take a left turn. One sequence almost plays itself, outside of a timing-based mini-puzzle within. Another gives you a circle of alchemist symbols around a circle as a hint for how to solve a slide-puzzle. Then there’s one with a train that I literally beat while simply testing the various mechanisms to make sense of it.
This is just how The Franz Kafka Videogame rolls. As the protagonist K. points out, a lot of what’s going on is rather absurd. While there’s an obvious reason for some of the more unusual and sometimes downright nihilistic moments, that doesn’t make the game’s inconsistencies any more bearable.
I’m all for message through mechanics, but the deep metaphors being thrown around also came off as either blatantly obvious or vague as possible. There’s no middle ground here, no fine balance. I’d love to be challenged to reassess a puzzle, but this is less Portal and more The Witness. Rules and themes across the game’s acts change on a whim, and even the game’s story is indifferent to your frustrations.
What broke my patience with the game though, was a puzzle that literally involves a false game crash. I was at the end of Act 3, and I finally had neared my goal of seeing the entire game through. Then the in-game level went all green and pink and I just… I have better uses of my time than this. This game is so pretentiously in love with itself that clearing Act 2 gets you the achievement “Competent”.
Competent. Really The Franz Kafka Videogame? You want to start talking down to me? Even though most of what you convey through your puzzles and writing is basic existentialism, nihilism, or just outright absurdism for the sake of absurdism? Even though you can’t stay on a single train of thought for longer than two puzzles? Even though some of your puzzles are actually so simple that randomly pressing buttons elicits the solution in moments? Even though some of your other puzzles are so opaque that your final hints are literally just the solutions to the puzzles?
Which is, itself, a very interesting thing. I mean, is this to indicate that the real focus of the game is its underwhelming yet fantastical story? Is it about conveying Kafka’s philosophy to the player? I have to wonder, because the achievements and gameplay suggest it’s all about the puzzles and making players think as abstractly as possible. What is the goal here? What is the point?
The entire storyline itself starts at a fairly understandable beginning, K. is a hypnotist therapist treating patients but not making ends meet in order to afford a wedding for his fiance. Except, then The Franz Kafka Videogame throws science fiction and fantasy in faster than a blink of an eye. Astronauts with rayguns making job offers, Slender Man and Daffy Duck’s lovechild maintaining an airship – it gets really bloody weird. Sometimes this serves a point, but other times it just sort of feels like random ideas were tossed in.
There were individual moments that were clever and enjoyable quirky, like having to do paperwork opposite a man in a diving suit or using a newborn eagle to tuck a cow out of the way of a train, and yet I never really got much from the narrative. Which is really weird, because I’m the sort of guy who digs Walden and Herodotus’ Histories. Books rambling about philosophy, human nature, and the point of life are my bag. So why does The Franz Kafka Videogame leave me feeling like I learned nothing? It nails a Monty Python level of silliness with its humor, but that’s all. Either I misread things, or the subtext is as buried as some of the harder puzzle solutions.
The one thing I can thank The Franz Kafka Videogame for is that it does make me want to play puzzle games again. That yearning for brain teasers is back, and I cannot thank its developer enough for that. However, with this game in question, I’m done. I am so done. There’s a level of art house gaming I’ll abide if you’re going somewhere interesting, but The Franz Kafka Videogame pushes its luck too bloody far. If there’s a marvelous revelation at the end of K.’s story, it certainly didn’t feel worth it to find out. Perhaps that was the developer’s aim. “Loneliness brings nothing but pain”? Well, you certainly nailed that part at least.
The Franz Kafka Videogame was developed by Dennis Galanin
Point of Sale: Steam,
$9.99; Two hours of philosophy and inconsistent execution. There are film rentals that will give you the same experience for less.
A review copy of The Franz Kafka Videogame was supplied in this review.