Game * Konjak * Fantasy Religious Dystopia * 2018
Oh hey, it’s the first new game of the year that I’ve played. I suspect I will be looking at Monster Hunter World sidelong for a few months while I decide if I’m a Monster Hunter guy, but other than that it’s been a slow start to the year. Which is fine, considering the ridiculous release schedule from last year. Meanwhile, here’s Iconoclasts, which is a small, single-developer game that I had never heard of which has apparently been in development for like seven years. I kind of feel bad for the developer too, because right now the industry is in love with another indie darling, Celeste, and it feels like Iconoclasts has been eclipsed in the zeitgeist’s heart. That’s a shame, because I like this game quite a bit, despite a few rough edges here and there. If you need a one-phrase description, the game is a competent metroidvania situation with an above-average narrative.
I won’t get into particulars above the break, but the story is the main draw of Iconoclasts. As such, you should expect plenty of text, all of which is dialogue. If all you’re excepting the usual sparse, largely environmental storytelling that these games generally employ, then it might very well be too much for you. There is a decent cast of characters here, and they all have some shit to talk about. I happen to think that the story is mostly successful. There are narrative techniques here that I don’t often see in games, and honestly the story requires active participation from the player in order to piece everything together in a satisfying way. Not everyone has the patience for that, especially in a genre that is nearly always gameplay-first, and that’s totally fine. Just know what you’re getting into.
If you’re fine with the story structure of the game, then the narrative is actually pretty cool and the world building is pretty solid. You play as a young lady named Robin who is a mechanic. That seems like an innocuous thing, but in this society mechanics and engineers are forbidden on theological grounds. A lot of what happens over the course of the game is presented as just what happens in this world, and it’s up to the player to piece things together. It’s nowhere near as extreme as a Gene Wolfe novel, but it’s the same kind of thing. Robin isn’t a terribly well-developed character, but pretty much everyone she comes across is. Robin likes to help, that’s about it. The (near) silent protagonist is a trope I don’t like, but since this isn’t a first person game, the disconnect isn’t quite as severe as it could be. Anyway, this society relies on a substance known as “Ivory” to fuel all technology, and it is treated as a holy relic, the harvest and exploitation of which is a sacred endeavor open only to the church. There’s an enforcement agency known as One Concern, which uses force to keep everyone in line. Once Robin gets going on her adventure, however, the whole thing starts falling apart.
Robin sets off because the village where her brother lives is being attacked by One Concern, under the cover of something called “Penance.” This is like an orbital laser type deal and is attributed to the deity, “Him,” and is used when people sin. And by sin I mean pose a threat to One Concern and the exploitation of Ivory. Robin’s dad is already dead, and now her brother is in danger and her village is all fucked up and mad at her for helping, so now Robin’s on the run from One Concern with nothing but her wrench. The game itself is an open exploration game. Some areas are inaccessible until you gain new abilities, you probably know how this goes. There’s a map with boxes. The actual gameplay is probably the weakest part of Iconoclasts. I like it, it was fine, there were some frustrating bits, but whatever. There’s no gameplay surprises here, it’s all here to support the story.
Okay, hold on a moment, I’ll get to that story but first I would like to complain about some of these game mechanics. And by “mechanics” I mean the mechanics of being a mechanic. Robin has a big wrench, which is how she interacts with the world. She also has a stun gun which eventually upgrades to lob bombs and also a weird reversy-laser, but the wrench is her identity. As you traverse the world, you come across various bolts which you can use your wrench on. Sometimes you tighten them up to open doors, sometimes you can hang from them, sometimes you can zip around on electrified tracks. All that’s cool, but it’s very finicky. There are areas in the game which are just big puzzle rooms, and they are fun, but there was more than a few times when a puzzle or a boss took longer than they needed to because despite knowing what to do, execution was chore. Sometimes Robin’s wrench doesn’t hit just so, and you’re fucked, which is frustrating. Also I guess I’m not in love with the upgrades, which for this kind of game is the big draw. They’re fine and functional, but nothing mind-blowing. Anyway, back to the stuff I like.
Now that I’ve finished the game, I’m still finding myself trying to piece together what actually happened. As noted, Robin is on the run. She keeps running afoul of One Concern, but is usually able to escape because she’s crafty. Her main pursuers are Agents. At first they just seem like scary hunters out to capture you by any means necessary. Agent Black, in particular, is short of patience and is seemingly the only competent Agent, and she very much wants to end you. However, as the story unfolds and we learn more about the nature of the world, we learn that the Agents are actually infused with the Ivory that powers the rest of the society’s technology, which makes them near-invincible. However, Robin is able to find temporary refuge with another community, a small group of “pirates” who live underwater.
These pirates have their own belief system which operates outside of One Concern and the rest of, uh, surface world (I don’t know that there’s a proper term used in the game). They appear to be a society of people descended from a colonial seedship, or maybe a team of ancient scientists. Their society is based on ancestor-worship of a kind, but is mostly reliant on plant-based science. You make a fiery pirate friend, Mina, who is motivated by wanderlust. She has a mom who constantly attempts to guilt her into staying home, and a friend Samba who is marginally less obnoxious about her desire for Mina to stay put. As the story moves along, the conflict between Mina and others not of her community keeps flaring up. Mina is extremely defensive about the society she is constantly trying to leave, and she lashes out at everyone who points this out. This happens a lot, because this group of characters are extremely entrenched in their own points of view.
I think this is what resonates for me about Iconoclasts. I mean, given the title it makes sense that pretty much everyone here has deeply held convictions which they feel are under attack. As a silent protagonist, it’s hard to say that Robin is responsible for much of anything happening in the narrative, so it’s a little weird when other characters are basically blaming her for everything falling apart. Her awful, obnoxious, sanctimonious little fucker of a brother blames her for constantly leaving him under the pretext of “protecting” her. He’s the goddamn worst and I’m glad he loses his arm. Little bitch. Royal, who is a pretentious little wiener, takes blame unto himself for being unable to properly communicate with what he assumes is a deity. Turns out nah, it’s an alien exploiting this society in order to easily harvest Ivory for itself. But since Robin’s only motivation is to help, she does so my murdering that fool. The tirades of the various characters are all cut off by the silent heroic action of Robin, who, job done, simply goes home and takes a nap. The story is impactful, especially in our current political climate, because the most important person is motivated simply, and isn’t trying to scream her unmoving position from the rooftops while everything falls apart. It’s good stuff, despite her wrench being unreliable sometimes.