Exercising your brain, and your conscience rather than your aim and your reflexes, text-based interactive fiction games make an enjoyable change from the more graphically intensive FPS games and action RPGs that I tend to play the most. Choice of Games have published some real crackers in this genre – Choice of Robots, particularly, remains not only one of my favourite games and favourite reads, but one of my downright favourite experiences – so it’s great that so many more of the publisher’s outputs are becoming available on Steam, both games from their back catalogue and new releases. Heather Albano’s A Study in Steampunk, falls into the latter category, a brand new game released with the following blurb:
Steam-powered mechs meet forbidden sorcery in this interactive steampunk novel, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, and Jack the Ripper!
Given my love for the mecha, for the steampunk aesthetic, and for all things Victorian-noir, this was an insta-buy for me. Did it live up to its promise?
Let’s survey the evidence, shall we Watson?
What’s It All About?
Taking place in a fictional imperial setting (though primarily in the East End of a city that strongly evokes Victorian London) you play as a veteran of the brutal war between Mercia and Vlask. Formerly an army surgeon, your character has now transitioned to civilian life, ostensibly working as a police surgeon but secretly in the employment of a government spy agency, working to foil future Vlaski threats and to preserve the status quo of Mercian society, however unequal that society may be. An important feature of Albano’s setting is the presence of the “sun-touched,” a percentage of citizens who have inherited an ancient propensity for healing magic, a talent that can be used for good, or abused through the vampiric act of “light-eating” – draining a victim’s essence to supplement your own.
What kind of a doctor, and what kind of secret agent you choose to be, is very much left up to the player. Totalling 277,000 words of text, this a huge game, with multiple chapters and sprawling branches which ensure the decisions you make really do have an impact. You can explore the healing magic for compassionate or selfish reasons; or you can remain firmly rooted in the realms of reason and science. You can be a ruthlessly pragmatic agent, relishing the mind-games, the thrill of the hunt, and doing whatever it takes to maintain order, or you can become disillusioned with the way power corrupts and seek to make a difference either through hard graft in the community or through less conventional means.
Plenty! This is probably my favourite game from the “Choice Of” publishers after Choice of Robots. The breadth of choices, and the meaningful consequences to which they lead, are particularly impressive. I’ve already played it through multiple times, and while some routes feel more satisfyingly organic than others, the depth of characterisation and the array of paths on offer continues to impress.
The steampunk genre often strikes me as one that satisfies most in the richness and diversity of its pastiche. This is not to say the genre is not inventive, but, rather than breaking entirely new ground, in many of my favourite steampunk works creativity shines in the way that so many other cultural influences are sewn together to create something new, and there’s great pleasure to be found in spotting the individual stitches in this Frankenstein’s Monster of references. A Study in Steampunk is no exception in this respect: drawing, as it does, not only on the obvious, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and the Jack the Ripper mystery, but also on a host of other cultural staples right through from Tennyson to Dexter and Bucky Barnes.
As its title suggests, Conan Doyle is probably the biggest influence on A Study in Steampunk. The game play includes an element of Holmesian deduction: working out the intricacies of the plot from the available clues and choosing to act accordingly. While never too taxing, it’s a nice touch that the game really does reward problem solving in this way, and in the Steam version there are a number of achievements to be earned by correctly identifying perpetrators and predicting targets. Of course, this element of the plot has less replay value than the rest: the core events in each chapter are fairly fixed so once you’ve figured out, for example, the identity of a saboteur, the element of mystery is gone from future play-throughs. Yet the game’s replay value remains high, because it’s far more about character, morality and consequence than it is about deduction, and in this respect many more satisfying variations of each scene and branch are available.
I loved the way the game lets you decide just how Sherlock Holmes you want to go: yes it’s possible to name your medical man Watson, give him a war wound, and follow a path very much led by the brilliant deductive insights of your colleague, Finch. I think most players will succumb to the urge to follow this satisfyingly iconic route at least once but the beauty of this type of game, and this richly characterised one in particular, is that this only one of many possible paths your character can take. Statistics in this game track such traits as charisma, marksmanship, medicine (traditional), and healing (magical) and while there is usually more than one way to foil a plot or survive a fight, the different choices you make when defining your character’s skills and priorities make for some nuanced and divergent story experiences.
Whenever I first sit down to a game like this I like to make my first play-through as honest as possible, asking myself how I would react in each situation. With its focus on duty, medical morality and class-conflict, this game provokes a fair amount of soul-searching when played honestly. But it’s also fun to try to assume the guide of other characters. Indeed as well as the near obligatory “I am Dr Watson” or ”I am Jack the Ripper” paths, I had fun drawing on some pop-cultural properties that aren’t directly invoked in the game. Cue my gruff, entirely rational, maxed-out medical expertise, man of science playthrough (“the Ratchet”) or the game where I went for charisma and athleticism to the exclusion of all other stats and then responded to every crisis by rushing in head-first (“The Rodimus” – amazing how fun and surprisingly successful that one actually was!)
As well as offering a decent array of choices with pleasingly diverse consequences, Albano really fosters character engagement by occasionally offering “fake choices”: options that are visible but always greyed out. For instance, during a torture scene, the option to blurt out the name of your employer is there but it can’t be chosen. There are plenty of other ways you can play this tense scene but revealing unpickable options too really helped me feel like I was inside the head of my character, gaining a deeper insight both into the pressure they’re under and their inner reserve of strength. In a game focused on choice it’s a nice touch to see highlighted the truth that not all the ideas that surface in your head at any given time should provoke real world responses.
Romance options are usually a key component in the Choice of Games experience. In a few other games I’ve played the love plots have felt a little arbitrary but I have no such criticism here. The character you play is always male but, pleasingly, A Study in Steampunk, allows you to pursue women, men, or both, and while only a few characters are presented as potential love interests each comes to represent very different worlds and attraction feels organic, with the potential for desire to be reciprocated or rebuffed depending on the character you’ve built. I’ll admit I found the gay love plot particularly moving. Perhaps this is because, as a heterosexual woman, it just felt more immersive for me to pursue a man; or possibly because the man in question is depicted as being particularly charismatic and dashing (fictional crush alert!) But primarily, I think it’s a consequence of the milieu: while the female love plots could be legitimised and played out in public, the faux-19th century setting means that same sex relationships are taboo. A tragedy, yes, but one that also heightens the intensity, sweetness and layers of subterfuge in a game where espionage is already a key attraction. Yup, I fell pretty hard and the game delivers more than a few gut punches here, so be prepared.
Possibly only a robot-obsessive would quibble this, but hello I am a robot obsessive so please humour me when I say I did feel a little mis-sold with the mechs. The game’s trailer and description seem to build up the steampunk mecha as a core component of the plot but this really isn’t the case. Mechs are present in the opening battle scene and, depending on the path taken, they can be deployed again later in the story but your character never pilots one or has much to do with them at all. They are effectively window-dressing. I suppose they make the setting feel more steampunk but I’d argue even that’s not really necessary since Albano already does a great job conjuring up a coal-powered retro-futuristic world through her subtler details and the presence of numerous devices that are much more essential to the plot such as vast, opulent dirigibles and even rocket boots. The mecha could easily have been replaced by cannons, traction tanks or some other kind of retro-science-fictionalised weaponry without really affecting the plot. This is more a criticism of the game’s marketing than anything else; the plot is engaging enough that once I’d played the first couple of chapters and begun to really care about the characters, I didn’t miss the mech aspect at all. But anyone picking up this game specifically looking for a spot of robo-suit warfare strategising is better off going for something like Mecha Ace.
The game is well-crafted and considering the story branches so wildly and takes place over an extensive (ten year) time scale it all feels remarkably coherent. There were a few plot strands which felt a little like they were left dangling, but I certainly couldn’t fault the overall fluency. In fact the only things that really broke immersion for me were the save points. Not all games in this genre offer a save feature. With its sheer size, I can understand why this one does, and once the story becomes completely familiar save points are a handy way to go back and pursue the harder achievements. Yet being asked to save often wrenched me out of the story in a way that wasn’t entirely welcome, especially since there seems to be an occasional bug in the code which asks you to save but then doesn’t provide the necessary box to name a game and proceed. The only way I found to get past this was to close the game entirely and reload, at which point the correct save option seems to become available. A number of players have highlighted this rather frustrating fault, so hopefully it will be fixed in future updates.
A few other reviewers of this game have expressed frustration at being forced to play a male character. Most games in this genre do allow you to choose your gender so I can understand how the limitation here could be contentious. I am in two minds about it. Like the gay romance being kept secret, this restriction certainly feels more in keeping with Albano’s faux-Victorian milieu. It wouldn’t feel terribly realistic for a 19th-century woman either to be serving on the frontline in a warzone or to be involved in the sort of “old boys” espionage club established here. Yet at the same time, this is steampunk, not historical fiction: in a world where mecha battle for empires and rocket boots exist, it surely wouldn’t feel so very jarring to meet a female special agent? Ultimately, the verdict’s out on this particular decision: the gender restriction is controversial and it’s worth being aware of it before you pick up the game but at the same time, there are so many different, believable and relatable personalities that you can develop for your hero that I certainly didn’t feel like having to play as a man impacted negatively on my enjoyment.
In a Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight Heather Albano has managed to concoct a heady old-fashioned adventure, stirring in a good dollop of fun, excitement and romance while also raising some meaningful questions about the nature of progress, the definition of justice, the condition of the poor and – X-Men-like – the position in society of those with special abilities. If you enjoy interactive fiction, steampunk or Victorian literary mash-ups then this game comes highly recommended. Just avoid the false deduction of too much mecha action.