Ever wondered what really goes on inside of your smart phone? No, me neither. But the Switzerland-based developer Naravan Games have, and the result is a flawed yet entertaining adventure in the style of Pixar’s Inside Out, but with less of the emotional gut-punch. Let’s face it, it was always going to be tricky to get players to empathise with an anthropomorphic Operating System, but beneath the uneven story, Backfirewall shines with well-crafted puzzles and innovative level design.
To begin with, you have one job. As an update assistant app, you’re responsible for upgrading the phone’s operating system from OS9 to OS10. Simple enough. That is, until the quip-happy OS9 summons you into his office and implores you to abandon the update to avoid you both being deleted. As you hit the emergency stop button, you and your fellow fugitive, OS9, go on the run through the various chambers of the smart phone in order to thwart OS10 for good.
To paraphrase serial cell-phone enthusiast, Drake, we start at the bottom, which, logically, for a smart phone, is the recycle bin. Behind me, a black terminal screen (think Command Prompt on a computer) blinks with several lines of white text. Each line is a statement that the system knows to be true, for example, ‘there are no less than 20 bytes in the recycle bin’. In order to disrupt OS10’s plan for domination, you must make each of these statements false, in each area, to cause a fatal error in the system.
To help you on your way, OS9 gifts you the first of several ‘hacks’; the ability to delete. Armed with my new power, I set about deleting as many of the cute lil’ byte cubes as I can to force a systems error. After completing all five tasks, a glowing door unlocks which takes me through to the next level. It’s a gentle start for sure; the puzzles here are fun but not exactly ground-breaking. Rather, they serve as a useful tutorial for the rest of the puzzles in Backfirewall, which become increasingly more complex and innovative as the game progresses.
Smack my glitch up
Take, for example, the phone’s night club ‘Xor/Nor’ (which I’m reliably informed is a programming joke) where carefree apps party at a silent disco marking the end of the old Operating System. In order to make it across the bottomless dance floor, I steal a pair of headphones which I can switch between three channels. Each channel plays a different style of electronic music – all of the tunes in Backfirewall are bangers by the way – and also activates objects of a specific colour. I flick on the first channel, activating all red platforms and hop along them to the beat. As I reach the ledge of the last red platform, I change things up to the second channel which reveals a path of yellow tiles ahead (but not before I plummet to my death as the red tiles suddenly disappear beneath me).
It’s an exhilarating dance across the nightclub; each jump I make seems to land on the beat as I try to navigate the room at 120bpm. As I reach the other side, I plunge into a gravity-flipping finale akin to the infamous Ashtray Maze in Remedy’s Control. High praise indeed then. Except that when Backfirewall starts to push the boundaries of level design, the game ends, just as it’s getting interesting.
While Backfirewall’s puzzles keep getting better, the same can’t be said for the story. 0S9’s incessant MCU-style quips rarely land well and the weak voice acting does little to help. The constant repetition of a particularly egregious pun – combining the words ‘data’ and ‘damn’ as ‘datamn’ – is enough to make me question whether keeping 0S9 alive is actually a good idea.
There are some genuinely funny moments, though. In the RAM office, for example, I need to make the banking app loop in order to progress to the next area. A slip of the mouse means I accidentally ask him who he is, twice, before realising I’ve stumbled on the solution when he begins to break down and stutter. It’s a clever exchange that exposes the artifice of dialogue choices in gaming and the absurdity of NPCs that so often parrot the same line over and over.
Adding some texture to the main storyline are a series of collectible data logs and messages strewn around each area. The latter are visible in a text chat log in the menu, showing exchanges between the phone’s user and their friends and family. At first, it seems like these found texts would gradually reveal snippets of the users life that would compliment the events inside the smart phone, but the two never join up, feeling like a missed opportunity to tie the two worlds together.
Backfirewall is a competent adventure game that’s let down by an uneven story. A lot of the dialogue falls flat, making it hard to really care about the fate of the phone’s inhabitants or the disaster you’re trying to prevent. Despite this, Naraven Games‘ grasp of level design elevates its puzzles beyond the standard fare, providing one or two memorable moments. It’s a game that you’ll enjoy the evening with, but you probably won’t be calling them back.