In Mischief’s Adios, I am not supposed to stand on the hitman’s head. He’s leaning against the nondescript white van he drove up in, and I can hop on objects to finagle my way up to vehicle’s roof. However, the very second I step off the roof and onto the hitman, I am pushed away as though we are magnetically repelled. We are serious men having a serious talk, and serious talks (mostly?) do not take place with one person trying to press their feet onto the other’s scalp.
I’m in the first-person perspective of a pig farmer who helps get rid of bodies for the mob. He doesn’t want to do it anymore, and he has told the hitman so. The business isn’t quite as grisly as it sounds; corpse bits arrive in the back of that white van, cut and wrapped like regular meat and ready to be tossed into the pig pen for consumption. But still.
Conscience has reared its meddlesome head in the twilight of the farmer’s life. His mind is made up, and this hitman he does illicit business with and thinks of as something like a friend accompanies him on various farm duties, attempting to talk him down; corpse disposal is not the sort of business you simply retire from. As he explains this for what is not the first time during his visit, I am unsuccessfully trying to move the farmer in a position to stand on the hitman’s head.
I don’t usually play games this way. Sure, I’m restless because to have grown up with ready access to a cell phone and to have played games designed to give you the good brain chemicals when the numbers go up is, I think, to be at least a little restless. But I usually try to maintain the verisimilitude; I don’t Grand-Theft-Auto my way down an open-world sidewalk by default, and I don’t seek out the most unfortunate camera angles during an important scene. Usually, I’m trying to get a sense of a character and a world, to play along and remove any barriers to that elusive ideal of “immersion.”
And there is otherwise plenty to be immersed by in Adios. The entire game takes place on the openly explorable farm, with UI markers to designate the location of different dialogue “scenes” that take place between the two characters. They milk goats, they play horseshoes while shooting the shit, and they shovel actual shit into a wheelbarrow for use as fertilizer. The place is bigger than you might expect, with equipment and chairs and assorted junk in unexpected corners next to disused-looking sheds. It reminds me of my grandparents’ farm in that way; everything is a little messy and scattered, because to have everything tidily stored on one side of the property is not convenient if you’re working on the other side. Maybe it’s different if you have the extra help around the farm, but my grandparents often did not and neither does the pig farmer. The farmer is all alone now, his wife dead and his son estranged. (He does seem to get along okay with the horse.)
You can poke at the game’s world, too. You’re meant to. The tapes can be shoved into the cassette player, the sinks can be turned on, the screwdrivers can be flipped over and examined in close-up. As the farmer, you keep your hands occupied while you converse with the hitman who would prefer to not be having this conversation because he knows where it ends. But as the dialogue in each scene goes on, I never feel totally occupied. I’m able to freely walk and look around within the immediate vicinity. I am waiting to talk, waiting to do something, and it makes me antsy. I do silly things when I’m antsy, like hop around in the manure pile we are supposed to be shoveling together to see if anything happens. Nothing does. You unlock achievements for unequal distribution of the shoveling duties, but the hitman doesn’t notice either way.
On occasion, I can take my antsiness as the manifested awkwardness of the conversation itself. I am shifty because the farmer is shifty, because he is nervous and doesn’t really want to be having this talk, either. Eye contact is avoided, the ground is nervously paced back-and-forth. Certainly these are things people do in real-life, and Adios ostensibly becomes more believable, more immersive for including those potential aspects of human behavior.
But these guys are supposed to know each other, aren’t they? They’re picking up pieces of personal history set down in passing long ago, conversational threads about kids and regrets and being drafted to the war in Vietnam. I’m not sure you can call what they have “friendship” in the traditional sense, but you can feel their familiarity. They’re guys who know each other well enough to say things that they are trying to talk around, some of it left implied and some of it depicted in grayed-out dialogue choices to represent what the farmer would like to say but cannot bring himself to verbalize.
It’s an interesting dynamic that my own restlessness doesn’t seem to reflect at all, going beyond a reasonable, in-character level of distraction because the tools I am given to occupy my hands simply are not enough. This problem isn’t unique to Adios, really; in the absence of some action to perform like easy platforming or basic exploration, a lot of video games take away our ability to fidget. They drop us in cutscenes, they switch our movement controls to only cycle through dialogue options, or they wheel out the dreaded walk-and-talk, where the legs of our avatar seem to go numb in order to shuffle alongside whoever happens to be talking at us. Sometimes we retain camera control.
If Adios is supposed to be more immersive for largely eschewing such constraints and accommodating the potential for nervous energy, it isn’t able to sustain that feeling for very long. The character models animate okay, but they have a bland cartoon quality that never quite matches the game’s tone, particularly if you’re staring at them for long enough. And with only so many screwdrivers to look at during any of the extended dialogue scenes, I mostly get restless again. Sometimes I mash the jump button, which prompts a brief grunt from the farmer. But in the shed with the soda machine, I discover that different cans come out depending on which button I press. I can give one to the hitman for him to hold in his hand and never acknowledge (another achievement!), and then I can try to pelt him with additional cans, which doesn’t work when the reticle is directly over him but if I begin a throw off to his side, I can quickly re-adjust my aim to hit him. He doesn’t react to that, either, but it’s marginally more satisfying than trying to jump on the table or bouncing cans off the invisible barrier that seals the hole in the shed’s roof.
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Games often pursue immersion as a representation of the world we know, as an extension of reality. But this approach tends to underestimate the level of imagination we already pump into the fiction we engage with, especially where video games are concerned. Our suspension of disbelief is already high, and we are perfectly capable of projecting meaning onto static, crude, and/or abstract representations of characters, objects, and actions.
Adios may not be opting for 1:1 reality, but it is going for the sort of literal representation you tend to find in much more expensive games, where the detail and specificity of an environment often comes with the caveat that you’ll be having a gunfight there later. The trade-off for the sense of inhabiting a coherent space is that it tends to be a prelude to action. In Adios, there’s no ensuing action sequence, only the space in which a man has lived for so many years. The ambition is admirable, but it isn’t the most effective way to tell this story.
Take, for example, something like Wide Ocean Big Jacket, a camping game that’s similarly talky and filled with actions we might uncharitably describe as chores. Its characters are blockier, its environments less detailed. There’s no voice acting at all, and every time someone speaks, the game cuts to a full black screen that features little more than the dialogue text and a small illustration of the person doing the talking. And yet, the game communicates a humanity and a sense of place even within these more restrictive confines, casting a warm little spell that never dissipates before the credits roll. Signs of the Sojourner conveys a depth of feeling even when it abstracts video game conversations to a wordless exchange of cards with symbols on them. Even a much more expensive, elaborate game like Pathologic 2 weaponizes the stiff, dead-eyed quality of otherwise totally acceptable character models, staging dialogue screens in harshly-lit close-up against a black background that intensifies the feeling that everyone in town is a little bit off.
And then there’s Adios creative director and narrative designer Doc Burford’s own prior game, Paratopic, a brief horror masterwork made in collaboration with Jessica Harvey and BeauChaotica. Where Adios either ignores the fidgety player or unsuccessfully attempts to represent that behavior in-game, Paratopic directly engages with potential restlessness, using it to build tension. When you call the elevator, there is nothing to do but walk back and forth and look around the room, seeing the floor indicator change at a painfully sluggish clip while the light outside changes ever so slightly. The longer the game goes without something happening, the more your certainty builds that something is about to happen. The first-person conversations let you look away and one even lets you wander around a shop, but the dialogue comes at a more clipped, engaging pace with more frequent choices, which you can only select when you’re actually looking the talker in the eye.
On some level, maybe I’m not being fair. Maybe this is nit-picking a game that simply lacks the resources to do the sorts of things it would very clearly like to do. But art is defined by our ability to create within certain limitations, whether those are our own deficiencies as artists, the constraints of our available resources, or the restrictions of the very medium we’ve chosen. Adios is not a game coherently designed around its limitations, fully voice-acted and played in an immersive first-person perspective yet often thwarted by the ability of a small team to render this particular vision on this particular budget. The game ends up at a peculiar crossroads of ambition and restraint, portraying a story that’s admirably small and personal while reaching for a level of interactive immersion that it never achieves.