Backbone: Exploring a Dystopian Vancouver as a Raccoon

I recently finished an indie game called Backbone. I was attracted to it because it is set in my home city of Vancouver, and its post-noir aesthetics was alluring. I also am a sucker for good pixel art, which Backbone had plenty of. Shoutout to one of my friends N who posted about the game on his Twitter a while back!

The game itself is about a private detective: Howard Lotor. It seems everyone in this dystopian version of Vancouver was some sort of animal/human hybrid and they were all bipeds. The game touches on classism and speciesism, which you’ll unravel as you progress.

In terms of how bleak the setting feels, imagine if you were to go about your day-to-day in Vancouver, except the streets are a lot messier and darker (which arguably, that’s what they’re turning into in real life anyway). The situations you find yourself in involve parks, alleys, shady buildings, and rundown neighbourhoods. There are dialogues from store owners and citizens mentioning how things are getting harder. I felt the park we progressed through early on in the game was very reminiscent of the unfortunately “tent city”-like parks that appear around Vancouver.

As Howard, you get involved in a case that seems pretty clear cut: a pregnant beaver comes to your office to ask that you help her determine if her husband’s cheating on her. But your investigations soon turn south and you find yourself entangled in a messy mystery that poses a threat to the city in more than one way.

I loved seeing bits of Vancouver within the game. Their world has changed a lot, but there are still memorable elements that ground me to my home city (I don’t know why, but I gasped when I saw the Gastown steam clock in-game). It’s interesting to compare the map of downtown in-game to what I know it to be in real life.

I will say that the gameplay is quite linear. It seems like you can’t really fail or choose the wrong dialogue options—but there are achievements you can unlock by choosing certain dialogue combos. The game is straightforward in guiding you to your next objective, and if you fail, you instantly get to try it again. I found the dialogue in the early parts of the game to be mediocre, but as I got to know Howard more, the dialogue options made more sense and had a hint more of humor to them. Overall, the experience was less than 5 hours, but I thought it was a neat story to play through. One word of warning though: the ending isn’t very satisfying and feels rushed.

The game is developed by EggNut, which seems to have devs based in Canada, Russia, US, and the Netherlands. I don’t know much about them, but their Twitter states they are “pro-people”, meaning they offer their staff a 4-day work week! That’s awesome, and I hope more studios follow in their footsteps.

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