All Aboard the Crazy Train
This is a narrative game analysis to an indie game I've played over the winter. (There will be some oncoming train puns.)
Indie games can be known as being little gems of the video game world, and boy did The Final Station deliver. It’s a Russian game with a Snowpiercer-esque feel in how you don the role of a nameless train conductor, driving an experimental, government-issued train through humanity's rebuilding after an alien invasion (The First Visitation) hit 106 years ago.
Its goal is simple: get from point A to B while keeping all the passengers alive. It's graphics are also cute! But what those cute pixel graphics do is divert attention from a sinister underlying message. It pays homage to every Japanese larger-than-life, mecha suit, dystopian story, from its own mech creation named, the “Guardian.” The Guardian is meant to be the symbol of hope in a post-apocalyptic setting, but at the same time, the environment art gives off similar vibes to World War II and the formation of the Axis Powers. Metropole (where the Guardian was developed and created), is a jumble of cubical buildings stacked like those in the Eastern Bloc. Which offers a few questions: is the underlying arc of the story about mankind's devastation from nuclear warfare? The nihilism of a symbolic train to nowhere? A critique of the government's effectiveness?
As a 2D side-scrolling shooter, survival horror, train simulation game, it's divided into three modes of play: maintaining the train and preventing it from breaking down, going on foot to scavenge ruined stations, and shooting zombies that get too close. These game mechanics give a fair amount of multitasking and add to the growing pressure of keeping a position of authority. The game is very much about the survival of others as it explores what it means to be a protector. An example of this happens when you don't get food or medicine to your passenger in time--they bleed out on your floor. You’re left with a few items they had in their pockets like a pair of pants worth a few bucks. It sucks. It makes you feel like you’ve let them down and that you’re more of a looter than a protector.
For how the name sounds, it’s understandable that you might expect to be bulleting through hordes of zombies all the while screaming “Choo choo, motherfucker!” at the tops of your lungs. (I know I would have.) But thankfully, The Final Station doesn’t do that. The initial thrill would've been so enticing, but that thrill would've crashed as quickly as it launched. Zombies being squished underfoot by a train isn’t a long-lasting excitement. It’s your motive for why you’re moving in the first place that counts. That’s why it’s a brilliant hook for driving into a surprisingly detailed world and narrative.
Things That Work:
For a train simulator game, the devs committed. They literally and metaphorically keep you on the rails with their linear story. You can’t turn back because there’s no option to. You’re forced to dock every level and can only move with Blocker Codes once you fight through hordes. What the game does beautifully is what it doesn't show and tell.
Mystery is something that’s incredibly hard to master. Especially when the story is layers deep in a small frame. The Final Station tries to keep this balance, and for the most part, it pays off. The mystery of the Guardian (for example) and what it is, is peppered throughout the story in the form of newspaper clippings and gossip among your passengers.
To help dispel some of this mystery, the environmental storytelling comes into play with the classic graffiti-on-walls, ruins of buildings and apartments, and solemn, atmospheric music. The deaths of NPC characters and placement of the turned is used to lay out the level and also show what may have happened to the station. In the image above, you find a note that says, “Don’t go to the subway!” and then later find out how the Metro got swarmed. In the case of the Guardian, notes from newspapers and books offer some sort of time progression and set the stage for you to realize that the game is launched in the beginnings of the Second Visitation.
Subversion of Tropes
The Final Station turns the concept of over-used zombies on its head, with a revelation. The Capsules that fell from the sky aren't releasing poison gas and turning everyone into zombies. It’s actually a form of advanced medicine for the evolution of mankind into hyper-intelligent superhumans. The zombies are the side-effects of medicine "too strong" for regular humans.
Cutscenes Done Right
Back to the Guardian. What you learn is that it has been in production for years, and the NPCs living outside government facilities begin to think the entire thing is a myth. They're growing impatient and lose trust in their government, fear for their own safety, and are angry that not much has been done to secure their future. Towards the end of the game, you get to Metropole and see that the Guardian is real. You get a moment of quiet to see it launch, a white pillar of light, while you bustle away on your train. It’s the literal launching of hope and a means of finally being able to score a win, right?
Nope. You later leave the train for good and come across the ruins of the Guardian: completely battered, destroyed. The game never tells you what happened or how it happened in the span of around ten minutes, and that's what's amazing! To see the symbol of hope shot down so quickly and humanity’s protector gone, this moment serves as a shattering blow to both you and the surviving world. You never do get to see it too and that’s fantastic. It keeps the questions rolling because the devs will never tell (unless there’s going to be a sequel in the future, which I do kind of hope for).
Not So Great:
Characters That Bark Orders
Most of the characters are just warm bodies in the story—passive and used to serve the game’s stop-and-go-scavenge nature. The dialogue does the bare minimum of work with lines like:
“David and I are the only survivors. David went to the city, he has the blocker’s code. You need to find him and I’m going to release the cargo. By the way, there’s a storeroom with weapons upstairs in my office. Good luck…”
And then the injured pixel man runs off to unload your cargo. Not a very stylistic way of giving the player directions, but it can be argued that seemingly everyone in this game is a higher rank than you, so they speak in orders and tunnel vision you to the end. Some of this may be a translation issue but it does get clunky after a while.
Too Much Mystery
The narrative raises a lot of questions that are never quite answered. The most compelling NPC appears briefly in the beginning and is mashed into the end. Who is he? A headhunter? He's wearing a fedora and has a shotgun! It’s a nice bookend, but he raises even more questions about what the heck is going on.
The train acts as a barrier between the conducting job and "listening in" to a poor game of telephone. I get the concept behind it, but with how much of the story is a mystery, it can be more of an annoyance than a feature.
The NPC passengers onboard exchange bits of dialogue with each other as you’re running around for the mini-games that prevent the train from malfunctioning. Meanwhile, you’re also receiving messages from operators and machinists in the front of the train. Then one of your passengers is dying from hunger and low health, so you need to get him either a medkit or some food. There is no way to listen to everything the passengers say, and it can be frustrating to have to waddle between the three not knowing what you’re missing.
This falls into the trap of “What can I miss?” When the game progresses into the later levels, I didn't care about the passive dialogue between the passengers because it seemed to lack importance. If you’re trying to make sense of the world, this feels like sabotage. You realize that they rail on and on and sometimes it’s better registered as bark text.
The answer might be, “All of it!” but again, the distinction isn’t clear. Some stations on your mini-map have no service, some have small descriptions of what that station is known for, and some have long descriptions that can’t be read in time. It’s a waste of good world-building and background information but at least it’s not deliberately shoving expository into the face of the player.
The Real Choice
You don't have one. No matter how hard you may try to survive this survival game, the train conductor is fated to turn. This type of ending derails the player because it puts them in the mindset that all they did was meaningless, but it also shouts back to that theme of nihilism.
The game is a grand prize winner of the DevGAMM Minsk Awards and the grand prize winner of the Indie Game Cup 2015 for Best Game and Best Storytelling.
However, not everyone agrees. According to a Destructoid review by Stephen Turner, the story isn’t the greatest part about it. Turner writes:
“…the townsfolk you meet stop short of being truly interesting. Try as they might to draw you into the world with idle chitchat, their dialogue doesn't match the gravitas of the highly unusual circumstances they're dealing with. You quickly get the sense that the story’s just a means to an end.”
Still, the sales and reviews are mostly positive, with quotes like GameCritics’ on Steam: “The Final Station is a perfect example of a game capturing a theme and riding it for all it’s worth.” Steam users have posted that they stay for its gameplay. They also say that the story is compelling enough to make the narrative not feel too heavy-handed.
Personally, I find this world is rich for dissecting. This game handles mystery in a way that’s good, for never quite revealing its trick up its sleeve, and giving the player enough room to piece together hints of what’s going on. And bad, for too much mystery in locked doors with no keys, and passengers whose attitudes kill the tension of humanity running on its last legs. Even so, The Final Station pulled in with what was originally promised, and I welcome all to board.