The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

République Remastered: A game that taps into our police-state anxieties

(Courtesy of Camouflaj, LLC)
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République Remastered
Developed by: Camouflaj, LLC.
Published by: Camouflaj, LLC.
Available on: Mac and PC

We are still learning to live with our digital shadows. In a post-Prism world, it’s bewildering to take stock of the number of data points government agencies and corporations can gather about us, and the scores of ways we expose ourselves to shady operators who profit from our online activities. A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that 91% of surveyed adults agreed “that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” With “République Remastered,” Camouflaj, a small developer based in Bellevue, Washington, has created an episodic video game that taps into these anxieties.

Three of the game’s five episodes have been released for iOS and Android devices and “République Remastered” shepherds these to PC and Mac. Those who purchase it will have access to the remaining episodes upon their release. In keeping with the remastering trends of late, the new edition features rejuvenated visuals courtesy of the developers’ jump from the Unity 4 to the Unity 5 graphics engine.

Lest that fact lead you to picture the more eye-catching precincts of PC gaming, it’s better that you rein in those expectations. NPC (non-playable character) animations are stiff, and the game’s environments are modest in their ornamentation.

I imagine I might have felt more charitable towards “République’s” visual presentation if I had played it on a phone or a tablet. The game’s enclosed environments were clearly designed with smaller screens in mind, and on such mobile platforms, its production values set it apart from a great swath of its competitors. By the time I finished the third episode, I felt the developers had delivered a better, more concentrated experience than Ubisoft had with their big budget take on the surveillance city, “Watch Dogs.”

In both games, players seize control of security cameras to gain a tactical advantage, and.hacking tools are used to ferret out compromising information that can be used against one’s adversaries. “Watch Dogs” went off the rails with its vapid main character and glut of side activities that couldn’t mask the emotional vacuum at its center. None of “République’s” episodes outlast their welcome, which should appeal to adults who like point-and-click adventure games or games that prioritize stealth over violent combat and don’t have a-dozen-plus hours to invest in a video game.

“République Remastered” is set in a tiny hermit kingdom called Metamorphosis, which bears more than a passing resemblance to North Korea. Pompous, self-regarding propaganda is the currency of the realm, and it’s piped into the living quarters of its citizens via speakers. The philosopher-king that protects his flock from “literary rot,” pornography, and violent video games like the wonderful “Hotline Miami,” is known as The Overseer or The Headmaster. As the player, your role is to help one of Metamorphosis’s native inhabitants, a young woman who calls herself Hope but is referred to by regime loyalists as 390-H. If that setup doesn’t strike you as symbolic enough, know that Hope lives under the threat of recalibration, or the erasure of her personality.

Panicked, she informs you of this over video chat on an illegal smartphone at the beginning of the first episode. By clicking on a wall-mounted camera behind her, you watch from the camera feed as she is confronted by her dorm master, Mireille Prideaux. Prideaux knows that Hope has a smartphone hidden somewhere in her room and is bent on confiscating it. But for the camera’s benefit, she pretends as though she is incensed that the girl might have come into contact with the seditious writings of a political dissident named Zager. When representatives of Metamorphosis’s security forces arrive on the scene, Prideaux shelters the girl from immediate recalibration but has her carted off to a confinement cell.

With a couple of mouse clicks, you can hack into the security system and free Hope in no time. Hopping between security cameras, it’s your task to help her avoid patrolling guards by clicking on places for her to hide. This gameplay mechanic feels disconcertingly natural on a keyboard and mouse setup; it could hardly be easier to imagine yourself a hacker than seated behind your computer poring over camera feeds.

From that demigod perspective, you can look for digital devices to hack. The information you find is exchanged at computer terminals for money. (My favorite vignette, which occurs in the third episode, involves a depressed man from Shenzhen who plays “Hotline Miami” and pines for the days when his country was quieter.)  At the same terminals, you can also purchase hacking upgrades such as the ability to see patrol guards’ routes.

As obvious as the game’s criticisms are about the encroachment of the police state or the ease of character assassination in the digital age, they’re worth reiterating until we, in the real world, find a way out of our predicament. That doesn’t make me fault the game less for its heavy-handedness, but I give it credit for having arguments to make.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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