Metamorphosis

Developed by: Ovid Works

Published by: All in! Games

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

In hindsight, it was inevitable that someone would opt to gamify the work of Franz Kafka. As the novelist Joshua Cohen pointed out in an extraordinary essay in the Paris Review, the culture industry that has flourished around the genius from Prague has produced “thousands of essays and academic papers, more than a hundred biographies, more than a dozen films and TV shows, not to mention the Kafka-branding industry, which includes a computer font that reproduces the author’s handwriting … and smartphone covers emblazoned with his face, und so weiter.” Video games have long trafficked in the absurd and impractical, so why not extend the Kafkaesque to the medium that gave us the Mushroom Kingdom?

“Metamorphosis” refashions Kafka’s most famous tale, about a man who wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into an insect, into a sprightly puzzle-platformer that made me laugh on several occasions.

Unlike the novella on which he’s based, the Gregor Samsa of the game does not wake to find himself with a carapace and twitchy little legs in the apartment he shares with his family. Rather, he awakens to a hangover and is unsure at first where he is until he recognizes the familiar sight of his friend Josef K.'s lodgings. (Yes, that Josef K. — the much put-upon protagonist of Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Trial.”) Evidently, the two had spent the previous night celebrating Josef’s birthday.

Even with his aching head, Gregor is in good spirits when he gets up with the intention of saying goodbye to his friend before heading off to work. But after opening the door of the guest room, he emerges into an unfamiliar hallway, flanked by photographs that jog his memories. Curiously, as he passes, the people in them acquire insectlike characteristics. At the end of the hall, Gregor finds himself standing before a door, but when he opens it, he discovers that the room’s furnishings dwarf him in size. Unable to grasp the severity of the situation, Gregor tells himself that his friend must have orchestrated an elaborate prank.

Tiny Gregor eventually threads his way to a desk where he discovers a mysterious letter that alludes to the present difficulties of his circumstances and concludes that, “We hope you have what it takes to get to Tower!” Leaving the room, he soon finds that his limbs have changed into those of a bug. At the far end of the corridor, he enters a ventilation hole that takes him to another room, where he discovers a letter that mentions “the sorry state” he finds himself in and offers an employment opportunity at the Tower. Then he falls through the document into a twilight realm inhabited by other bugs who sympathize with his disoriented state. After passing through the area, he ends up back in Josef’s apartment, watching helplessly from inside a drawer as a uniformed man rifles through his friend’s things while he sleeps. Worried for his friend, he crawls over to Josef’s bedside clock and triggers the alarm. Upon waking, Josef is startled by the man who makes vague insinuations that Josef has run afoul of the law. From there, the game deftly intertwines the fate of Gregor with that of his friend, who struggles against the snares of an inscrutable, dehumanizing legal process.

Along his meandering journey to the Tower Gregor encounters a variety of oddities, including an insect lounge situated in the gramophone of a lawyer’s apartment and the inside of a pneumatic tube system that processes legal documents. These areas are populated by an assortment of outlandish characters such as insects who engage in philosophical jousting and another that complains about his recent divorce and the burdens of “larva support.” Literary buffs will find plenty of winks to other characters from the works of Kafka and Shakespeare, as well as references to other canonical writers.

In terms of gameplay, the puzzles in “Metamorphosis” typically involve rotating gears, jumping on buttons and, more generally, finding solutions to the personal problems of Josef K. and the insects along the way — Gregor will often need sticky fluids, such as glue or ink, to climb up vertical surfaces. The platforming sequences are fairly forgiving, which keeps the narrative humming along smoothly.

As much as I enjoyed my time with “Metamorphosis,” I should note that its stiff character animations make the human characters look like eerie-looking puppets. Moreover, I encountered a few audio hitches and a program crash that resulted in my Xbox turning off. Regardless of these technical shortcomings, I would not deter anyone who is interested in seeing how the Polish development studio, Ovid Works, has created the most recent, splendid homage to one of the supreme literary figures of the 20th century.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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