I’ve told everyone I know about République.
It has a small community and its final episode garnered a lot of frustration. But after two years and five episodes, the Kickstarter project meant to push the boundaries of mobile gaming has done that and so much more–and gives us a many of learnings to draw from moving forward. The series has changed my expectations for games across all platforms and complexities of development.
I bought République for iOS in December of 2013. It was atop the “Best New Games” chart, and though mobile had never really been my bag, I gravitated toward the gorgeous, dark artwork that hinted at the game’s sophistication. I learned the studio, Camouflaj, shared my Pacific Northwest home, and as a French speaker, I was intrigued by the francophone touch. Add a lady in the leading slot, and I was sold.
In the totalitarian state of Metamorphosis, you, the player, guide Hope, one of the République’s adolescent “pre-cals”, as she sneaks around her home facility in the vein of Metal Gear Solid–an ocean-locked, multinational fixture overseen by the mysterious “Headmaster” Treglazov, laden with mysterious impenetrable doors and dystopian daily procedures. The details are long-winded, but the world making is pleasantly strong. You guide protagonist, 390-H or Hope through the halls of the République’s stronghold “Metamorphosis” via security camera.
I played Episode 1: Exordium three times through in the first two weeks I owned it. It had elements of games I loved–Resident Evil, BioShock–but was unique in its overall presentation. It sunk its claws in to me from my first minutes in the game. Now, Episode 5: Terminus has brought the story to a phenomenally strange ending, with the hanging promise of different branching outcomes if we’ll just go back and play through again.
Indeed, République’s repeatability is maddening, and the wait time between episodes meant that I took full advantage. There are hundreds of secrets in each area of the game, and the changes to mechanics over time–like randomized Prizrak patrols and improved detection systems–made the stealth thrill that much better.
But even after double digit hours invested into the game and research of the story, I’m not tired of it. It’s gotten flack for its cryptic approach to storytelling, but this is one its primary strengths.
Along with being robust and smart, République scratched a great many narrative itches. My applause is two-tiered: first, the conditions under which we enter the world were spectacularly executed, and take into account the changing expectations of the gaming community. We get a diverse and complex set of characters in a well-developed world that does impressive work subverting tropes or stereotypes across the board. Hope is a complex female protagonist–clothed, capable, and with a range of characteristics.
And we get a female villain. Sort of. Mireille’s allegiance shifts over the course of the series, but initially, she’s the one we run from. And she’s fascinating. She’s a blend of matronly and ruthless. She’s got a history she’s ashamed of. She’s a revolutionary in disguise. Indeed, the Big Bad is still male, and the Prizrak (though some possess female passports) are all white and male. We still have work to do in our understanding of villainhood, baddies, and gender.
And then we have Cooper. Cooper is the quiet knife–a man of color pulling strings from behind the scenes. Unfortunately, his story goes a bit hazy in the later episodes, and we’re left wondering what possibly happened to him. Nonetheless, we’ve got a cast of fully-developed humans in this world embodying a dichotomy of the army of identical Prizrak and an intense focus on bearing witness to citizen’s most personal stories.
In addition to its thoughtful cast, the game does a lot of introspection about the world it lives in, the political climate its players occupy, and what it means to be consuming this form of media. It does so much to bring the player-character into its dystopia, down to Hope addressing you directly if you go AFK for too long.
I’ll admit–I loved playing the remastered Unity 5 version on PC, but the mechanics fit the story so well on phone or tablet; tapping the screen and watching miniscule “security camera” footage boosted the immersion factor immensely.
Overall, the work République does to involve the player on a meta level is impressive.
The bits of literature, history, and pop culture sprinkled throughout are keen, accessible, and timely. The opening frames of the game clue us in to the games fixation on government surveillance, and in 2013, were well suited for the political climate. But it isn’t until 2016’s Episode 5: Terminus, that we actually hear Snowden’s name – as if Camouflaj wanted us to make the ties ourselves.
Throughout, you pick up tapes, books, and gaming disks that give context to the politics at play, and you learn about the other residents of the island through passport inspections and cut-scenes. It’s not a simple world.
But if you blink, you can miss critical details. If you don’t pause to look through nearly every camera, you can move past, unaware that there’s anything you’ve overlooked. Many have griped over the games insistence on player initiative to collect items–otherwise you miss vital story information. But to me, these feel instrumental to the game’s theme: the player is in charge.
You’ll get as much out of the game as you put in, as you will into literature, art, politics, and revolution. Indeed, Camouflaj has made available the manifesto–the thing called République itself through Wagtail Publishing. But you could go through the entire game without knowing or needing to know of its existence.
In fact, in Episode 4: God’s Acre, Hope isn’t the same Hope we’ve known–she doesn’t have the same 390-H designation that Episode 1-3 Hope has, and she’s got a slightly higher voice. But she looks just the same, and knows everything she would have learned from having joined us on our journey up until that point. The episode ends without explanation; the onus is on the player to understand to whom they’ve been providing directions.
And the soundtrack is haunting. There’s really no better word for it. The long, deep cello rumbles mixed with electronic chimes is a perfect backdrop for the strange and complicated story that blends surveillance paranoia with a gritty stealth game. It’s melancholy, driving, and suspenseful, and gives the perfect backdrop for the world of Metamorphosis.
In a game so fixated on control, Camouflaj has created a series that gives its players the opportunity to constantly re-evaluate our own role in the game. Though Hope is holding our attention, we aren’t actually playing as anyone other than ourselves.
So who (or what) is Hope? Why is she so instrumental to the world of Metamorphosis?
There are hundreds of questions we don’t have answers to–and though it’s easy to point figures at the storytelling, the game itself constantly reminds us that maybe it’s because we haven’t paid close enough attention. République gives us the mirage of power, but chips away at it with each turn of the five episodes. There is so much about Hope’s world we can’t understand without really paying attention. We are the outsider.
As we move into the era of AR/VR, framing story in this way will become a critical part of games development, but République is ahead of the curve, and accomplishes that sort of intense engagement on the small screen.
The indie genre is pushing the envelope on the industry, and games like République show the expansive space non-AAA developers have to occupy. I hope to see much more from the Camouflaj in the future, and I hope that devs across the industry can learn from this beautiful series’ successes.