The preview build of Richard & Alice may have only lasted for around 45 minutes, but it is something that will stay with me far longer than that. Eponymous titles aren’t unusual, but I can’t remember the last time I played a game where every element was in service to the characters and the stories that make them who they are – and this makes Richard & Alice rather special.
The titular characters are more than mere protagonists, they are an embodiment of the game’s themes of dichotomy and contrast. Richard, an ex-soldier imprisoned for disobeying orders, seems somewhat taken aback by Alice’s confession of being arrested for murder. She is the mother of a small boy who has begun, with notable dismay, to accept the moral ambiguity of the post-apocalyptic world the game is set in. She is somewhat guarded, and Richard is far too aware of his own desperation for conversation to negotiate this obstacle smoothly. There initial encounter is therefore a purposefully stilted and awkward affair, and it lays an intriguing foundation for their relationship going forward.
Set in a world thrown into disarray through horrific weather, where one half of the earth is encased in snow and the rest is arid desert, contrast is once again a prominent aspect. The prison itself reiterates this, not only in terms of its confusing place within the post-apocalyptic disorder of the wider world, but by being intriguing far beyond its small dimensions. There is a TV constantly showing documentaries on now extinct animals, there is a PC with what appears to be an in-built complaint submission system, there is just an overwhelming sense of the unusual and I can’t wait to see how it presents itself in the full release. This environment isn’t the focus for long however, as once Alice enters the cell opposite Richard the conversation begins and the writing steals the spotlight.
Anyone familiar with the work of Lewis Denby or Ashton Raze may not be particularly surprised to hear that the writing is brilliant, but it is the way in which it is brilliant that one may not expect. There is a delicacy of characterisation here, a subtlety that few would have the confidence to hang such an integral aspect of a game on. This came to the fore with what comprised the majority of the preview build – a playable flashback detailing Alice’s escape from ‘the bad man’ with her son Barney. Alice is determined to shield her son from as much of the struggles of survival as she can in order to maintain some of his childlike naivety. Yet, whilst speaking with endearing mispronunciations, Barney is far more mature than she realises. At times it seems as if his eternal optimism is for his mother’s sake, his obliviousness a slight pretence. He is certainly a child, and he isn’t characterised as anything else, but this is no escort mission, it is a partnership where nuance sometimes undercuts presumed roles.
Mechanistically this is a point-and-click adventure game, but the puzzles are used for pacing rather than challenge. You will of course have to find items and use them to progress, but this will never steal prominence from the events or the characters. The solutions are never obtuse or overly contrived, and this authenticity allows them to fall into the background without ever falling out of focus.
This 45 minute taster of what is to come from Richard & Alice has left me intrigued and incredibly impressed. I am already imagining various directions the story could venture down, planning Richard and Alice’s escape from the prison and worrying about where my beloved Barney is. It may not (despite how often I imagine that it is) be called ‘Richard, Alice & Ian’, but I already feel like I am very much a part of its world.