The selection of indie games for the Nintendo Switch at PAX West 2019 was overwhelming. There were dozens of games I tried that left me intrigued, in awe, and emotional. Backbone was one of the games tucked away in the back of the Indie Megabooth that managed to do all three of these. In Backbone, you control Howard Lotor, a private investigator hired to track a client’s husband. Lotor is also a raccoon, which is apt since they’re creatures known for digging through trash.
The game is developed by EggNut, and I had a great time visiting with Nikita Danshin (the game’s composer) and Aleksandra Korabelnikova (the narrative designer). I’m a huge fan of the Spanish comic book series Blacksad, which the game seems slightly inspired by. That series is a collection of mysteries that follows a black cat named John Blacksad. He’s a private investigator that’s similar (in a good way) to Lotor. When asked about any inspiration from Blacksad, Nikita was quick to retort that their game is much darker. While Blacksad is an anthropomorphic take on Americana with a hardboiled lens, Backbone is a bleaker and more “Russian” take on the set-up. I was sold on this pitch alone, and Aleksandra set me up with a slice of the game’s prologue.
The backbone of Backbone is its atmospheric storytelling
Backbone‘s setting is a noir dystopia filled with anthropomorphic characters and a gorgeous utilization of pixel art. Neon signs are reflected on the streets in real-time. Alongside these visuals are slow jazz and glum sound design. Overall, this constructs the perfect kind of atmosphere for the telling of the game’s story.
Speaking of the story, it was readily apparent that Backbone is a macabre noir mystery. There is an edge to the dialogue, characters, and overall setting. Drugs, racism, and cannibalism all rear their heads. The writing has a specific tone that’s assaulting at points. What’s important in any story, though, is that there’s an emotional core to connect to. I found a heart in the characterization of Lotor, but that heart is still inherently hardened.
Choices, choices, choices…
What I found most impressive was Backbone‘s approach to dialogue trees. Choices range from being blunt in order to procure information for the case, to slowly and vaguely leading someone out of their comfort zone. Various strategies must be utilized depending on the situation. Part of the fun I found in my demo was adjusting how Lotor carried himself in the presence of each separate individual he interacted with.
For example, I let Anatoly the beaver tell a story about his wife and kids, allowing him to vent about his familial troubles. I received more information than I would have if I’d decided to interrupt him or change the topic. Later, at the club named “The Bite,” I encountered the owner Clarissa and struck up a conversation. I practiced the same meandering approach, only to end up getting kicked out of the bar. The game rewards you for being agreeable in some situations while having more of a backbone (sorry) in others.
By the time I reached the end of my demo, Lotor found himself in a situation that I indeed found very dark (which I won’t spoil). Nikita was right – it was indeed shocking.
The particulars of Russian storytelling
I decided to ask some more questions to Aleksandra, and she went more into the inspiration for Backbone. When asked about the team’s inspiration for the grim subject matter, she said it was inspired by the looming authoritarianism she experienced in Russia, by how hopeless and seemingly tyrannical a governmental regime is. Crediting Danny Wadeson and Victoria Schafer for their phenomenal work on realizing the game’s harsh tone and atmosphere through their writing. Thankfully, she’s immigrated to the Netherlands to make Backbone alongside a majority female studio (which I find very cool).
Overall, I was quite impressed with what I was shown. I’m a fan of detective games such as Case of Distrust and the bleak narratives of Russian storytelling. Aleksandra let me know that the game is expected to release in 2021, and she is very excited to share her game with Nintendo fans on the Switch.
Does Backbone interest you? Let us know in the comments below.