“We are all the residue of our past,” Jumagul tells his grandson in the first act of Residue. The platitude sets a bland tone that this side-scrolling platformer never overcomes. While moving from checkpoint to checkpoint, you play as one of three characters: flashlight-shining Jumagul; Emilio, a boy who can jump, swim, and climb; and Nikolai, a man with a grappling hook. Controlling these characters rarely feels fluid, but Residue wants to be less about player skill and more about discovering the nuances of its story. As you pass obstacles and explore the levels, you find various documents and trigger flashbacks of a sort that provide background about the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the game’s sluggish controls often distract from the seriousness of the story; watching yourself struggle with Nikolai’s grappling hook is, at best, bad comedy. The worst scene amounts to the player running Jumagul and Nikolai into each other to “create” a fight, a silly section of gameplay that kills the possibility of believable drama.
Visually, the game shoots for the cinematic. The opening credits sequence suggests this intent with a montage that gives the player the option to influence motion, but the only other sequence that approaches movie magic is the climactic rescue at sea, a vertical swim that, despite its lack of realism, serves as the most compelling and cathartic image of the game. In most cases, the art drably focuses on ruin, generally lacking both contrast and room for articulate emotional interpretation, and the animation is too choppy, a constant reminder of the game’s limitations as a visual story.
Residue tends to revel in the failures of humankind. The setting is a site in the Aral Sea region of Uzbekistan where the Soviet Union heavily tested biological weapons. The location becomes a restoration project for Nikolai and Elena, mother of Emilio. These wannabe heroes believe doing the right thing trumps profit, but Nikolai and Elena are manipulative and irresponsible, as they see Emilio as a tool or an obstacle, and not as precious life. The decrepit ships and contaminated sea reek of these ambitious human failures as much as they comment on the destruction of the Soviet Union. In addressing the past or present, the game banally preaches the same old sad sermon. Rather than rail against the futility that represents the game’s dominant theme, the protagonists play into the decay of their surroundings through their decision-making. Even if the remonstrations of Jumagul might hint at wisdom, the old man mostly represents a senile cry for reason as Emilio and Nikolai’s emotions run wild.
“Why breathe if you do not take time to notice?” This pertinent question is raised by Altabek, a site worker through which the game attempts to share perspective about the importance of humanity. Unfortunately, the voice acting for Altabek makes him too meek, and much of his dialogue sentimentalizes entropy (“soulless shells” that “rot together in the sea”), suggesting that hope is a pipe dream. At one point, Altabek tells Nikolai, “The bad news are that I will die.” Nikolai replies, “That is hardly news.” Indeed, all this mumbling about death is just your standard post-9/11 cynicism, and it reveals how the game confuses tiring resignation with insight.
Residue will be available on August 1 from the Working Parts. To purchase it, click here.