The Sneaky Charms of République

République is about control.

Controlling the minds of young people and their perception of the world. Controlling art and its effect on free thought and expression. Controlling personal liberties and national security. But the game is not just thematically concerned with the nature of control. This debut title from the developer Camouflaj, originally an iOS game, was a mission statement proclaiming that game makers need to reimagine how we control video games. The rising popularity of touchscreen devices and gaming on the go doesn’t mean we need to throw away classic design principles. It doesn’t mean you have to dumb down the controls or graphical fidelity. Your options shouldn’t just be Cutting the Rope or Temple Running.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is dead wrong, and should be stripped naked and paraded through the streets behind a nun with a ‘shame bell’.  République is proof that you can have so-called triple-A gaming on the go. Albeit in Camouflaj’s case, after a particularly tumultuous development. From crowdfunding it as a premium episodic mobile game to its evolution as a full publisher-backed console release almost four years later, République has truly run the gamut—navigating a path through a volatile and ever changing industry—emerging on the other end a strange yet profoundly interesting beast.

There’s a young girl, Hope, who is trying to escape a dystopian surveillance state-cum-subterranean cult named Metamorphosis—which looks and feels like a shared fever dream between George Orwell and Ken Levine. But you don’t play as Hope. No, this is made clear as the game opens and Hope breaks the fourth wall by calling you, the player, on a contraband cell phone. She’s moments away from her scheduled “recalibration,” a sort of brain-washy naughty step after she got caught with banned reading material. “They want to erase me,” she whispers urgently, “They want to erase who I am.” You can’t speak to her and she doesn’t even know your name—but it might as well be “Big Brother”. You flex your techno-god muscles: controlling and manipulating the many security cameras, locks, and other electronics throughout the compound.

In the original iOS and Android vision of République, your screen tapping and finger swiping merely guided Hope. While yes, you were all seeing and all powerful, your interventions were also indirect. Hope was ultimately an independent AI, one that you shepherded past Metamorphosis’s many dangers. In its opening moments, this concept was incredibly exciting. But playing as I did on the “Remastered” PlayStation 4 version, the console specific drawback soon became evident. While you’re still a tech savvy fly on the wall, hopping between ceiling mounted cameras—you now have one-to-one control over Hope’s movements. What was once a novel control scheme perfectly befitting its mobile platform, now feels as innovative as the original Resident Evil did, which by the way, is now twenty years old. It’s perhaps a necessary and perfectly logical adaptation to a gamepad welding audience, but a thematically muddled one all the same. This feeling pervades the entire experience. République is a flawed gem: for every instance of it being a richly nuanced, narrative-heavy stealth game, there’ll be a nagging feeling that it is both a contradiction and compromise of its original design philosophy.  

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. The journey may be a bumpy one, but it’s nonetheless utterly absorbing throughout. The third episode has an especially inspired section that perhaps best illustrates both République’s mechanical strengths and the darkly fascist mindf*k that underpins them. You and Hope will have already broken out of prison, stalked the upsetting opulence Metamorphosis’s  hallways and evaded its police force, the Prizrak. Progress has been slow and steady—not just because Hope is a scared young girl and not say, a cigar-chomping military vet—but also your Big Brother powers allow you to pause the action at any time, freezing Hope and the security guards in place while you pick the camera that gives you the best view.

Every room is a web of secrets, with emails to hack, phone calls to spy on and security systems to disable. But you’ll hit a roadblock in the third episode, ‘Ones and Zeroes’. Hope’s escape is closer than ever before. Close enough that she can see the elevator that promises to take her to the surface. Two guards stand in the way, however, and your standard arsenal of hacker tricks aren’t going to make them budge. Hope diving into a knee-high potted plant and insisting that she’s invisible isn’t going to work this time either. Again, Hope doesn’t really ‘do’ guns—but there’s a way to clear a path without firing a single bullet. It’s time to get creative. And insidious.

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You and Hope can use massive data-collection servers to hack into the homes of the two guards, sift through their proverbial dirty laundry and leak any scandals to the state newspaper (think Fox News on steroids). And if they’re clean, who’s to say you can’t just frame them? Other Prizrak guards will then come to arrest them, leaving the elevator to the surface unguarded. Simple. After all, it’s easy to dislike the essentially anonymous men who throw Hope in containment. Though all the guards up to this point can be scanned—netting you their name, age, medical history, criminal record and unique photo ID—it’s hard to care when their in-game character models are all stocky bald guys. But this digital home invasion takes it to the next level.

Turns out one of the guards is a loving husband and father, who only joined the Republique because he couldn’t afford his mortgage. His financial salvation unexpectedly became his own confinement, with no outside communication or visitation being allowed. How to incriminate this heartbroken family man is up to you—alert the Prizrak to his contraband porno stash (which his wife smuggled in to soothe those lonely nights)? Hand over sensitive truths he revealed to a therapist five years ago? Take a photo of the République’s leather–bound manifesto, discarded in a wastebasket? When you’re finished gutting his home, you can even help the Editor-in-Chief come up with a headline, or claim a byline with your PSN name. “This is wrong. I feel sick,” says Hope. Yeah, pretty much.   

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Dystopias and totalitarian societies naturally invite this kind of introspection. It would be easy to only tell stories of vibrant characters who strike out against the regimes that oppress them. But good writing reminds us that the watchmen have stories too. They have families and lives beyond the truncheons that they wield. While the broad strokes of République’s narrative occasionally fumbles—with lackadaisical pacing, an over-reliance on mystery plotting and some murky character motivations—it’s in the biting specificity of the environmental storytelling that Camouflaj truly excels.

Cross-examination of scattered clues—audio files, letters, emails, lectures, and historical notes—sketches out the République’s inhabitants, colors them in, and at last, renders them in three dimensions. I loved that one of the chief antagonists of the game, a Prizrak captain, has a stockpile of nude body scanner images of all his staff (it’s actually illegal to delete them apparently!). Or the slyly humorous Cooper, an ally and renegade IT professional, who’s only able to communicate with you via text-to-speech and emoticons. I accidentally wandered into his office and the walls were covered with Kickstarter posters for Shovel Knight and Double Fine Adventure. Then I discovered his phone password was the Konami Code! Just brilliant.  

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This brings me, oddly, to the subject of collectibles. Odd because I don’t usually  care about menial garbage like flags or gems or trading cards—the hoarding of which doesn’t necessarily denote player skill, but the fact that you have too much time on your hands. The problem with République is that it knows me too well. One of its collectibles is banned books. It knows that I’ve read almost every novel listed as contraband. It tells me it’s burned my beloved Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451—the anti-authoritarian literature deemed poisonous. Each one is accompanied by a delicious monologue from the République’s headmaster (a heinous mashup of Andrew Ryan and Dumbledore) on why the books were banned.

There are also video games to find! Every time Hope picks a security guard’s pockets, she comes away with an Atari 2600-style game cartridge for popular indies like Bastion or Her Story. These come with oral treatises on good game design from the aforementioned Cooper, Again, République seems to know that I’ve taken many of them to heart. By invoking their names, the game is attempting to further implicate me in its world. The feeling that République has seen your bookshelves, your thoughts, grows even more disconcerting when you remember that it is a game about surveillance, about seeing and knowing, about the power of gazing. All of these audio snippets clearly show that Camouflaj has an ear for sharp dialogue, while the voice acting performances are excellent across the board.

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My only real complaint about all these cute asides is that they sometimes do the main narrative a disservice. By bringing life to side characters like Cooper or the headmaster, Hope herself remains strangely flat. Her background is hazily outlined for much for much of the game, while her arc in general is erratically paced. It’s not until the aforementioned third episode that explicit efforts are made to forge a bond with you, the player, and Hope. In the fourth episode she’s mostly depicted as a child-like simpleton, yet in the fifth and final episode, she makes a sudden U-turn into badassery. The building blocks are there from the start to create a layered relationship between her and the player, but outside of a few moments of brilliance, it never quite sparks.

Not helping matters is Hope initially coming off as a wet blanket (discovering a poem/love note to her headmaster also soured my first impression!). Her lack of agency isn’t even the problem (although that does become a significant plot point towards the end). Take, for example, Ico’s Yorda. In that game, a similar escort mission-narrative was set up, with a heroine that was extremely vulnerable. When Yorda was in danger, your heart broke. When Hope is in danger, your eyes roll. You want to see her escape, but only because you want to see the next area or learn a new stealth mechanic or glean more juicy information about the other characters. It’s a problem somewhat mitigated by the final episode, but by then it feels like Camouflaj is hurriedly papering the cracks.

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Even worse, the finale feels rushed, informing you of its game-changing plot twist then funnelling you through a few final challenges before stumbling through its head-scratchingly disappointing conclusion. Republique spends so much of its time building its world through ancillary details that it almost forgets that there was a plot in all of this, and it frantically starts shuffling puzzle pieces around at the very last moment to try to make everything fit together. Had answers been portioned out more evenly during the opening chapters, and had Republique spent more time fleshing out those answers with cutscenes or dialog, the game’s biggest revelations would resonate, but instead land with a shrug.

Republique is filled with interesting ideas about the very real fear of modern-day fascism and the omnipresence of privacy-killing technology, concepts that are more often found in literature than video games, and the way it approaches its themes through the security cameras of a dystopian nightmare is admirable. But all the interesting ideas in the world are moot if the game can’t make a satisfying experience out of them, and sadly, Republique fails to stick the landing. But at the very least, the journey to get there was a wholly interesting one.

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Liam Harvey

Human being, husband, father, British. Optimism and naivety are like two blind children skipping through the unfenced minefield of his mind. He likes sitting, biscuits and laughing—but never at the same time (that would be the height of hedonistic excess)—while the best life advice he's ever received​ was from a box of matches, "Keep away from children. Keep in a dry place. Strike away from the body."

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