Let's play a quick round of word association:
Obsession... Redemption... Torment... Compassion... Jealousy... Loneliness...
Too tame? Well, while we're at it, how about:
Child slavery... Suicide... Sexuality... Abuse...
If none of these words elicit responses like "adventure game" or "point & click," you're not alone. The gaming industry is reluctant to embrace more mature, complex psychological themes. Fortunately, every once in a while a developer will venture beyond safe boundaries and provide us with a fresh, original perspective. Such is the case with Faust: Seven Games of the Soul, a sorely neglected game that is well worth a look, despite the fact that its philosophical reach exceeds its entertainment grasp.
Before moving on, let's clear up the inevitable confusion about titles. Seven Games of the Soul is a game re-christened by DreamCatcher for publishing in North America. Developed by the talented (if erratic) team at Arxel Tribe, the game was originally published by Cryo under the name of Faust in 1999. Although DreamCatcher deemed the heading too obscure for its audience a year later, Faust is a direct namesake of the two-part 19th century poetic drama by Goethe which inspired the game. Goethe's "Faust" was itself based on the famous legend of Gregorius Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil because of his insatiable desire for forbidden knowledge.
Seven Games of the Soul plays fast and loose with the source material, but stays true to its spirit. In the game, the player adopts the persona of Marcellus Faust, an elderly black man who has arrived at an abandoned amusement park called Dreamland. We are introduced to a suave, debonair demon named Mephistopheles (or Mephisto), who explains that Faust has been chosen to help settle a dispute with God. The owner of Dreamland has recently died, and now the fates of seven park inhabitants' souls are being determined. It's Faust's duty to mystically move back in time, investigate the troubled lives of a very bizarre cast of characters and unravel the macabre history of the park. In a twist on the now-clichéd amnesia premise, Faust is stripped of his memory in order to remain an objective observer, which suggests that he, too, was once an active participant whose role is yet to be revealed.
The real beauty and beast of Seven Games of the Soul is that it's so intrinsically multi-layered. There is mystery within mystery, puzzle within puzzle, and subplot within plot, and progression on one level will either tease and tantalize with hints at the larger picture, or frustrate and confuse from the lack of cohesion. Or both. In fact, definitely both, at various times. The game's structure plays out in seven distinct episodes, with each focused around one of the central characters. Yet while the individual segments are self-contained and linear, each one weaves in new narrative strands of the other characters, adding yet another level of depth overall. This guarantees some intentional disorientation, and integration of all the pieces can only be done retrospectively. If that sounds convoluted, you're catching on fast.
To make matters cloudier still, you don't ever actually meet the characters you're investigating. As you delve into one disturbed life after another, clues are revealed only through visual or audio flashbacks, notes, and various personal items. The only actual requirement in each episode is to find the one crucial piece of material evidence that will either implicate or absolve them of complicity with Mephisto.
The characters themselves are a fascinating, eclectic bunch (they are carnies, after all). Whether freakshow exhibits like the Siamese sisters and 550 pound woman, or employees like the costume seamstress and tiger tamer, they all possess intense personal baggage, emotional turmoil, and secrets that haunt them. Exploring their lives is not just a matter of exposing deeds, but uncovering insights into their psyches, where black and white simply don't exist.
Accompanying Faust's own investigation is a sort of dual narration. The first is from Mephisto, who periodically appears to present his role in the drama, portraying himself as an integral instrument of God's plan--motivator through temptation, without which man would be less than human. The other narration comes at the end of each episode, as our sleuthing earns Faust visits with Theodore More, the park's former owner. Theodore clearly has his own agenda, but one he is unable to openly reveal, so his relevance is perhaps the most elusive of all.
The game mechanics are probably the only traditional aspect of the game. It's a node movement, mouse-controlled game that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played another first-person adventure in the last several years. The backgrounds are static, but the viewscreen offers 360 degree panning. Hotspots and movement indicators are highlighted by context-sensitive cursors. Strangely, these aren't as intuitive as they should be, as the highlights are dull, and some cursors too closely resemble each other. It's rarely an issue, but there will be a few occasions where you're playing the interface, rather than the game.
The production values of Seven Games of the Soul are generally excellent. The visuals are naturally somewhat dated now, and as with many games that utilize this sort of engine, the backgrounds are disappointingly blurry. Still, the graphics hold up remarkably well thanks to the vibrant colours, thoughtfully crafted environments, and stylized art direction.Continued on the next page...