J.U.L.I.A. - Jan Kavan interview

J.U.L.I.A.
J.U.L.I.A.

Calling a game a great indie endeavour may sound like damning it with faint praise.  After all, independent productions are invariably low budget affairs that have a tough time competing with deeper-pocketed studios (though that’s a fairly relative term in the adventure genre).  The implication is, lower your standards for an indie game and it may just clear the bar.  But it can mean much more than that, as being an indie also has some inherent benefits.  You can take chances no publisher would endorse, and go in a more artistic, personal direction without bowing to safer commercial pressures.  That freedom can lead to some really creative, inspired productions we’d never see if not for the independent status of their developers. 

J.U.L.I.A. is a great indie endeavour for all the right reasons.  This unique sci-fi adventure from the two-man Czech studio Cardboard Box Entertainment doesn’t do anything “new” so much as it packages its diverse elements in clever, interesting ways, combining to form an experience that feels quite unlike any other game.  It also embraces its own limitations, opting for a slick but fairly spartan presentation that suits its indie sensibilities.  If the text adventure had evolved along completely different lines instead of turning into the modern day graphic point-and-clicker, it might look a little something like J.U.L.I.A..  Intrigued yet?  Well read on, as I recently had the chance to play through a late-beta version of the game, and came away duly impressed with what I saw.  This isn’t a promising adventure “for an indie”… it’s a promising adventure that could only be an indie.

Don’t misunderstand the text adventure comment: J.U.L.I.A. does have graphics, and it’s controlled almost exclusively with the mouse.  But unlike most adventures, it doesn’t rely on those things to deliver its story in a compelling way.  This is a far more cerebral experience that favours suggestion over depiction, showing you just enough to draw you in, then letting the dialogue, gameplay, and your own imagination do the rest.  In fact, CBE doesn’t even call it an adventure game, preferring the term “logical video game” to describe its highly streamlined, task-driven exploration.  It may not be for everybody, but it’s certainly something everybody should check out. 

Despite its distinctive approach, J.U.L.I.A.’s initial premise will sound fairly familiar to any science fiction fan.  In the year 2430, astrobiologist Rachel Manners is awakened from cryo sleep by the titular A.I. controlling her interstellar probe when a meteor hits the ship.  Repairing the craft is just the beginning of her adventure, however, as Rachel soon learns that not only is she alone, the rest of her crew abandoned the ship many decades earlier in pursuit of sentient life.  Since J.U.L.I.A. claims that part of "her" memory was wiped in the process, the only way to discover what happened is by following Rachel’s (former) colleagues to the six nearby planets in search of clues – or more accurately, by monitoring the hulking mechanical Mobot do so through video feeds from afar.

When on the orbiting probe, you interact directly with the major ship functions, including planetary scanning and resource harvesting, Mobot upgrades, and ship repair.  All are easily accessed through a navigation bar, opening up a sub-screen for each activity.  Nanobot ship repair is done just once, performed by clicking and dragging the correct item onto the screen as you move on rails through an automated 3D tour of the ship.  Timing is of the essence, but the allotment is reasonable, and you can’t actually fail, as you’ll circle around as often as necessary to get every object in place.  There are three upgrades for Mobot achieved by completing a complex schematic form of Pipes.  Resource harvesting is done for each planet you visit, and somewhat resembles the process in Mass Effect 2.  Here you’ll be sweeping a scanned segment of the planet’s surface looking for matching graphs to pinpoint the resources you need, though as the cursor changes colour the nearer you are to a desired mineral, you’ll almost certainly spend more time watching the cursor than the graph. 

Played from a first-pers… I mean, first-artifi… wait, no, first-robo… well, first-something perspective, you’ll spend far more of your time on the planets below, shown only through grainy, noise-filtered images sent by Mobot.  The screen is split into various window functions, including a mini-map, dialogue box, and photographic stills.  This is more functional than visually attractive, but it’s nicely framed by technical displays and fits the storyline perfectly.  You’re viewing new worlds through a machine’s eyes, and what "he" sees is what you get.  Each planet allows some exploring, but not in the traditional way, as you won’t be clicking cursors or hotspots.  One world has you navigating through an auto-mapping grid-based maze and another by following sonar through deep black waters, but most present a series of narrated text descriptions with response options to select.  There are no right or wrong answers, and you’ll need to visit all areas eventually, but you’ll choose when to instruct Mobot to enter buildings, examine corpses, or access data logs.

You will collect items as you go, but there’s no visible inventory, as any objects you acquire simply become part of your text choices at the appropriate time.  You’ll encounter quite a few other puzzles that are much more difficult to solve, however.  Some are familiar but contextually disguised standalone types, like five-image tile jigsaws to restore damaged memory clusters, Lights Out cognitive worthiness tests, and misaligned chemical gauge balancing, while others need clues to complete, like codes for keypads and wire connection tips.  A few are clearly contrived, but several are beautifully integrated, like descending your way through a block-tiered ice world and assembling a hi-tech energy weapon.  A few are repeated, but never so often that they feel repetitive, though they do get progressively more difficult each time. 

That’s important, because J.U.L.I.A. is not an easy game. But nor is it unfair.  I almost keeled over at the sight of a numerical cipher, yet slowly but surely I pieced my way through the coded message.  Despite its highly streamlined nature, this is no “casual” game with helpful hints and puzzle skip options, so you’re on your own to get through the challenges yourself.  The only exception is a math-based puzzle that offers assistance before you begin.  I chose yes, only to get a lot more help than I anticipated, leaving me mainly to input numbers already calculated ahead of time. 

There’s one other minigame that requires a degree of dexterity, though it’s not an “action” sequence per se.  I won’t spoil the context, except to say that it’s a fairly titanic confrontation that requires keeping a twitchy cursor centered on a small target.  Failing simply means starting the sequence over, however, as there’s no fear of (permanent) dying or other game-over scenarios here.   I thought this sequence would mark the game’s climactic challenge, but I was wrong, as J.U.L.I.A. proceeds to spin off into entirely new areas beyond the initial desert, ocean, jungle, and ice-covered worlds, ultimately culminating in a moral choice that impacts which of the two endings you experience.

It won’t be an easy choice, as you’ll discover some unpleasant truths in the troubling backstory of mankind’s first encounter with extra-terrestrials.  The story isn’t particularly deep, but it does delve into ethical issues of self-preservation and justice, careful not to paint the issues in black-and-white, good vs. evil brushstrokes. You’ll glean some insight from your encounters with the same alien races (once you learn to communicate), and some through recorded documents left by the probe team who abandoned you.  All the while, you’ll be accompanied by the cheerful voice of J.U.L.I.A., whose Data-like emotion chip makes her seem more human than artificial, and Mobot, the purely mechanical and yet surprisingly personable machine who seems all-too-aware that it’s his metallic hide that’s on the line in hazardous environments, not yours.   

Each character is fully voice acted and quite well done, from Rachel’s pleasant English accent to her companions’ slightly modulated tones.  Some lines seem to be poorly inflected, but as neither J.U.L.I.A. nor Mobot are human, that could very well be intentional (or at the very least, conveniently passed off as such).  The music is as varied as the environments, shifting radically from gentle piano to Eastern strings; from tribal chants to more traditional 2001-like orchestrals, among others, providing a remarkably diverse aural backdrop to the action. 

While it’s never necessary (or often possible) to finish a game played for preview, it speaks to the quality of J.U.L.I.A. that I felt compelled to see it through to the end.  It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and although different doesn’t always mean better, it does make it noteworthy. Yet this game warrants your attention for more reasons than that.  It’s got all the budgetary hallmarks of an independent adventure, sure, but the developers have smartly capitalized on those limitations in a way that’s actually a benefit.  No one watched the Mars probe expecting to see Avatar, and the mystery of the Salia system is similarly enhanced by the teasingly detached view offered here.  With plenty of challenging puzzles and a solid sci-fi storyline tying it all together, I suggest making room on your calendar for a date with J.U.L.I.A. this fall.  In the meantime, in case you still can’t get enough, next up is a behind-the-scenes chat with the game’s writer and designer, Jan Kavan.

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