The issue of whether or not games can be considered “art” seems to be endlessly discussed these days. It’s a silly debate, because the whole thing hinges on what each individual defines as “art” and there are as many definitions as there are debaters. Yet it does raise some other interesting questions in the process. Does a game need to be understood to be enjoyable? Can a world with no spoken dialogue and virtually no written words have depth and character? When does a game stop being a game and start being an interactive art piece? Kairo is a bold answer to some of these questions – or rather, a bold example of why such questions exist. Designed by Richard Perrin, the same developer behind the excellent 2005 free indie title the white chamber, Kairo is a unique, immersive experience that rides the line between puzzle and art.
After making a successful adventure, it must be tempting to create something at least somewhat similar to the game you’ve just made, but Perrin has avoided giving in to this temptation entirely. Kairo could not be more different from the white chamber. While the white chamber used two-dimensional cel-shading with an anime influence, Kairo is a first-person exploration of a free-roaming, minimalist 3D environment. Where the white chamber was claustrophobic in nature, Kairo seems to revel in open spaces and high ceilings. While the white chamber had clear characters, a coherent plot, and a chilling storyline, Kairo has almost no story to speak of.
With no introduction or explanation, you start Kairo standing on a floating island of rectangular stones with an empty throne nearby. As far as you can see, there is only white expanse all around you, and one other, somewhat larger, stone structure a little ways away. The emptiness is reinforced by the simplicity of the structures that are there, and the architectural cross between what look like ancient temples and seemingly alien constructions creates a palpable feeling of otherworldliness. Who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing here are never fully explained. All there is to do is explore and continually look for a way forward.
Exploring in Kairo is fairly easy and intuitive, since there aren’t too many controls. Your facing is controlled by the mouse, and you can move around via the arrow or WASD keys, like you do in most first-person action games played on the PC. (Xbox 360 gamepads are also supported, though they make take some configuration to set up comfortably.) You can sprint with the shift key and jump with the spacebar, though you’ll seldom need to do either, and certainly not with any great dexterity required. And that’s it. All interaction with the environment, whether touching glyphs on walls, stepping on pressure plates, or activating certain devices, can be done simply with the movement keys.
As simple as they are, the game gets a lot of mileage out of these controls. Sometimes a puzzle is as basic as using visual clues to perform actions in the right order. One section has you navigating a maze where the walls only appear as you get close to them. Another section has you pushing (by simply walking into them) movable blocks into place before triggering a bouncing ball that only reaches its target if you’ve placed the blocks correctly. With no inventory and no visual interface display, the game seems to be making a concerted effort not to distract you from the environments you’re exploring.
It is these surreal, austere locales that truly make the game shine. All of them seem to have a central color ranging all across the spectrum. Many of them use squares, rectangles, or other shapes to add character to the base environments. One room is green, with blocks arranged to form the shapes of trees, lampposts, and other more obscure constructions. Another has blue square blocks flowing down a wall in a geometric suggestion of a waterfall. A different room has arches that flow onto the path in front of you as you walk forward. The screenshots provide a hint of what the environments look like, but they really are meant to be experienced first-hand, not seen in a static image. It’s hard to describe why, but there’s something about walking through and experiencing the world yourself that evokes a sense of loneliness, awe, and uncertainty all at the same time.
All of these environments are enhanced with music and sounds provided by Wounds (Bartosz Szturgiewicz). They have a sometimes pleasant, sometimes ominous tone to them. Some locations have the sound of chimes or other New Age-style music, like the kind you would listen to during meditation. Other locales are silent but for your footfall on the stone, with maybe the occasional trace of what sounds like rushing wind or running water. The music never got repetitive or tedious for me, and the score in one room really enhances the deliberately chosen silence of another. It’s the kind of soundtrack that’s perfect for a game like this. It wouldn’t be interesting to listen to on its own, but as a backdrop to the setting, it enhances the sensation of being in an alien place.
As captivating as the environments are, it’s easy to wonder if there’s any actual point to the whole experience. This isn’t a question I can really answer. At the top of a high platform in a red room, I ran into what looked to be television screens showing images obscured by static and emitting odd noises that sometimes sounded like radio chatter or a news announcer. Some images looked like bombed buildings, others looked like landscapes. Appearing from time to time throughout the game with no real explanation, these images and the white noise that accompany them were often very disturbing to me, though I can’t really explain why, or if they were even meant to make me feel that way. Sometimes there’s a dark silhouette of a head as well, and while the game eventually explains this in part, the “explanation” provides more questions than answers.
The only real goal in Kairo is to solve the puzzles in each area, then move on to the next. Even at the end of the game, the purpose behind it all remains a mystery, or at least it did for me. Getting to the ending isn’t too challenging, however. Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive and often rather easy. If they do become too challenging, the main menu has a hint section for each room with a puzzle, which will provide three increasingly revealing hints. There was only one obstacle I found where the logic escaped me enough to need this feature, however, and the game will likely take experienced puzzlers only 2-3 hours at most.
Kairo is not a game for everyone. Its abstract style and lack of coherent plot may turn off a lot of adventure gamers and prevent them from ever trying it. But I can’t help but feel like they’d be missing out on something special. What Kairo lacks in story, it makes up for in surreal visuals, sound, and downright intrigue. Perhaps most importantly, it’s unique, which is something increasingly hard to find these days. If you've got an open mind about new game experiences, you can pick it up at a budget price from the developer's website. Play it in the dark with some headphones, and just take what the game gives you. Just don’t expect it to give you any clear answers. Art seldom does.