A deserted transit facility becomes your stomping grounds in Prominence, the enigmatic debut adventure from Digital Media Workshop that features a traditional node-based first-person interface, gadget-oriented tinkering, and an absorbing sci-fi tale. As you explore the passageways, admiring vast rooms with circular towers, giant tubes, and angular machinery all alone, a mystery unfolds and tantalizes. What happened here? Is escape possible? Can a lone individual prevail against the complex challenges that await? The survival of an entire civilization is at stake, and you are the linchpin that may well decide the fate of millions in a story that had me hooked from the beginning and kept me curious and captivated right up to the end, aptly supported by clever gameplay throughout.
Here’s the backstory scoop: the Letarri people find themselves dead center in an approaching war between two galactic forces. Currently refugees on two frontier planets where they are tolerated, though not welcomed, they start an all-out search for any habitable planet beyond the Great Reach, an area of empty space that will protect them from the warring factions. Against all odds, they find one. The Letarri Council sends a handful of its best scientists, aided by a super computer called ANNIE, to the planet to set up a base for the millions of colonists soon to arrive. You are part of that hopeful vanguard. But the best laid plans often go astray, and disastrously so in this particular case.
As the game begins, you wake up in a medical clinic. At first you have no memory of the mission and you are trapped in a space just large enough to accommodate a hospital bed and hallway. Though the place seems vaguely familiar, there are signs that the staff evacuated in haste, leaving you behind. It’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong, but you have no way to communicate with the outside world to find out what occurred. As you work your way around sealed doors through the creative use of the equipment at hand, you begin to discover evidence of a recent catastrophe. Power must be restored and then computers and other devices accessed to try to figure out what the missing space colonists were trying to achieve, and whether they managed it or are now lost forever.
Though there isn’t anybody (living) left behind, traces of your missing colleagues are everywhere. You access emails and voicemails (which contain facial portraits of the characters) and security camera recordings that provide an intriguing glimpse into life at the facility before it was abandoned. Along with seemingly humdrum occurrences – mutterings against a certain supervisor; a medical robot that’s suddenly malfunctioning; a hint of romance between the mission leader and a research scientist; a prybar accidentally dropped down a shaft – the most intense scuttlebutt concerns the upcoming prominence, a wave of solar energy that might well be damaging in its intensity. Since the Letarri know very little about this new solar system, its effects are hard to predict, but any concern is masked by the crew participating in a betting pool as to when the prominence will occur. Overall, the behavior of the characters rings true, and the voice-overs are very effective, especially at portraying the relaxed atmosphere before the catastrophe, and the reactions afterwards ranging from humor to anger, empathy, and true grit in the face of cascading failures.
After bringing the main computer ANNIE (Advanced Neural Network Information Entity) back online, you’ll begin to receive more instructions and explanations. ANNIE’s female voice starts off with lots of echo and distortion; this is gradually reduced as you restore subsystems and ANNIE gains access to the facility’s database and computers. Even without the distortions, she sounds appropriately robotic.
Prominence contains multiple mysteries and revelations unfold as you explore, some through optional entries that can be read in the data archives. All of them I found satisfying, except for one. There’s a major identity conundrum that I never did solve, though it’s possible I just didn’t manage to find the secret information. But without it I can’t even speculate about the answer – I’m absolutely clueless, making this the one story element that left a displeasing taste. The backstory is further bolstered by a series of nine short chapters called “The Prologue” on the developer’s website, though this certainly isn’t required to understand and enjoy the game.
With a brief exception, the action takes place entirely indoors. The transition from dark corridors, air vents, and elevator shafts to spacious areas full of light and the hum of machinery is invigorating. You’ll encounter high-tech offices, massive columns, rows of computer consoles, gigantic power generators, a hangar adjoining a factory, and a hydroponics tower filled with rare plants (unfortunately, you see this only from a distance). The whole place is stark, sleek, and surprisingly colorful. You don’t explore any living quarters – nothing that’s quaint or homelike. Everyone seems to spend 24/7 focused on the business at hand.
Environmental animation is restricted to occasional steam rising through a vent or sparks arcing from damaged electronics. Once they are brought back online, many of the computer consoles reveal animated graphics that serve to spruce the place up a bit. Readouts from the security cameras are audio-only, which is mildly disappointing as there is no explanation given for the destruction of the video component, and watching the characters – if only in black-and-white, low-res videos – would have added to the sense of immersion. There are a handful of beautifully animated cutscenes, the most memorable including the gossamery flares of light erupting from the sun in the opening sequence, and the spiraling, vibrant, space-age visuals that link you to the data archives.Continued on the next page...