Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
The soundscape exhibits a loving attention to detail. You’ll hear your footsteps as you walk, of course, plus the swoosh of opening doors, the rumble and ping of the elevator, and the clanking sound of your feet on metal ladders. Holographic images make a static-like noise as they power up, while letters and digits click as they scroll across the computer screen. There’s so much ambient sound in the environments that background music is comparatively rare. What’s there is appropriately evocative, like the lovely, dissonant choral melody in the main menu and the sassy elevator-like music as you enter the data archives. The latter resolves into a mellow fusion of electronic reverberations and sitar tones – the perfect backdrop for reading and pondering.
Prominence plays from a first-person perspective with continuous 360 degree panning. It’s been a while since I’ve played a new game with this feature, and I was surprised at how much I’d missed it. The combination of point-and-click interface with the ability – while slowly spinning around – to examine all aspects of the environment greatly adds to the feeling of intimate exploration. As in many of the classic adventures like this, transitions between nodes are slightly blurry but give a good sense of movement. I encountered one location in which the transitions seemed unusually slow, but this happened so rarely that it didn’t really affect the gameplay. (If you don’t wish to see the transitions, you can turn them off in the options menu.)
The smart cursor remains centered on the screen, the default circle changing shape over items you can interact with, objects that can be described, places that can be zoomed into, and directions you can move. It’s generally easy to find the navigational arrows and to walk about – I never found myself turned around in the wrong direction, or spent significant time searching for a directional indicator. Right-clicking brings up the inventory, which resides in the top portion of the screen. Pressing the “tab” key provides the current objective, with a location visual that is sometimes also a helpful hint. There is no autosave, but the game offers 100 manual save slots, about half of which I used, though not for any fear of dying. It took me ten hours to finish the game and reach the first ending. Going back to a previous save at the designated decision point and playing through the alternate ending added another hour of gameplay.
The challenges in Prominence are logical, varied and enjoyable, and most hit that “not too difficult but not too easy” optimal target. They are also well adapted to the story. Many involve the computer consoles scattered throughout the facility – for instance, using a pointer to adjust the power allocation or clicking on-screen arrows to move the antenna array. You carry gadgets, as well as handy bits and pieces like a metal shard and broken stun baton that can be pressed into use when real tools aren’t available. Items can be viewed and combined in inventory. In addition, you’ll come across wearable gear, necessary for donning when confronting radiation or other hazards, which adds some novelty. It’s generally easy to find the things you need, though it can be much more difficult to figure out how, or in what circumstances, to use them.
I particularly enjoyed the archive research puzzles, a console challenge where you arrange on-screen icons to program the construction of a space shuttle, and figuring out how to clear rubble from the cafeteria. The tensest sequence required navigating a series of stairs and walkways in almost complete darkness, with ANNIE’s voice as the sole guide. My least favorite involved finding and accessing every security camera – why is it that the one camera I don’t happen to click on the first time through is always the very last one I stumble across when I need it?
I played the game on Steam, and in an intriguing layer of extra puzzling, the achievements provide additional exotica to figure out in the form of icons with partial lettering. I garnered 19 out of 24 achievements, but I’m still working on what the icons mean to the game. Could this be the missing clue to the solution of the final mystery?
Prominence may be the work of a small indie team, but the many years dedicated to its development have resulted in a thoroughly professional production. Everything is well thought out and of consistently high quality, from the diverse, intelligent puzzles to the believable voice-overs and ultramodern locales. The story is gripping, with multiple unfolding mysteries: the enigma of your identity and your role in past events; why the once-flourishing facility had to be abandoned; and the question of whether a last-minute rescue can still be mounted. If there’s a downside, it’s that I wanted greater expansiveness – environments that would reveal the characters’ lives off-duty, a view of the action on surveillance videos, and an answer to that one last, nagging aspect of the mystery. Still, this game held me spellbound in places, surprised me, teased my brain in ways that are entirely fair, made me mourn, and showed me that anyone can be a hero. I was sorry when it came time to say goodbye, but I’m doing so with traditional Letarri cheer: Pel koloro, Prominence.
Thanks to Prominence’s flair for deft narrative and savvy interactivity, this is a mission with which science fiction buffs and fans of first-person exploratory adventures will want to engage.