Adventure Gamers Awards
Inspiration for adventure games has come from a variety of sources over the years, but it’s quite unusual for one to be based on an opera—and Fidelio is not just any libretto; it is the only opera composed by Ludwig von Beethoven, perhaps history’s greatest composer, telling the story of a brave European gal named Leonore who, at her own peril, rescues her husband Florestan from political prison. Those overarching themes of love and sacrifice amidst political turmoil are the framework for The Fidelio Incident, a compelling but imperfect narrative exploration game from new developer Act 3 Studios.
The game begins with a fiery plane crash off the coast of Iceland. The plane—itself named Fidelio—separates violently as it goes down, distributing our two main characters, Stanley and Leonore, to very different parts of a frozen island. We don’t know much about them at this point, other than how glad they are to be leaving their former home in Ireland behind, but we learn quickly that there is something mysterious and troubling in their past when Leonore frantically declares: “They can’t find out who we are!”
The remainder of The Fidelio Incident follows you in the first-person role of Stanley, with Leonore occasionally communicating via radio. Stanley’s situation is a desperate one initially, as Leonore is immobile after her crash and helplessly calls for Stanley’s help. Your radio is broken and unable to transmit, so all you can do is listen without responding. All she can tell you is that there is a lot of black smoke coming from her position. As Stanley, you can see the smoke high in the distance, but on the treacherous slopes and peaks of this Icelandic coast, there’s no easy visible path to the other side of the mountain. Oh, and the temperature is freezing and you have no immediate source of warmth. Staying unprotected in this tundra for too long will lead to an ugly death.
Fortunately, the island has a couple pleasant surprises to combat your developing hypothermia. One is the wreckage of your plane, which scattered small piles of hotly burning debris in helpful even distances. These small fires serve as constant checkpoints, providing a path to move you from one part of the island to the next and keep your general direction in sharp focus. If there’s no accessible fiery wreckage to be found, the island also curiously has plenty of valves that, when turned correctly, provide a nice bath of shooting volcanic steam, which is another way to raise your temperature up to an acceptable level. When away from a heat source, the game simulates your freezing by slowly crystalizing your mask from the outside; once your entire field of vision starts to blur, you better hustle back to the nearest heat source and try to get your bearings again.
As you work your way from fire to fire and valve to valve, the tale of Stanley and Leonore’s romance and dark history is revealed through the pages of Leonore’s diary, which were also individually scattered all over the island after the crash. The pages are not in chronological sequence, though they really can only be found in one order, and the designers take advantage of this by cleverly filling in bits of information and slowly revealing the backstory. The details should not be spoiled here, but suffice to say that the two main characters were deeply involved in the Northern Ireland political turmoil of the 1980s, known as the Troubles, and both have done things that have forever impacted their lives and their family. If you have some existing understanding of that period of European history, perhaps you will be a bit more impacted by the ultimate revelations. Personally, I was underwhelmed and felt the backstory as finally told did not match the urgency and suspense of the introduction.
The tale is supplemented by some extremely well-produced and unsettling flashback scenes in the middle act of the game, as Stanley finally escapes the freezing outdoors and finds his way inside a mountain bunker, releasing a flurry of memories from his prior life of incarceration. The story beats themselves are not nearly as compelling as the visual storytelling. These scenes use vision blurring and shadow effects to tremendous effect, along with brilliant sound design. The experience is at its most emotionally resonant when walking through a flashback sequence with significantly impaired ability to see your surroundings. The flashbacks transition into a full-on bout with insanity and hallucination, and visuals such as a seemingly endless stair loop surrounded by infinite closed doors effectively drive home the madness, while the sound echoes frantically and the volume of nearby voices fluctuates in such a way to ensure you feel crazier by the moment.
Once you escape back to the outdoors from the underground, the environment will be changed in a very surprising way, which if you’ve been paying any attention at all to your surroundings is a complete telegraphing of the final twist. This last chapter highlights The Fidelio Incident’s biggest shortcoming: while trying to be a narrative-focused exploration game and fill in some interesting backstory, it’s quite determined to still be game-y in some moderate fashion, but too nervous about impeding its story to offer much resistance. So the compromise is a series of annoying steam pipes, valves, and levers. The levers get flipped to turn the pipe in the right direction, and the valve gets turned to release the steam, clearing the environment to move you along the path. There is no possible way that any of this could be considered a puzzle, because you’re literally just traversing the available path to get to the next thing you can click.
Clicking to interact is the only aspect of the interface other than walking; there is no crouching or jumping (which actually feels frustrating and unnatural in places where a small jump should easily get you up to a ridge that is instead unreachable). There are a total of four interactions you’ll perform throughout the game: pick up diary page, open door, flip lever, and turn valve. Searching for the next lever/valve to clear your path and potentially freezing if you take too long to find your next heat source are only minor inconveniences that allow this to be considered a game instead of a visual novel, but will not increase the playing time above the two-hour mark for any player.
And actually, the fact that exploring this world never becomes irritating despite its time-limit obstacle is a testament to The Fidelio Incident’s incredible visual design. The unwelcoming frigid coast of Iceland is hardly varied in its wintry scenery, but the terrain details are exceptional. The dark cascading clouds in the sky and the whitened peaks of distant mountains, the uneven snow-covered surfaces, and the immaculately detailed rocky walls all come together brilliantly to paint a striking visual picture of this frozen and dangerous land. Close up, the visuals are just as impressive, with black smoke pouring out of the lively fires and a visible frozen wind constantly blowing around you.
The music is equally brilliant, an unsettling original classical composition by Michael Krikorian that incorporates themes from the overture of the namesake Beethoven opera. The full orchestral soundtrack is downloadableas separate DLC and is worth listening to as background music, but the outstanding sound design also amplifies the effect as the score seamlessly fades in and out at the right moments to let you explore and comment on your circumstances.
There are only two characters in the game with speaking roles, other than a couple brief interludes during a flashback sequence. Stanley is played by Glenn Keogh, an Irish actor who brings fully believable authenticity to his part, and pulls no punches in his devastated emotional reactions when various things go wrong in the search for Leonore. Unfortunately, Bess Harrison’s performance as Leonore is much less convincing and does not sound genuinely Irish. Her lack of emotional range is a problem when her character narrates the pages of her diary; I frequently found myself clicking to make her voice go away so I could just read the text myself, in sharp contrast to Stanley, who I never tired of hearing speak.
Act 3 Studios is a new California-based developer with a strong pedigree, founded by Ken Feldman, art director of the impressive God of War III, so it is therefore no surprise that The Fidelio Incident’s beautiful visuals, technical excellence, and exceptional use of the Unreal Engine are the game’s biggest strengths. The actual story is hardly discussion-worthy for the average gamer, unless it appeals to your particular interest in history, and the attempts to create obstacles are repetitive and more annoying than challenging. However, with its short playtime and great sense of bleak atmosphere, you’ll likely be willing to overlook the shortcomings and enjoy the intense narrative experience enough to do exactly what I did: play through the entire game in one sitting, and then find yourself with a sudden urge for a very warm beverage.