Have you ever gotten to the end of a book or film and been left blinking, knowing you just witnessed something great but having no clue what just happened? For me, that covers 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Usual Suspects, pretty much anything by Christopher Nolan, and now EggNut’s Backbone. It may start out as a hard-boiled detective story, albeit one with more than the usual quota of talking animals, but before long it has veered into horror, pointed social commentary, and into the realms of dystopian sci-fi, all packaged as a super-slick pixel art movie that drips with atmosphere. The story may be linear and the puzzles close to non-existent, but it has so much to say, and says it with such panache, that this hardly matters. Then again, it also juggles more balls than it can handle in its relatively brief runtime, leaving quite a few threads dangling as it races to an abrupt conclusion. The result is likely to be divisive, coming across as a confusing and unsatisfying mess to some, but a memorable, powerful, and thought-provoking experience to others.
For down-at-heel gumshoe Howard Lotor, life isn't exactly working out as planned. Dreams of creating high photographic art have withered and died, and instead his camera has been relegated to shooting an endless parade of philandering husbands, cheating wives, and deadbeat dads just to keep a roof over his head. When Odette Green walks through his door, heavily pregnant and missing a spouse, it looks to be just another day, another dollar (plus expenses). However, though he doesn't realise it yet, today's the day Howard's sad but comfortably predictable world starts to crumble. Oh, and did I mention Howard's a raccoon and his client's an otter?
The side-scrolling world of Backbone is definitely unique. Set in the City, a dystopian metropolis populated by anthropomorphic animals (known as Kinds), it feels at once familiar and alien. On one hand, this is the world of Marlowe and Spade, all art deco frontages, vintage cars, and slick rain-covered streets. On the other, that leather-jacketed tough loitering in a doorway is a six-foot-tall rabbit, and the club bouncer is literally a bear. Curiously, too, despite the 1940s vibe, this world has computers and other hi-tech equipment. That stuff's just not for schmucks like Howard, who has a clipping-covered corkboard for a database and has to find a battered payphone every time he needs to make a call.
The residents may look different, but their problems are painfully recognisable. Just as in our world, raccoons occupy a position somewhere between the bottom of the totem pole and the gutter, while the City is ruled by the great apes and their lieutenants. It's tough for most to scratch out a living, but Clarissa Bloodworth (a bear who recently took control of her family's mob operations under suspicious circumstances) lives a life of luxury, running The Bite nightclub and entertaining her ape overlords at exclusive soirees. That the club is also a bunny brothel, drug den, and possibly worse is quietly forgotten by polite society. Naturally, some like the fox journalist Renee are trying to fight back by exposing the stinking sores on the City's seedy underbelly. But is she the only one eager to rebel, or do some of the rich and powerful chafe at their own gilded collars as well? Just how deep does the rabbit hole go, so to speak, and what's on the other side?
Backbone makes a strong and stylish entrance, right from the initial menu screen, which is redolent of an art deco movie poster and underscored by a smoky jazz riff. This gives way to a unique combination of beautifully crafted pixel art with impressive lighting, shadows and reflections. As Howard walks through the ritzy Granville district early on, for example, muted grey and brown facades are accented by glowing neon signs and shop windows, setting off sparkling ripples in the puddles on the glistening street. The shadows of passersby shift in the glow of the cinema's many bright bulbs, and raindrops even spatter the camera lens, setting off more reflections. You wouldn't think this odd blend of retro and modern should work as well as it does, but it's strikingly effective, evoking the feeling that you're witnessing film noir from an alternate dimension.
Your investigations take you on a tour of the City, from its leafy, well-maintained shopping quarter to the grim and broken-down factory district. From opulent apartments inhabited by the spoilt rich to a hobo camp that gives hope to those who would otherwise have nothing, it makes for an interesting and affecting journey. The City is also vibrantly alive, with streets full of pedestrians and cars, branches waving in the wind and water rippling; there's a lot going on in every screen, all smoothly animated. It's some of the most gorgeous and lovingly crafted pixel art I've ever seen.
Underscoring all this is a similarly atmospheric downtempo jazz soundtrack, full of mournful horns and understated piano melodies. This sets the mood, but it’s more than just background. For example, you may be having a quiet conversation, the silence broken only by the occasional rustle of leaves or rumble of a passing car, until a trumpet blares in response to a noteworthy comment, transitioning into a full musical piece that carries forward into the following scene. Driving drumbeats or urgent piano riffs emphasise tension when needed, but there are also moments of gentle beauty. The first time you enter The Bite, you have the option to simply sit back and listen to the torch singer for a while as the camera pans round the appreciative crowd. Likewise, later on, as you sit by the fire listening to someone strum their guitar and sing a slow folk song about life's troubles, you can hurry on to the next step. Or you can just sit and soak it in for a while.
The interface is straightforward: you can walk left or right via keyboard or gamepad, interact with hotspots that pop up as you draw near, or bring up the detective menu. The latter keeps track of your current and past objectives and lets you access your inventory, although there are no real inventory puzzles. (You only pick up a handful of objects, and they're used automatically when you interact with the relevant hotspot.) You can also crouch or hold Shift to run, although the game’s relaxed pace and compact zones meant I rarely felt the need to hurry – which is almost a shame, as Howard’s running animation, with his coat billowing out behind him, looks great. Crouching helps you hide in the shadows to sneak past guards, but there are only a couple of fairly basic stealth scenes and you're instantly reset to a recent safe spot if you're caught. Some interactive objects, such as desks or notice boards, bring up a zoomed-in view with their own hotspots to examine. In particular, the above-mentioned corkboard fills up day by day with clippings and notes tracking your progress, providing a handy recap when coming back to the game.
You’ll also converse with your fellow City inhabitants, and this is where Backbone really shines, with even minor characters having quite a bit to say. Talking to someone brings up a close-up view of the scene with a message log (reminiscent of a chat app) on the right, looking like the back of a worn notebook. You navigate through the dialogue by picking from numbered lists of responses, whether to gather information, attempt to persuade, or simply shoot the breeze. What's remarkable is how extensive and wide-ranging these interactions can be. There's (understandably) no voice acting, but it feels like you're actually talking, not just achieving an objective. While questioning a boy about his missing sister, for example, you can delve into how he feels about his mother being out at work all the time, discuss his favourite candies at length, joke about how weird their neighbour smells, or show him your detective badge.
All this depth helps you feel like you're getting to know real people, all while working your way into their confidence so they'll open up to you. Unfortunately, it's soon clear that this is largely illusory: annoying someone won't make them slam the door in your face, and befriending them won't open up new possibilities. As much as it may feel like your choices matter, the narrative is essentially linear and the other characters will find a way to give you what you need no matter how you behave. Events quickly get back on track, and at worst you might miss a little non-essential background information here and there or (on a couple of occasions) have to tackle a puzzle a different way. Then again, this also means that one ill-judged interaction can't send you off down a bad path, freeing you to roleplay Howard as anything from a no-nonsense, hard-nosed PI to a soft touch trying to help everyone he can.
It's probably best to see Backbone less as an adventure game and more as a visual novel interspersed with exploration. There are a handful of fairly simple puzzles, such as breaking codes or persuading people, but these do more to guide progress than tax your brain. Instead, it's primarily about experiencing the world and its residents, almost all of whom have something interesting to offer. Alongside the main plotline (which I'll get to in a minute), you wind up discussing issues such as the difference between solitude and loneliness, the trials and tribulations of being a new parent, and what it's like to have a crab squatting in your tuba. (It adds an interesting timbre to the sound, in case you were wondering.) When a teenager lets slip that he's taken up smoking, do you respect his privacy, or rat him out to his dad? Do you tell someone the harsh truth, or a comforting lie? These small stories nicely ground what could otherwise have been a weird world of talking animals, creating a place that feels real and full of people with relatable problems. Much of this is entirely optional, however, leaving you free to be as garrulous or focused as you wish.
Whereas the small-scale details work beautifully, sadly the same can't be said for the larger story. About two-thirds of the way through, the initial detective mystery pivots sharply and descends into sci-fi, as if Howard took a wrong turn in a dark alley and stumbled into an X-Files episode. What starts out as a disturbing but familiar tale of power, depravity, and greed turns into a deeper dive into the human (or rather Kind) condition. Just when I thought I knew what was going on, the rug was pulled out and Howard's life suddenly turned into one long, bad acid trip. Despite perpetually feeling like a profound insight was at the edge of my understanding, I (just like Howard) stumbled to the end, dazed, confused, and just doing my best to react somehow. Was he descending into madness, or finally becoming sane?
A second playthrough helped a few more pieces to fit together for me, but if you're looking for clear answers, Backbone isn't about to offer many. The City, protected by its surrounding wall from the wasteland beyond, clearly possesses a history. Something apocalyptic must have created this place, with its society that feels human, but isn't, slowly falling apart and repeating many of our mistakes. What happens to Howard is somehow bound up with both its past and its future, but it's all told through hints and flashes that could be interpreted any number of ways. After five acts spread over five to seven hours of playtime, the ending comes swiftly, although it does appear to set a couple of characters off on the path to a potential sequel. Until then, though, Howard's journey through a deeply divided animal civilization has given me much to think about, and will haunt me for some time.
Ultimately, what starts out as quirky noir mystery surprisingly blossoms into a full art house adventure. Backbone is full of beauty, striking imagery, and diverse characters with relatable stories, but also packed with vague references and symbolism, especially towards the end. The graphics add modern flair to already-lovely pixel art, the jazz score is more film soundtrack than background ambience, and there's style to spare throughout. If you're expecting a traditional puzzle-based adventure, or need to have your stories tied up neatly in a bow, this game is likely to be a letdown. However, if you can take it on its own terms and are happy to fill in the details with your own imagination, you'll find a rich experience that's not afraid to be different and may even leave you looking at our own world in a new light.