Most people would just as soon step on or swat a bug as look at one up close, never mind handle one or actually consider being one. But embodying the numerous appendages, compound eyes, spindly antenna and hard exoskeleton of a creepy crawly in videogame form can be surprisingly fun once the retching stops. Pulse Entertainment’s 1996 cult classic Bad Mojo remains one of the genre’s all-time most memorable adventures, and now Ovid Works is hoping to follow in its three pairs of footsteps with Metamorphosis. Like its predecessor, this game sees you play as an insect attempting to be restored back to human form, but that’s about where the similarities end, as Metamorphosis is a much different experience that looks and sounds good but just doesn’t have the legs to maintain its unusual premise.
The game is named after The Metamorphosis but shares only a very loose connection with Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, including its protagonist’s name, Gregor Samsa. Here you’re not a man-sized bug confined to your room, but a man-turned-tiny-insect who must venture out into the great big world – a much bigger world, in fact, relative to your significantly shrunken size. In a nice move, you aren’t already transformed from the moment the game starts, but rather experience a staged reduction in size early on, helping you adjust to the challenge posed by familiar objects suddenly becoming insurmountable objects. Your voice, too, maintains some of its human characteristics at first, but begins glitching into a distorted perversion of itself until it completely resembles an eerie arthropod version of Harry Potter’s Parseltongue.
As revolting as all that sounds, your conversion isn’t really hideous as you can’t see yourself change. As a first-person (first-bug?) adventure, the only time you’ll ever lay eyes on yourself is when you see a pair of your own legs skitter out in front of you briefly, accompanied by the extra pitter-patter sound effects of additional feet. It’s a bit icky, but the gross-out factor is minimized by the slightly cartoony 3D aesthetic. The art style is not as colourful or whimsically charming as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life; more like the warped realism of DreamWorks’ Antz as it alternates between the now-oversized trappings of the human world and the more fantastical constructions of insect society.
In fact, one of my main criticisms of Metamorphosis is that it continually strays away from its insect framework rather than really leaning into it. You’re small, sure – the low camera angle had me literally tilting my own head up at times, straining to see above my avatar’s ground-level perspective – and you’ll occasionally run into other insects in your travels, but there’s nothing bug-like about their behaviour or surroundings. Rather, they often seem to be split into odd groups or factions with anthropomorphic sensibilities: a harbour settlement is tied up in endless bureaucracy, a school class is learning all about interaction with humans, anti-establishment resistance leaders and religious zealots give sparsely attended speeches, and an entire community gathers together for movie night during a festival. Nothing at all that would trigger your impulse for a can of Raid.
All this is in service of an abstract story that starts out odd and only gets weirder and more nonsensical as it goes. When still in the human world, you see that your friend Josef is in trouble with the law for reasons unknown. You’ve got troubles of your own in the insect realm, of course, and it seems the only way to put this nightmare beyond you is to make your way to “the tower.” Easier said than done, as you’ll need to procure your own documentation for transport, overcoming a variety of smaller obstacles along the way, whether switching off fans to access otherwise-inaccessible vents, repairing a broken wire, or shutting valves to stop the flow of green toxic goo.
At first the game sees you spend about half your time scurrying around bookshelves and desk drawers, using everyday objects (pencils, matches, cups) like an obstacle course as your former friend looms large in the background, oblivious to your presence. At times you’ll need to affect something in the human world, such as activating alarms or turning off distracting music, which provides a tangible goal and welcome sense of urgency, but in between you’ll inexplicably warp off to some insect-only reality of floating junk and ominous vortexes, hallucinogenic spore-producing mushrooms, and elaborate wooden villages decorated with vaguely Eastern European propaganda posters espousing nothing in particular.
The closer you get to your goal, the less time you’ll spend in the human world and the more surreal the scenarios become. In your ongoing pursuit of an official certificate, you’ll begin to dodge roller and gear hazards on conveyor belts, ride floating paper across automated filing rooms, operate stamp machines, and find a way to jump the queue to a bug lawyer’s office. Rarely does this involve any actual problem solving, as you’re only able to jump, climb, and spin dials with your legs to manipulate a bit of chosen equipment like a series of pneumatic tubes or a robotic retrieval arm. A few puzzles involve connecting clues to their mechanical solutions, but the information you need is always close at hand, sometimes ridiculously so.
Unfortunately you have no special bug powers, unable to carry anything or perform great feats of strength, though you are able to jump quite far and survive surprisingly long falls, even if you’re not entirely indestructible. (Death is only ever a quick respawn away, mind you.) The only insect-related gimmick – and it is a fun one – is your ability to climb vertically, but even that comes with a catch. Rather than possessing a bug’s natural ability to cling to surfaces, you must step in strategically placed spilled liquids in order to manually secrete a kind of slimy trail for you to stick to. There is only a finite amount per refill, however, as indicated by an on-screen gauge, so if you run out before reaching your destination, you’ll fall and need to try again.
I had the most fun with Metamorphosis during these climbing sections, as it was only then that I actually felt like an insect. I’d have loved far more freedom to do so indiscriminately, including the ability to crawl upside-down, which is denied here, but the game insists on making you scale most heights the old-fashioned way. To be fair, even without any fluid you’re able to climb rather steep inclines, but the platforming sections just aren’t all that special otherwise. It can be very difficult to judge just how far or high you’ll be able to jump, and while the controls feel responsive enough either with a gamepad or WASD/mouse combination, the inability to see yourself makes leaping around feel loose and unsatisfying. I rarely died, but I routinely found myself confronted by walls and surfaces that felt unnaturally difficult to overcome.
The most difficulty I had was simply knowing where to go, as your small stature is a great impediment to seeing very far ahead. In the bug world there are some symbols that serve as destination markers, but usually you can only see these once you’re practically on top of them anyway. Fortunately there’s a help function that calls up an overview of the area and your current position. Sometimes it will even highlight your objective, though I found it inconsistent in this respect. On occasion there will be nothing displayed, providing no assistance at all, while other times it’ll lay out precisely where you need to go, though of course not how to get there. This feature was especially useful in one tedious section where I needed to continually track down new insects in an effort to get an old film projector working. The sprawling, maze-like environment was far too big to scour without help; even with the overhead map I had trouble making my way from one target to the next.
Despite having the ability to talk to your fellow six-leggers, whether you’ll really want to is another matter. Other than your own garbled hissing, there is no voice acting to be heard, but a variety of bugs in your travels have plenty to say, whether you’re listening or not. A few will offer help or basic instructions, such as the purple cigarette-smoking Leni, while others will ask for your assistance, like a starving insect that you can opt to help find food (or not). Most are simply there as props, however, and boy are they strange. They seem to exist largely for comic relief, but apparently insect humour is an acquired taste as I found them uncomfortably awkward rather than funny, including the stand-up comedy routine filled with bug puns in a nightclub nestled inside a gramophone. (What’s the most religious insect? A praying mantis! Ba-doom-cha!)
Accompanying this increasingly bizarre journey is an equally offbeat soundtrack that ranges from Twilight Zone-like violins and strings to a decidedly Elfman-does-Burton score. Occasionally a woman’s operatic voice will join the fray, but the singing is so discordant that it’s more irritating than enjoyable. I assume that’s entirely intentional, as nothing about this game is meant to make you feel comfortable, but at times it can be a bit much, especially when the tracks begin looping repetitively in the larger areas. I much preferred the few quiet moments that allowed me to simply bask in natural ambience, like the drip-drip-dripping of water in the background.
The only other allusions to Kafka in all this are some pithy quotes during screen loads, which are quick and relatively few and far between. But there’s clearly no allegiance to the famed Bohemian author, as you’ll also encounter references to other writers' works throughout, from the bickering bugs named Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to another who quotes Gollum, while elsewhere the teachings of Aristotle are extolled. It’s a literary and philosophical smorgasbord, though there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meaning to any of it beyond showing off an eclectic mix of personalities.
Indeed, if there’s any meaning at all in Metamorphosis, it largely eludes me. I won’t spoil any details, but by the end the narrative has completely gone off the rails. I enjoy a little weirdness, but I’d imagine even David Lynch would be saying "huh?" over some of the absurdity here. It does wrap up with a degree of closure, but the vague, overly obtuse and roundabout way of getting there does the game no favours, and all the biggest questions remain unanswered. How and why did you become a bug? Who knows. It’s easy enough to speculate, and perhaps any Kafka-esque story is best left open to interpretation, but a little more clarity here would have gone a long way.
That’s okay, though, as experiencing Metamorphosis is really all about being a bug for four hours or so, reasons be damned. It’s a shame, then, that so little attention is paid to actually making you feel like one. It’s all so surreal and unbelievable that it could practically be called “Alice’s Adventures in Bugland” and it wouldn’t play out much differently. If insects actually dream, I could see this being one such subconscious flight of fancy from a bug that probably ate too much before bed. And yet, for all of its unfulfilled potential, there’s a definite charm to the lovely weirdness presented here. Even if its premise isn’t entirely unique, even in gaming, it’s certainly much different than the norm, and there’s no denying this game has a personality and style all its own. The gameplay isn’t very deep and the story will leave you scratching your head, but stick with it and you may just find it getting under your skin.
Its polished presentation and unusual premise make for a promising start to Metamorphosis, but the shallow gameplay and increasingly abstract direction prove to be something of a buzzkill.