CYPHER is a sexy, violent, neo-noir adventure told through text, clever puzzles, and beautiful art
What if I told you there’s a game that was inspired by films like Robocop, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Johnny Mnemonic? Would you be interested? What if I told you it was created with Unity, the graphics engine that powers Slender and Guns of Icarus Online? What if one of that game’s creators had previously worked as a concept artist not just on video games such as Aliens: Colonial Marines, but in the movie industry as well, with Black Swan? You’d be excited, right?
Now what if I told you that game was an old-school text adventure? CYPHER is the project of brother Javier and Carlos Cabrera, two brothers from Buenos Aires. CYPHER is the duo’s first step into the dream of becoming full-time game developers. The brothers told me their spoken English wasn’t so good, but even in their writing, it’s easy to get a sense of what they’re like.
When I asked what it was like having a brother as a business partner, Javier wrote back, “It is very hard, especially when he tries to kill you at least twice a week. There can be only one Cabrera and in the end, there WILL be only one. Sooner or later, one will kill the other. It is written. We set traps, we hire assassins, we poison each other’s food. Anything goes.”
De-CYPHER-ing the code
The story of CYPHER is a cyberpunk noir thriller. It opens with you, a low-life smuggler named Dogeron Kenon, holding onto a mysterious briefcase after a deal gone bad. To say anything more of the plot would spoil it, as the revelations of who’s who, what caused this, and why things are the way they are start flying almost immediately. The briefcase is only the first step into the much, much larger world of NeoSushi.
The Cabrera brothers clearly have a firm grasp on what makes a good story, and their inspirations are as varied as they are influential. “Kojima is one of the biggest. We want to take a blood sample of that man to clone him to make sure his talent endures forever. Team ICO and their amazing Shadow of the Colossus game (masterpiece) is something we still play on weekends. Valve is a big influence for us too, especially the Left 4 Dead series and Half-Life,” Carlos wrote. “Zork and Lurking Horror are two of the most amazing works of art ever created by man.”
As for film: “We have a strong addiction to sci-fi now, I saw Javier smoke two Blade Runner director’s cut dvds in a row and I wake up in the middle of the night yelling ‘Kanedaaaa!’”
It was surprising then, that after listing no fewer than a dozen movies and half a dozen games for inspiration, the quote the brothers lives by comes from a martial arts legend. “There is a Bruce Lee quote that says, ‘If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level,’” Javier wrote.
“We are just two guys from Buenos Aires. If we had limited ourselves in what we did in the past, none of this would have happened. This is an important lesson for indies out there: don’t do your best, do the impossible.”
Making the impossible real, making the real accessible
CYPHER feels less like a video game and more like an interactive book. There are beautiful illustrations – all hand-crafted by Carlos – on every “page” of interaction that advances the story. You won’t see any “cutscenes” per se, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re really walking down futuristic streets incognito when the art shows a busy pedestrian walkway.
The art can also help keep you on track of your progress. At the beginning of the game, you’re told that there are several objects around you. One of them is a blue keycard that will unlock the mysterious briefcase Dogeron has in his possession. Type “take blue keycard” and it’ll appear to the right. The keycard has been sitting under a glass however, and scotch is smeared across the magnetic stripe. If you type “unlock briefcase with blue keycard,” it won’t work. First you have to clean it.
This is only an example of the kind of puzzles you can find in CYPHER, and there are many more throughout the game, all of them much more interesting than cleaning a keycard. I don’t want to spoil them for you, but I’ll tell you that you’ll be doing things like hacking memories and escaping firefights, all the while uncovering vast conspiracies. It’s a seamless blend of text and visual aid, brought to life with your imagination.
“2D is a lost art nowadays, everyone is making 3D games and we felt it was the perfect opportunity to give people something ‘new’ to try; even when there has been text adventures for years in the indie scene there hasn’t be one like CYPHER before,” Javier wrote. “For years, Infocom masterminds taught us that the best graphics you can possibly have in a game are made out of the player’s own imagination. That’s a fact.”
“The level of immersion you can achieve with a text adventure is far more powerful than any high definition graphic you can create since it is your mind the one building colors, smells, voices, the whole world around you and it happens all real time.” Some players, however, can’t be brought into CYPHER‘s world; not because they don’t want to, but because a disability prevents access.
“We got an email on the second or third week after the launch that kicked us hard in the soul: a blind player wrote us asking if he could still play CYPHER with a screen reader. We talked about this before launching the game a lot, but sadly, the engine the game is made on, Unity3D, doesn’t supports screen readers,” Javier told the Penny Arcade Report. “Are we just going to say ‘no’ to these players and move on? Damn if we do. We are planning (and the pre-production has already started) a special version of CYPHER for the vision impaired in collaboration with some of these guys, so they too can have an amazing time playing as Dogeron Kenan on NeoSushi.”
“Again, if you limit yourself, it spreads to the rest of your life.”
At the end of the day, the brothers Cabrera are just that: brothers. They don’t see any glory or fame in going independent, but it’s what they want most and they’re going to stand by each other through the journey. “Maybe it is because we grew on a time where multiplayer meant playing sitting next to each other on the floor while smashing buttons (Battletoads!) instead of being miles away playing through the Internet. Teamwork was different back then; if one died during the game, it just wasn’t fun to play anymore,” Javier wrote.
That co-op gamer attitude and spirit of teamwork has stuck with them, and made the pair inseparable. “We split all decisions 50-50: money, power, pizza, everything. And in the future if one of us need an extra kidney or a blood transfusion, we know we can count on each other.” Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. We could use some more games like CYPHER.
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