Video Game adaptations of famous properties are nothing new in the industry. In fact, it’s a staple to have at least one movie tie-in game come out every year. As we all know, movies are a different beast than books, but what if someone decided to adapt a famous 20th century novella into a video game. No, this isn’t Walden, this is Metamorphosis inspired by the Kafka novella of the same name.
On a conceptual level, Metamorphosis had my attention from the start. You play as Gregor, a man who is transformed into a bug at the start of the game. He is desperately trying to find a way to change back. From that alone, it resembles the Kafka story that inspires it. Skittering about as a tiny bug through various larger than life set pieces resembling actual furniture that is historically accurate to the 1915 time period the original story was set in.
The developers’ attention to detail in this regard is admirable and shows how much they cared for the source material. The opening of the game is truly unsettling as you listen to and control Gregor’s gradual transformation into his bug self. His voice changing, his size shrinking, the subtle crack of the bones as they’re shaped into an exoskeleton. It’s the best sequence in the game bar none. Everything about the opening screams that the developers want the players to feel as though they were transforming alongside Gregor, like in Kafka’s story. This is something you don’t see in every adaptation and shows the utmost respect for what they’re basing their entire project on.
The developers were so focused on trying to be accurate to the source material that they didn’t stop to think about everything else. Playing as Gregor, the man turned into a bug, plays as you’d expect; low to the ground, creepy bug sound effects, the whole nine yards. When there’s actual music in the game (It turns off at random and I’m not sure if that was intended by the developers or not) it works well to add to the uncanny atmosphere of the game overall. The issue lies in how Gregor controls. It’s obvious that they were trying to make him run like a cockroach, small and quick to escape people’s feet. The implementation of this was, quite frankly, disastrous. Running is like competing in the figure skating competition in the Winter Olympics while wearing sneakers on the ice instead of skates. Sliding around and only hoping to stop in time before running headlong into a wall. While missing a platform won’t always kill Gregor, it’ll no doubt force the player to walk all the way back up just to try again, again and again, ad nauseam.
The camera can’t keep up with Gregor, and when platforming (which there is a lot of) it will jerk around, swinging around and disorienting angles in order to catch up. This makes platforming without dying next to impossible.At the least you’re not set back to the beginning when you die, because Metamorphosis was merciful enough to have an autosave feature that softens the blow by having you return to the start of each mini sequence. Still obnoxious but not unplayable. The positive thing about this is that you get to see the cute cartoonish artwork on each game over screen that sparks a little humor in your imminent demise.
The environments in Metamorphosis are wholly unique from one another and it requires the player to think like a bug. Solving how to get through each section isn’t that hard when you’re in the mindset of the bug. I like how the developers force the player to think out of the box in order to progress in the story. It resembles a game like Snake Pass which forces you to think like a snake in order to progress in the levels. Both have a unique take on platforming due to the animals the player controls.
Even the story tries to be much more than it really should be. At first anyone who has read Metamorphosis would think that it’d try to follow along with that somewhat, which it does but it adds on a second storyline. Up until this point I didn’t mention it because the game only uses it as a vessel for the next pretty environment and platforming set piece.The Metamorphosis novella and the Metamorphosis game connect together like a spider’s web, suspended from two different branches. Unfortunately, when it comes to the game itself, that branch is mounted several feet above the books branch and occasionally blows in the wind, leaving it out of sorts. The web is crooked and unstable. You still get the feeling that Gregor is in despair from turning into a bug. His internal dialogue that we hear is frightened and aghast at the world around him. Whenever he interacts with the other bugs within the story however, it detracts from this feeling of enveloping loneliness and isolation Gregor was suffering from.
While I don’t expect them to stick with the novella in its entirety and have Gregor starve to death, I also didn’t expect to be going to a dance party with a bunch of other bugs in a gramophone. You can talk to every single bug in the game if you want to, nothing like going from complete and utter terror to “Oh hey that’s a bug let me go ask for a cup of tea!” There’s a secondary storyline with the character of Josef who is a friend of Gregor. He’s being accused of a crime he didn’t commit running parallel to Gregor’s storyline. Josef doesn’t know his friend has been turned into a bug, yet here you are, running alongside him doing zany small person antics like you’re the star of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.” Rather than only looking for a way to turn back, you’re also looking for a way to clear Josef’s name, despite having no reason for doing so outside of “He’s my friend”. It distracts from the fact that Gregor shouldn’t have to be doing this because he’s been turned into a bug, and you’d think that this should be a priority, yet at times Josef’s story dominates the narrative. Making the experience at times, jarring. They’re able to blend them together to a degree, but it’s jarring to see the absolutely horrifying human models in contrast to the random bug models littered throughout the story.
In Gregor’s main story, it plays like an adventure game with occasional unhelpful bug characters that you’re able to interact with. It takes away from the solitude but it adds to the games own unique take on Kafka’s work, where it’s not only Gregor who is the victim of turning into a bug, it’s multiple people who have built a society called The Tower. There everyone has their place and there’s a chance they can become human again. In order to do that you must perform your chosen job perfectly in order to achieve your “enlightenment” and “ascend” becoming human once more. This isn’t the only place to find bugs and the game never makes it quite clear if or not the bugs found at the beginning of the game around Gregor and Josef’s rooms were also once human.
Even the bugs that are not implicitly stated to be human prior to you meeting them are intelligent in nature, Metamorphosis going out of its way to anthropomorphize the bugs making them intellectual and all have varied personalities. They even change the pitch of the distortion effect depending on which bug is speaking to make them all seem like different individuals. It has them doing things like drinking and smoking at several points, the most peculiar thing being that Gregor, as his bug self isn’t able to partake in these sorts of things despite being the most recent convert from human to bug. Is it that he’s not used to his buggy body yet? Is he bound to four legs rather than standing up on two like some of the “higher ranked” bugs. None of this is made clear, nor does it have to be. It’s a fascinating premise none the less and gives the player something to mull upon while doing endless fetch quests. Metamorphosis is filled with “Find this thing or person” quests that go wrong in some way or another almost every time. It makes each objective drag a minute or two longer than it actually needs to. Despite the repetitive nature of the constant fetch quests that lead you to progressing to a new area, when the game was working as intended there was enjoyment to be found.
I think that there’s a lot of good in Metamorphosis and the potential for it to have been a great game is there. The greatest issue lies in the fact that it has all this potential and it squanders it. Playing a platforming/adventure game where you get to play through classic literature is too unique of an idea to leave by the wayside. It’s the execution that fails this game in the end leaving the player wanting a game that is as strong in it’s controls as it is in it’s level design. If Metamorphosis was only an adventure game with puzzle elements, it’d be near perfect but with the addition of platforming with its controls and its cameras it comes off as messy. It can be salvaged, it’ll take some time in its cocoon for this pupa into a butterfly.