Proving that inspiration can come from all kinds of sources, Backbone could have been a very different game were it not for a clattering of bins one day in Vancouver, Canada. At that stage, Backbone was still in its early planning stages, and was initially envisioned as a “sci-fi stealth concept”. But then a raccoon started clattering about in EggNut co-founder Nikita Danshin’s backyard, and at that point, says the studio’s other co-founder and narrative designer Aleksandra Korabelnikova, “we couldn’t stop laughing about the possibility of playing as a raccoon, who strategically steals other people’s trash.”
With the idea of a raccoon protagonist firmly planted, the concept steadily evolved from a trash-stealing mammal to a furry private detective in a fedora and trench coat roaming a benighted city. But while a point-and-click adventure starring a raccoon private eye might sound whimsical, Backbone has some darker, weightier themes on its mind, too. The game’s set in a fantastical Vancouver that feels at once trapped in the past and somehow futuristic, but it’s a dystopian city informed by the developers’ formative experiences in Siberia. “This is the thing we talk about in the game,” Korabelnikova explains. “Dystopias are usually invisible. This is what we were interested in exploring: it’s not an in-your-face, military regime. Like, people don’t die on the street or get shot – which is now happening in Russia – it’s more invisible. It’s about how social structures are rigged, and how all of this is intersecting. (Exploring) the city streets, you might not even notice it. So that’s why a North American setting was more fitting for the story we wanted to tell.
The game’s background is important, because while Backbone certainly looks like a noir thriller – its grimy streets are filtered through a neon haze, while social malaise and corruption lurk seemingly everywhere – it only uses that genre as a jumping-off point. “Personally, I don’t like noir,” admits Korabelnikova. “I think it’s filled with misogynistic tropes, and I could never relate to the genre. I know there are exceptions, like neo-noir, which is more closely aligned to our culture’s attitudes. But we never followed the (noir genre’s) rules – we just looked at it from a thematic perspective. Noir is the contrast between how the upper parts of society live, and how you exist on the streets. It’s the contrast between light and dark, between rich and poor, between power and the absence of power.”
Backbone follows detective Howard Lotor, an unassuming, solitary figure whose search for a missing husband draws him into a much bigger, darker mystery. The game’s “a character study first and foremost,” Korabelnikova explains, and one that draws heavily on her own story. “I took (from) my own experience growing up. I wrote about my parents. I wrote about how my understanding of the world evolved from what my parents had been telling me, and what I’d been experiencing in my personal life. And then understanding that nothing is easy, and I really can’t change anything. I can’t influence anything. Obviously, everybody on the team contributed to it, but I think the main character’s mostly replicating my own anxieties. And I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to, because people relate to truth. So I’m serving as a tiny mirror, and I hope other people will see themselves in that character and relate to him on a personal, human level.”
Work first began on Backbone four years ago, when the fledgling studio began building a prototype which would form the basis of the game’s 2018 Kickstarter campaign. It was a resounding success, and it’s easy to see why: Backbone masterfully fuses 2D pixel art, 3D models, and subtle lighting techniques to create its moody, downbeat world. Play through the prologue (which you can download for free here) and you’ll find an immediately absorbing yarn – one that serves as the ideal primer for the full game, due for release this summer. The finished Backbone will lead directly on from the prologue, following Howard as he delves deeper into Vancouver’s dark underbelly.
The game will go to some pretty bleak places, then, but there will still be some light to be found, says Korabelnikova. “It’s obviously not a very happy story, because like, let’s be honest, life is not a happy thing,” she says. “But I think the hopeful message is that even if you can’t change the world, you can change other people’s lives, and connect. And those meaningful connections are actually the meaning of life. Even if you can’t change the dystopian governments in your country, maybe you can talk to people and find solace in other people’s struggles as well. You can find solace in knowing that you’re not alone.”
While Backbone’s plot is a linear one, “player expression” is a key part of the game, according to Korabelnikova. “When somebody tells you something, and when a character talks to you, you can choose what kind of person you are,” she explains. “This is the approach that Disco Elysium has taken that I respect a lot: you choose what kind of person you are, how you express yourself in the world. Those choices are much more meaningful for the player, because they can make those small decisions that might not even affect the main story, but make them feel invested in the world. We don’t even have any conditions for the ending – we don’t have several endings, because we didn’t want to tell many stories; we want to tell one good story. When you have a lot of choice, it’s very difficult, because it becomes more complex with every additional choice. And we’d rather tell one good story, one character arc, and let players express themselves during the playthrough.”
Genre: Detective-’em-up | Format: PC/Mac/Linux/PS4/Nintendo Switch/Xbox One | Developer: EggNut | Publisher: Raw Fury | Release: Summer 2021