The hyper-clean, polished, white, glass & steel office building that constitutes Infra’s opening sends out a clear message; modern civilization is entirely dependent on the smooth running of the underlying infrastructure. When you turn on a tap, water flows; and there is barely a thought of the collection, purification, pumping, piping and drainage needed… Until it goes wrong.
‘Infra’ puts the player in the shoes of a gravely voiced structural engineer with a bizarrely maverick attitude (most vocations have ‘mavericks’ – just something fun to think about when the guy comes to read the gas meter; he could be the one that the rest of the office consider to be the ‘maverick’) and an extremely power hungry digital camera. You’re sent on a sightseeing tour of Stalburg’s crumbling infrastructure to document, assess and in some cases simply survive this decaying underworld. This is all played out over a backdrop of the city falling apart and a conspiracy brewing; centred around the man procuring these utilities.
The gameplay sits a little awkwardly in the ill-defined genre middle ground between ‘1st person exploration’ (or ‘walking simulator’ to the more cynical) and ‘puzzle’, with a hint of ‘horror’ thrown in. For me, the draw to Infra has always been the depiction of decaying & abandoned industrial structures. ‘Infra’ excels in recreating the unique atmosphere of a structure designed purely around function rather than aesthetics; steel gantries, winding tunnels, cathedral-like halls are all captured beautifully. The steady ingress of nature provides contrast to crumbling brickwork adding to the sense of exploration. Likewise the truly abandoned structures encountered succeed in capturing the ghosts of the past industry. Our protagonist’s progression through these environments is accompanied by a looming sense of “you-shouldn’t-be-here”. The aim may be simply to move forward, but as the player becomes more and more entwined in the passages & pipework, questions naturally arise: “Why wasn’t I given keys to these areas?”, “Where are the operators manning this control room?”, and “How has the city reached this precipice of collapse?”.
To accompany this descent into junction boxes and breaker boards the player is presented with locked doors, sealed hatches and a range of impassable obstacles which must be navigated. The presentation of these puzzles is refreshing, for two reasons:
Firstly the buildings are ‘real’, in the sense that they work as buildings. Too often in games we are presented with nonsensical floorplans and artificial linear routes through offices. Infra presents you with a building that would function, gantries that would serve a purpose, offices with more than one access route and multiple stairwells. The player therefore explores the buildings as they would in reality, not in a predefined way dictated by the developer.
Secondly the puzzles typically require the player to make sense of the systems housed within. For example, a clue found in one area might lead you to conclude that you need to stop water flow down a specific pipe; but in order to do that you need to interpret a schematic, translate that into the bricks & ironwork around you in order to shut off the correct valve several rooms away.
‘Infra’ adds purpose to the exploration; it drives the player not only to admire these well crafted environments, but also understand them.
The game does have weaknesses however; the dialogue is awkward (although sparse), game engine limitations are apparent in the unconvincing cave rock formations and it commits a few 1st person faux pas by including fiddly jumping sections to be carried out by a structural analyst with invisible legs. Additionally, the slow pacing and the undeniably niche interest mean that it likely won’t appeal to a large audience.
Whilst the game’s creators hopefully havn’t had to face intermittent water supply and rolling blackouts, development has nevertheless clearly not been a smooth ride for Loiste Interactive. I recall ‘Infra’ being one of the first games I upvoted on the newly launched Steam Greenlight some years ago. For several years there was no development news and I had assumed that Infra had fallen into that chasm between concept and reality before a steady stream of developer updates began to flow again. Their, only partially successful, Indiegogo campaign forced further delays and the release of the final game in two parts (of which only part one is currently available). However, throughout all of this Loiste have stayed true to their vision of creating an intriguing 1st person game set against the backdrop of a city’s infrastructure; it might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the experience and look forward to the release of part two.