The Samaritan Paradox, a relatively new commercial AGS adventure game by Faravid Interactive’s Peter Ljunkvist, published by Screen 7, is a story about a story. A refreshingly Swedish one, too. The game’s protagonist, Ord Salomon - ‘ord’ is Swedish for ‘word’ - is a shut-in PhD student of literature, rotting away at a failing thesis, with worried friends, until he chances upon the daughter of a prominent dead Swedish author.
Salomon, a hobbyist cryptographer obsessive-compulsive about signs, instantly begins to solve the apparent secrets contained within the dead author’s final work, “The Last Secret,” which also functions as the key to the writer’s complicated relationship with his daughter and family. And to a large inheritance that could also help Ord repair his finances.
As is obvious from the get-go, The Samaritan Paradox has all the makings of a splendid detective game; it has a beautiful look and feel, with expertly crafted (especially animated) pixel graphics, and a highly under-used locale in the cold reaches of the Nordic to boot. A philological adventure - who would have wagered?
The Good Samaritan
I’ll be the first to let you all in on a little secret that will help make the right kind of decision for yourselves: The Samaritan Paradox is very much two games in one, in many, many ways. Some of them are really good, and some of them bad.
For some, then, The Samaritan Paradox could present a welcome return, a real tangible throwback to the ‘classic’ Sierra era, a game that meticulously replicates those ideals - of failure states, hidden hotspots, pixel hunts, and esoteric, arcane puzzles that will leave you stumped for days.
For those of you that play adventure games specifically for their puzzles, The Samaritan Paradox should no doubt be moved higher on your Steam wishlist. Make no mistake - we are talking about a beautiful full-length adventure, with a great many diligently rendered locations, fabulous pixel animations (check out some at the Faravid blog!), great portraiture, and above-average voice acting and background music from Lannie Neely.
Perhaps the protagonist’s unhealthy interest in cryptography should work as something or a warning, or a deterrent, to anyone hoping to play the game; perhaps it bears mention, too, that the game’s very first puzzle is solved by using none other than the periodic table!
Heard enough? The Samaritan Paradox is available now, on Steam, on FireFlower Games, on GOG.com, on Desura, and on Screen 7’s website. A playable demo is also available. If you’re still curious for more, or perhaps worried about the mention of the Sierra style, then by all means, read on, choose-your-own-adventure style.
The Grand Design
The Samaritan Paradox is quite the grand design, that’s for sure. One of its major appeals is that it utilizes a curiously little-advertised mise-en-abyme structure, the game-within-a-game, story-within-a-story, that bridges the gap between the game’s two layers.
Of course, usage of the mise-en-abyme is hardly new to video games per se; we’ve often seen, for instance, fully functional arcade cabinets available to players to play on, like famously in both Maniac Mansion games, first in the form of Meteor Mess, and later the full Maniac Mansion in its sequel, Day of the Tentacle.
Similarly, games with several playable protagonists (like in The Samaritan Paradox), that offer deeper entry, insight, or a new perspective into the game’s narrative - are not too rare; after all, such changing perspectives are a fine way of accounting for the roles and functions of consciousness, and personality, to a narrative, and also operate as a fantastic way of shedding new light on the goings-ons in a genre fiction like this game.
Here is the but: Playable fictions are curiously, almost shamefully absent from video games. It’s actually something of a revelation that the book chapters found in The Samaritan Paradox are just that - playable. The usage of the ‘abyme’ here is a real display of heart and honesty to its chosen medium, and allows players to discover the dead author’s missing work in revelatory ways - via the act of play.
This is a meritorious point indeed, and makes The Samaritan Paradox a great new take on what is an ages-old device. Unfortunately, however, this is not the only way in which the game is two-in-one. At once, it is both highly innovative, and extremely reactionary.
Furthermore, it also pains me to say, that however illustrious the actual structural merits of the game, the ‘abyme’ scenes are simply not as good as the rest of the game, certainly not up until their very apex. A fantastic late-game twist arrives late, far too late to save the game’s middling pacing. Even then, the twist becomes more of a convenient write-off rather than a working solution, recalling all those twists of yore that only made sense up until you started to really think about them.
Much like the rest of the game, then, the embedded book chapters rely too much on substandard designer logic. If possible, the fantastic sections are almost less immersive than Ord’s adventures in hard-boiled philology, as they come off as more machine-like, and perfunctory, with none of the passion for the genre, but rather with all of its great many clichés. It’s very telling that the game’s most important NPC character, Torgav, simply functions as a fact dispenser for most of the game.
I must ask - and this is probably bordering on unfair territory - would a renowned Swedish author (say, a Stieg Larsson) of fiction really have typed up something so clearly devoid of allegory, of allusions, and reflections, of the social ills of the day, especially when the genres of hardboiled and fantasy are so potent and popular in today’s Sweden - even when accounting for the late-game twist?
This is not to say that the game is poorly written. Nothing of the sort. Rather, the game has a fine script for a video game, with its its dialogue and characters feeling enough like fine video game folk, and only has its real ups and downs, its oopsies and whoopsies, with prepositions. That’s them Swedes for you.
My gripe is a what-if. Although a game for grown-ups in every sense of the word, The Samaritan Paradox never quite takes a stab at that lived authenticity, never attempting to capture either the inner workings of the obsessive-compulsive Ord, or the inner workings of the dead author, or Sweden in the 1980s for that matter, beyond the Ikea furniture in Ord’s apartment, the kronor (Sweden’s currency), the old-fashioned button phones, and the cast’s names.
It could have. It really could have, and comes very close at times. Ultimately, to the detriment of the experience overall, it only becomes apparent to the player very late in the game as to why Faravid Interactive sought to make this particular game, with this particular cast. And then, then, it’s simply too little, too late.
The Bad Sheep
The rest of the game’s flaws stem from its bone-headedly, purposely archaic design. Its designer, Viklund, seems happy to grind the player’s progress to a screeching halt at any turn; to prevent any and all lateral movement, confining progress to a single, narrow path, and to force chains of actions that have little meaning for the overarching story.
Just a mere glance at Wadjet Eye’s recent output will reveal a massive difference in which players are treated; here, it’s entirely possible for players to miss the right hotspot in a timed sequence with just a pixel or two - five, ten, fifteen times in the row.
This fact alone makes the game feel dated - no need to refer to the game’s 1984 setting. As much as these AGS adventures hope to replicate the early 1990s feeling of the classic era, much of the magic of being stuck is now gone. We all have so many games now. I can no longer spend 6 months stuck on a voyage in The Secret of Monkey Island, or two years with the goat in Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.
For me, the best portion of adventure games is the free flow of movement, action, and progress from one location to another, never spending too much shut-in, locked-up, or walled-up. In The Samaritan Paradox, the player will often be confined to just one location - or even just one room - entirely stopping progress until a series of actions have been committed down to a tee.
Unfortunately, with the game’s poor hotspots, awful signposting, and nonexistent hand-holding, it’s often hard to gauge just exactly what the game wishes from the player. All one can really do here is chastise the game’s testers for failing to put more pressure on some of these egregious points - like, why should all pathways and hotspots be so minuscule - doors, ladders, openings, roads?
It’s not just that the game’s puzzles are old-fashioned. They’re puzzles for the sake of puzzles. I actually wished the game would have excused them with Ord’s obsessive-compulsive relationship with cryptography, just that one time. Unfortunately, I can probably count the number of real-world puzzles on one hand. Even those that made a modicum of sense seemed far too beyond the realm of possibility, far too opportune, too coincidental.
Just to illustrate that I’m not alone with my feelings, nearly half of the game’s players on Steam found the second real puzzle (2nd!!) too taxing a chain of events for, as only 55 % were able to soldier on after that particular point. To add insult to injury, even the game’s interface interfered with the puzzling, with its small, text-less icons, and a pop-up inventory from hell. I can’t count the number of times that it obscured my doorways and exits. The GIF below should perfectly encapsulate all my feelings and words on the topic:
Ultimately, The Samaritan Paradox is a game that makes all the right moves, and yet fails at their execution on some very basic levels. A real perfect flawed gem of a game.
The Samaritan Paradox is available now, on Steam, on FireFlower Games, on GOG.com, on Desura, and on Screen 7’s website.
Some additional words; a soliloquy of sorts. Curiously, at the same time I was reviewing The Samaritan Paradox, Nick Dinicola struggled with many of the same questions with Quest for Infamy, in the article “I’m Glad ‘Quest for Infamy’ Exists Even if I Don’t Like It.”
Dinicola makes a compelling case for his own approach to reviewing games with retro-style mechanics. At the heart of this issue, however, lies the classic - if I may say, eternal - Sierra-LucasArts opposition. Sierra’s games never spoke to me quite the way LucasArts’ did. I’ve always desired that continuous, fluid feeling of progress, and movement through events in time; a flow, in the psychological sense, from one puzzle to another, from one event to another, with increasing scope, scale, and revelation. I ached for that when I first played an adventure game, and I still want that. I desire for motivation; for interconnectedness, and for natural progress.
This is not to say that none of Sierra’s games had that; Gabriel Knight 1: Sins of the Fathers, for instance, remains somewhat unparalleled in that respect. Ultimately, adventure games are a harsh mistress, as the player never quite notices when things are good and right - that is the definition of Csikszentmihalyi‘s flow, after all - yet anyone and everyone can, and will, spot the unnecessary placeholder, or the pacing roadblock, or the convoluted apparatus that was designed for the sole purpose of stumping the player.