Whether you want to refer to them as walking simulators or first-person narrative adventures, I’ve come to appreciate the slower paced nature of experiences like What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch this generation – especially when compared to the 'spectacle' other games seek to provide by thinking that bigger is better. I look at Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and, sure, it offers up a sprawling world full of luscious Greek sights to explore, but ultimately still boils down to a near-endless checklist of tasks. I find first-person narratives feel like the opposite.
Often focused and personal tales set somewhere with a strong sense of place, narrative adventures remain a relatively new genre, one inextricable from the modern phenomenon of highly talented indie teams splintering out from larger companies. The genre reflects this too, both respecting its audiences' time while simultaneously allowing them to indulge as much as they want in smaller but dense and detail-packed settings. Storm in a Teacup’s recent Close to the Sun is the latest exemplar of this ethos, wearing its Bioshock influences heavily on its sleeve yet in some ways improving upon Irrational’s 2007 classic due to its willingness to focus purely on exploration – free of any combat complexity or unnecessary mechanical clutter.
I loved my original trip to Rapture, of course. But Bioshock’s insistence on having me battle all its corrupted inhabitants, when I just want to poke my nose around the likes of Fort Frolic, is what deters me from re-visiting Andrew Ryan’s utopia-gone-wrong. Plasmids are cool and all, but Close to the Sun's nature as a strict walking simulator allows its storytelling to hit you more naturally compared to the stop-start pace Bioshock can suffer from. Irrational went on to take Bioshock’s reliance on combat even further in its 2013 successor, Infinite, a game that often felt like it was at war with itself.
In Close to the Sun you play as Rose Archer, an investigative journalist called out to the oceanic haven of Helios who steps aboard while in search of her sister Ada. The ship was designed by legendary scientist Nikola Tesla, who in this version of reality managed to escape from his mentor Edison’s shadow and intended the unbound freighter to be a place where great minds could experiment free of rules or judgement. Yes it does a bit familiar at this point. As you can imagine, it isn’t long before Rose learns that everything isn’t quite as it seems, and is forced to explore the Helios during a quarantine to discover what exactly has happened and escape with Ada.
Close to the Sun’s debt to to Bioshock is clear the moment you pass through those entrance doors. Halls are laced in lavish brass indicative of 1920s Art Deco, walls are splattered with bloody messages of the apparently doomed, and any contact with the few characters that have managed to survive the mysterious downfall is primarily achieved through radio chatter. It isn’t long, however, before you realise that it’s all in service of a beautiful build up in tension, much more of a slow-burn compared to its genre peers.
The combat-free approach is one that works well to convincingly let players assume the role of a sleuth; someone who you can believe is just mistakenly thrown into this story rather than a 'chosen one' of sorts destined to slaughter all as part of a grander plan. While your route through the Helios is largely authored, you don’t mind as much due to Storm in a Teacup’s stark confidence that they’ve created an original and detailed enough venue worth traversing – one that stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Gone Home’s family house and SOMA’s underwater research facility.
I’m tentative to call Close to the Sun a horror game but, in-between the expected moments of problem solving, exploration and general hunting for items, the Helios does an excellent job at portraying a chaos against its inherent grandeur. Bioshock immediately stuffed us right into Rapture’s grizzly aftermath, but Storm in a Teacup’s take operates more like a measured descent, always keeping you invested in its central mystery without the need to halt or stagger your interest by having you wail on bad guys with a wrench for 15-minute bursts.
Ghost-like apparitions of times gone by tease you with a taste of the intended Utopia at certain points before you come across bodies and guts splayed in their death throes. Similarly, looking upon Tesla’s glorious gallery of inventions in the early hours helps balance out the drastic – and time-bending – repercussions of their capabilities you’ll witness later. Helping reinforce this natural player curiosity further is the fact that every location from the on-board Grand Theatre to residents’ private quarters feels appropriately lived-in, with plenty of newspaper clippings to skim and diaries to snoop through.
Despite its lack of combat, Close to the Sun still deploys a few clever tricks to help keep you on your toes and maintain a satisfying pace throughout its four to five-hour runtime. The most obvious is in how you learn quickly that you’re not alone. But don’t worry, at no point will you catch yourself sneaking around patrolling enemies who are primed to subject you to endless fail states. Some otherworldly beings will chase you, but these moments are well-timed and always come with added context as exactly why the Helios has been quarantined. While few and far between, every action set piece uncovers a deeper layer of the contained but evocative tale the game is weaving.
It’s a shame that the inspiration here is so obvious, because a lot of players will take one glance at Close to the Sun and, for better or worse, assume they know exactly what they’re in for. But this is a thoughtful and fascinating tale set in a fantastic-yet-grounded environment. The fact it never forces a gun or sword into your hand is a relief. And it makes it a pleasure, even if it's sometimes an unsettling one, to make a return visit to the Helios.