Cryostasis

Tagged: Game

Videogame (2009; vt Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason in Russia). Action Forms. Designed by Alexander Tugaenko, Dmitry Nechay. Platforms: Win.

Cryostasis is a First Person Shooter set on a nuclear-powered icebreaker trapped in the Arctic. The player character arrives under mysterious circumstances, to discover that he is the only living human on a derelict vessel occupied variously by frozen corpses and humanoid monsters who could be atomic Mutants, ice spirits, or neither. Survival depends on finding sources of heat – which are all that can keep the protagonist alive in the deadly cold – killing the monsters with whatever weapons come to hand and using an unexplained form of mental Time Travel to enter the last moments of the crew, before attempting to correct their final, fatal mistakes. Successfully reliving the lives of the dead will cause their corpses to disappear – presumably because their deaths have been postponed, rather than cancelled altogether – and allow the player to move deeper into the wreck. Often the errors of the dead have created physical barriers to progress, such as flooded compartments which can be made accessible as a result of actions taken in the past, but the game's progression in the present is in any case entirely linear (see Interactive Narrative). Playing through the Time Travel episodes and watching various related flashbacks will, however, eventually reveal how the ship became trapped in the ice. Such embedded narratives are common in First Person Shooters (see System Shock; Bioshock), but Cryostasis is unusual in allowing the player to participate in the history of its disaster.

The game conveys its ambience of mournful despair and frigid threat with considerable force. Nevertheless, it is – perhaps deliberately – slow and somewhat repetitive to play; the story progresses at an appropriately glacial pace, interrupted by regular shocks and moments of panic. Frequent quotations are made from a story by Maxim Gorky in which the hero of a folk tale rips his burning heart from his chest so that its flames can illuminate his people's path out of a dark and haunted forest ("The Heart of Danko", included in the 1895 short story "Starukha Izergil" [trans Margaret Wettlin as "Old Izergil" circa 1950]). Though arguably rather pretentious, these references do serve to emphasize the symbolic underpinnings of the narrative, which treats its many Time Paradoxes with a dream-like lack of concern for the complex details of cause and effect. Despite its essentially contemporary setting – the icebreaker is a Soviet vessel, wrecked in the 1960s and explored by the player's character in the 1980s – and heavy use of the Time Travel trope, Cryostasis is only marginally a work of sf; it might more readily be categorized as a ghost story. Ultimately, the player can save the icebreaker and her crew by enacting a narrative in the past for which Gorky's tale serves as an allegory. Regardless, the best approach to the game is perhaps to assume that the player character dies when he falls through the ice during its introductory sequence, and the remainder of the work takes place in some kind of purgatorial afterworld. [NT]

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