Anthropomorphized media tends to gain easy traction because there’s something inherently entertaining about seeing animals behave like people. Backbone is one of those games where it takes a gritty noir detective thriller and plops it down inside the animal kingdom. But instead of resting solely on its premise, Backbone has some, well, backbone in its early state in how it tackles classism through its well-written script and intriguing world.
It’s a world that’s quite dark in both senses of the term. Catchy jazz music hums in the background. Lights bounce off surfaces — an already impressive feature for a 2D pixel art game — and create convincing shadows that drape just enough of the environment in an appropriate amount of darkness. A burning cigarette is the loading screen progress bar. It all fits the game’s noir label with a palpable amount of style too and that extends to the lore as it is all tonally connected. Backbone‘s animal inhabitants live in a hierarchical society where your species dictates how you’re treated. Apes sit at the top and rodents nestle at the bottom gathering the scraps.
Species profiling like this isn’t exactly subtle but it doesn’t need to be nor is it trying to be. Backbone’s world was born out of real-life oppression most of the team witnessed while living in Russia. Aleksandra Korabelnikova, studio co-founder and story writer, noticed how poorly some people were treated in her motherland and that ended up informing the game’s world.
“There was a moment of living in Russia where I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore because I started seeing how different it was for marginalized people,” she said. “And I didn’t notice it before and it was a huge cultural shock for me. And I started fighting it and being an activist.”
But that didn’t quite work out against the overwhelming oppressive forces in Russia so she, along with some others on the team, moved to Canada and started to make Backbone before Backbone was Backbone. While fleeing the injustices executed by the Russian government, the team took that as inspiration.
Backbone Preview | A fated horde of influential raccoons
The raccoon protagonist was also birthed in a similarly real way but through an entirely different context. One of the creator’s backyards became overrun by raccoons and his only method of recourse was to aggressively play the trumpet at the horde of little trash pandas until they scurried away from this disruptive impromptu jazz session. The team couldn’t stop laughing about that odd incident and just like that, a bizarre anecdote influenced the anthropomorphized world of the team’s upcoming title.
Animals meshed well with the team’s initial core gameplay idea of making a stealth game about smell. Detective work makes up the lion’s share of the gameplay at this stage though, as the smelling mechanic isn’t being shown yet. Protagonist Howard Lotor (a name based on the raccoon’s scientific species name) has to go around and speak to the population in order to track down clues for his case.
Dialogue options range from snarky to formal and beyond and change how other characters will react to you. The story doesn’t splinter in different directions but sometimes a “wrong” answer will cause the objective to branch. For example, you can get kicked out of the bar if you reveal that you’re a detective to the wrong person and you’ll have to find another way back in. Korabelnikova explained how the team looked at old adventure games for gameplay ideas.
“We were most inspired by Sierra and LucasArts adventure games and CRPGs,” she explained. “So choice-based narratives where you can kind of figure out your own personality for the character that you’re playing. And Howard is a blank slate for the players to familiarize themselves with the world but at the same time, you can choose to be sassy or negative or positive. Dialogue is the main mechanic of Backbone and talking to people and trying to find information.”
Backbone Preview | A fast-talking wiseguy
Dialogue is one of the game’s biggest strengths because not only is it incredibly snappy in its delivery but also its substance. Text appears immediately as you don’t have to mash or wait for it all to pop up and that keeps up the pacing. Silver-tongued, seedy characters also come to life with these words and that matches their style in a way that’s hard not to read in a Hollywood mobster’s voice. Even at this early stage, the characters speak how you’d think they’d speak, which hopefully won’t be ruined by the game’s undecided approach to voice acting. Compelling writing like this is also extra impressive given how the team doesn’t hail from primarily English-speaking countries.
Players also have to sneak around during some instances and is where the game gets more traditional mechanics. Howard has to slink around in the areas draped in shadow to tiptoe past guards. It makes thematic sense, given how he has to be covert to spy on the powers that be, but it’s a little punishing in its early state. He can’t quite fight back nor is there much to do besides hide in predetermined areas and getting caught leads to an instant game over. Overbearing restrictions go against the freedom of the stealth genre so hopefully Sly Cooper can give some sneaking tips to Lotor before his game comes out.
Puzzles were more engaging as the game is better equipped to handle more cerebral challenges over mechanical ones. Sleuthing around eventually led to a hideout where a password was being stored; it was just up to you to find it. After some digging, you find a locker full of papers that likely have the unlock code in them. Moving these papers around the right way reveals said code and even though the concept was simple, it was paced out well and appropriately difficult without being cheap or requiring moon logic. If Backbone has more creative puzzles like this without leaning into the obtuse stylings of yesteryear, it’ll be a solid mechanical actualization of being a detective.
Backbone is still a long way off but is still promising due to its impressive visuals, fluid animation, slick dialogue, and engrossing world. This many aspects don’t usually line up this far before a game’s launch, making for a solid vertical slice that people can experience right now on Steam. As with all demos, it’s entirely possible that it’s just showing its best parts, but with all of this potential, it would truly be a confounding mystery if it didn’t come together in the end.