Release Date: June 8, 2021
Backbone was one of the 998 items that were included in Itch.io’s Bundle For Ukraine which was available in March of 2022.
The store page for Backbone describes it as a “post-noir narrative adventure,” but it starts out as a regular old detective story, at least as much as it can when you’re playing as a raccoon in a trench coat in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals. The beginning of the game makes an interesting mix out of puzzle solving, light stealth segments, and some of the most incomprehensible dialogue trees I’ve ever seen. For someone who enjoys a good old fashioned hardboiled private eye tale, it starts out so strong.
However, it doesn’t take terribly long for the game to take a hard left turn, and it felt a bit like leaving behind a Dasheill Hammett novel for a Samuel Beckett play. It gets weird right quick. While on the trail of an adulterous husband, Private Investigator Howard Lotor stumbles into a mob boss’s murder-for-meat racket, existential despair, and a up-and-coming expose author in about 10 minutes of game that just might give you whiplash from how fast it all happens.
For me, it was a bit much. The art style and sound design is fantastic, but I felt like the writing was trying to be deliberately obtuse, and it felt like the dialogue choices, were geared more towards developing a persona than actually obtaining clues.
I think the problem lies in the description above: the end of all things is inevitable. While that can be taken as a statement of nihilism, it seems to also mean that there’s only one way for this story to turn out, so regardless of how you approach it, you are still going to hit all the relevant plot points. There’s no fail state, no screwing it all up, and the game reflects this by dialing back on everything about the game that isn’t dialogue after the first major story revelation. Without puzzles to solve, or any weight to your dialogue choices, are you even still playing a game at that point?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the developers of Backbone come down squarely on the side of “video games as art” because it feels like an art installation. It’s designed to make you think, perhaps even to make you uncomfortable, and in those ways, it’s definitely a success. However, it misses the mark on actually making it feel like anything you do (or don’t do) matters, and I didn’t feel compelled to continue playing.
SteamDB estimates that Backbone has sold between 27,700 and 76,200 copies. Those are very respectable sales figures for a freshman effort on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018. However, reviews haven’t been so stellar, with most negative ones focusing in on the game’s length (short) and the unfinished feeling of the plot. It is ranked 7143 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.