I’ll be honest with you – I’m not sure I ever expected a video game adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to come off. There are so few good examples of video game adaptations of highly respected literature. Most of them either miss the point or importance of the subject matter completely (e.g. The Les Misérables arcade fighter Army Joe) or become so convoluted and complex in order to make sure they don’t miss the point, they cease to be fun (like the game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…oof).
It has been a few years since I read Kafka’s allegory for the dehumanisation of working life and the limits to sympathy but I can’t ever remember thinking it would transform into an even remotely entertaining video game. It’s themes certainly didn’t seem to lend themselves to an interactive art form. This is where developers Ovid Works have cheated just a little. While the game is called Metamorphosis, the game turns the book on its head and then includes themes of Kafka’s other works too, notably The Trial, The Castle and The Judgement. To my absolute astonishment, it works. It really works. Metamorphosis is a rough but thoroughly enjoyable celebration of Kafka that even a novice to his work could enjoy.
Metamorphosis is the story of a travelling salesman called Gregor Samsa who wakes up after a night of drinking with his friend to find himself being transformed from a human into an insect. In the novel, Gregor becomes a human sized “monstrous vermin” but in this game adaptation, he’s shrunk down to the size and appearance of a cockroach. Desperate to return to his human form, Gregor sets off to first get help from his friend Josef K (the very same Josef from The Trial) before being guided to “The Tower” with promises to restore his humanity in exchange for work.
I’ve got to hand it to Ovid Works; It’s obvious that the developers are fans of Kafka’s work on a deep level and they’ve managed to bring common themes together and then find relationships between those that are just as important. The way that it achieves this is to have 2 simultaneous stories that cross over into one another – Gregor experiencing his life as a bug and Josef trying to wrangle the legal system that’s simply baffling. The Trials’ criticism of inhuman and incomprehensible legal systems come across loud and clear and is then linked to the dark take on imperfect yet unflinching bureaucracy from The Castle. You’ll even be standing in front of a lawyers door, waiting to get in at one point in the game. Metamorphosis’ themes are oddly some of the least represented, with key characters from that novel entirely absent. Two of the main topics (a disconnect between mind and body, of coming to terms with being considered “a monstrous vermin”) remain though and serve the early game very well.
Metamorphosis (the game) does an admirable job of exploring the themes it does include, but it stops short in some areas. I don’t feel like it explores any theological threads from Kafka’s work, which is probably wise given how divisive they can be. If the game does so, It was so symbolic that I missed it entirely. A late conversation between Gregor and a member of his family is really on the nose, abandoning symbolism entirely in favour of a truly literal adaptation. Some links to the short stories are simply character names with similar titles with similar professions (Titorelli is a director rather than a painter in the game but serves a similar purpose). Despite a few missteps, it’d be hard to argue against Metamorphosis being one of the best, if not the best, adaptation of literature into a video game. They’ve really got the “struggling against an absurdist, oppressive or nightmarish situation” down to give the game that Kafkaesque tone.
Like a gritty version of “Honey I Shrunk The Kids”, the game’s 3D world is made up of giant versions of everyday objects. Books become giant steps. Chairs appear as mammoth bridges between tables. Desks act as massive surfaces to traverse. For the most part, Ovid Works have managed to balance the design of these worlds to give a believable scale yet accessible structure that portrays a real feeling of being a bug in a human world.
That being so, it can sometimes be easy to get a little lost in the giant size of it all. To negate this, there’s a zoomed out version of the world view, accessible with a click on B. This overhead look shows points of interest, where you are and a trail of where you’ve walked recently. While this view only shows the top level of the world (so isn’t much help when an objective is indoors) it does help with a lot of the traversal.
Talking of traversal, Metamorphosis manages to believably replicate the feeling of moving like an insect. The scale of your body always feels much longer and wider than a bi-pedal character and when you’re moving, you’ll see legs out in the periphery. Walking up slopes and along slim platforms feels easy as the base of the character is much bigger which translates into a unique movement feel.
The way that Gregor moves in Metamorphosis forms part of the game’s challenge. The game has first person platforming sections, environmental puzzles to solve and some aspects that are purely to further the narrative. The platforming is pretty standard fare; jump from one platform to the next without falling off. The most difficult these parts become is timed jumps over moving platforms.
Being tiny, some world elements will be simply too big for Gregor to climb, even with his new six legged form. To reach high areas, he can use sticky substances that will allow him to scale walls but not ceilings. Walk over honey or glue and voila – sticky
fingers mandibles. These substances are short lived however, decreasing as you move until they’re all gone, and often become part of the puzzle platorming i.e. How do I get up there with honey on my feet that’ll only carry me half the distance? These substances act as part of the environmental puzzles too. You never know when you might want to stick something down and, because you leave a trail as you move, you’re the perfect paint brush to use.
All of the puzzles in Metamorphosis are built around discovery. You’ll come across switches you can roll. Figuring out what they do is the difficult part. Some will move gauges that you’ve got to keep with particular safe areas. Other switches will move machinery but where do you need to move them too? Maybe documents strewn around the place will tell you? Almost all of the puzzles in this game simply require the player to look around and search. The solutions are almost always immediately apparent but that doesn’t make them any less fun to solve.
You’ll also be talking to a lot of characters in Metamorphosis. From haphazard guides to maudlin artists, mobsters to odd nods to characters from Kafka’s books that have very little to do with their original (Leni being the most odd), there’s a whole cast of insectoid characters to talk too. There’s very few NPC’s placed in this game to create a crowd. Almost everyone has something to say that’s useful or interesting and they do so in a voice that’s like Zed fed the Police Academy put through a synthesizer – almost incomprehensible with the occasional recognisable word. Thankfully there’s subtitles but I do wish that more effort had been made to distinguish who was talking when the text is displayed. All of the text is in white and the only thing that distinguishes a line of dialogue from an NPC or from Gregor is a white symbol at the end of the sentence. Using a different colour for NPC’s would have made conversations much more understandable.
That’s not the only issue with Metamorphosis either. At times, this game can be very rough around the edges. During 3 sections of the game, the frame rate dropped to an uncomfortably low level on the standard Xbox One. The first – when there was running water – didn’t matter too much. After putting a little distance between Gregor and the water source, the frames stopped stuttering. The second period – almost an entire chapter of the game – was almost enough to make me rage quit. Admittedly, there’s a lot going on in the screen when Metamorphosis started to struggle but this part of the game also asks you to do a lot of platforming and avoiding obstacles and the fact the frame rate is in single digits makes this section so much more difficult than it needed to be. Maybe it’s because there are very few loading screens and most of the explorable areas are massive but this game struggles under the weight of that at times.
There’s a few other technical issues with the game too. It hard crashed the Xbox One twice. A bloom of RGB colours spread across the screen, the sound started to skip like an old record player then poof. Crashed. Occasionally, the sound in the game (which is usually excellent including an interesting soundtrack) glitches out and pumps out a second of loud static. Then there’s the occasional NPC who’s pathing is all over the place. The most humorous of these is when a bug walks towards a hole in a wall, I presume to make him disappear but instead, he glitches out and walks skyward up the wall in second intervals. Wait a few seconds and he does it all over again. This isn’t game breaking but it is a little distracting.
For the most part, Metamorphosis is really well designed. It’s not a usual game because it’s not your usual narrative but there are some sections that will feel familiar. The 3rd quarter of the game does descend into a bit of a slog of pedestrian quests. This part of the game is set in a large area and you’ll meet lots of new colorful characters in quick succession but the game does start to resemble a list of fetch quests. Thankfully it’s short lived and the final quarter of the game regains the sparkle the rest of Metamorphosis shows. The ending…well it’ll certainly divide fans of Kafka and as his own work has been doing that for nearly a hundred years, I guess that’s tonally appropriate.
Metamorphosis does a lot of brave things, adapting a set of stories which on the surface wouldn’t seem to make a decent video game into just that – a decent video game.
A lot of Kafka’s spirit shines through in this game with the illogical mixed with the depressingly truthful and real. It’s such a shame then that the Xbox One version is beset with so many technical hiccups that threaten to spoil the narrative. Like so much of Kafka’s work, Metamorphosis feels like it has been left unfinished and in need of a few more weeks of polishing.
Metamorphosis is available now on the Xbox One (reviewed on an Xbox One S All Digital Edition), PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Ovid Works
Publisher: All In! Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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