At the last London Gaming Market in July, I managed to pick up copies of Syberia and Syberia II for my PlayStation 2. The first game in the series is hailed by many as a classic and Adventure Gamers named it the fifteenth best adventure in 2011.
Personally though, it’s never been a release that has made it onto my favourites list. I first played it back in 2003 on my old console and I’ve repeated it a couple of times since on PC but it’s always struck me as being rather odd. I understand video games are meant to be creative works of fantasy, designed to transport us to all sorts of magical places, but Syberia’s storyline contains several elements that just make me scratch my head in confusion and think ‘Why?’
Not least of all is the title’s protagonist Kate Walker, an American lawyer sent by her firm to the fictional French village of Valadilène to oversee the buy-out of a automaton factory. After finding out that the owner had recently died, she’s advised by the village notary that her brother Hans Voralberg may still be alive and so ensues a journey around a steampunkish version of Europe to track him down. I was reminded of just how much I don’t like this character when I streamed the game last month.
I know there are going to be a few shocked gasps among some of you reading that sentence. After all, Kate Walker (because almost everybody in Syberia calls her by her full name for some strange reason) is a much-loved character who’s often cited as a female protagonist we can be proud of. And while I’ll admit she’s more independent, intelligent and strong than some other leading ladies we’ve had in the past, all I can see when I look at her is someone who’s just not that nice.
She points out that nobody is around to take her bags up to her room upon arrival at her hotel in Valadilène. The manager apologies sincerely and tells her it’s a day of mourning for the whole village due to Anna Volraberg’s funeral, before taking her single case up to the next floor. The baker tells her the same thing when she asks why the bakery is closed. But she then says during a call with her best friend Olivia: ‘These people are just not very hospitable.’ Get over yourself, Kate Walker.
The hotel manager and baker aren’t the only people she’s rude to. When she needs to pick up a boat oar to use as a leaver, she says: ‘Yuuck! That oar is all dirty and wet!’. She then proceeds to let young Momo collect it for her because she doesn’t want to get her hands messy – so much for independence. It’s also worth pointing out here that the way Momo is referred to by other characters is often extremely derogatory, with words such as ‘slow’ and ‘retard’ used which makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The majority of Syberia’s plot covers what happens after Kate Walker boards a clockwork train staffed only by an automaton named Oscar, both made at the Voralberg factory. She has no idea as to its route or destination other than a hunch it might take her to Hans. As if that wasn’t foolhardy enough, she brings no supplies with her (although her case somehow her case miraculously appears in the train’s sleeper compartment later). What kind of woman goes on a long journey without at least taking a phone charger and snacks?
The biggest thing I can’t forgive her is during an event towards the end of the game. Throughout her mission, she receives several calls from her fiancé Dan who comes across as the ‘jealous type’. He’s annoyed she isn’t with him in New York to go a dinner party hosted by an important client and continuously tells her to come home. It becomes obvious to the player over the course of the title that it’s not all innocent between Dan and Olivia, and eventually they both reveal to Kate Walker that something has happened.
On one hand I can respect her for handling the situation with such grace. She doesn’t get angry; she simply realises that perhaps she and her fiancé didn’t love each other as much as they thought, and that her journey throughout Europe has changed who she is. I don’t believe calls with news like that would have been managed with so much dignity in the real world – there definitely would have been at least a small amount of screaming – but props to her for managing to stay so calm.
However, I just can’t agree with her responses to the cheating pair. When Olivia tells her she’s had the hots for Dan for ages and something happened between them when she invited him into her home for a nightcap, she says: “Don’t bust a gut over it.” And to Dan she replies: “Maybe, I’m to blame somewhere in all of this. Maybe I pushed you into Olivia’s arms. I’m well aware this trip has taken me far from New York and far from the Kate you once knew.”
What the hell, Kate Walker? A best friend is meant to be someone who you can trust, yet you simply tell her not to worry about sleeping with your fiancé as if it’s something that can just be easily forgotten. And as for Dan, he should be proud of your achievements and sticking to your mission regardless of the adverse (and ridiculous) conditions you’ve found yourself in – not using them as an excuse to end up in Olivia’s bed because you’re not there to cater to his every whim.
The fact she feels she’s partly to blame for what went on back in New York and that she essentially needs to apologise for growing as a person irritates me. I understand the reasons for infidelity are far more complicated than can be explained during a couple of short phone calls shown in a video game, but this isn’t a side of Kate Walker I wanted to see. Show me someone who’s been hurt by people she cared about and who is vulnerable – but don’t give me a woman who feels she has to say sorry for others’ mistakes.
It’s for the reasons explained within this post that I’ve never made it to Syberia II or Syberia 3, and it may seem strange then that I purchased the second title despite not particularly liking the original. It’s because I finally want to find out whether those plot elements that seem so silly are finally cleared up in a way that makes sense. I guess that also means there’s a chance that the new Kate Walker could end up growing on me if I spend a bit more time with her.
But not if she doesn’t start taking her phone charger and snacks on long train journeys.