Backbone is a noir detective adventure that becomes much more, standing out as a tale about power, power, and identity. While it leaves some loose threads untied, it’s an experience that confronts and challenges you.
On all levels except physical, you are a racoon
If you’ve ever wanted to be a raccoon, on all levels except physical, this game provides that experience. You play as a raccoon private investigator named Howard. Your newest case is following the abusive husband of a housewife who needs dirt on him for her divorce case. Your trail leads you to The Bite, a seedy club run rumoured to push drugs and run by a powerful woman. However, you soon discover that’s not the only thing they’re pushing. Howard’s fate spirals into an unstoppable train wreck as he uncovers more secrets about the city, its power holders, and what lies beyond the city walls.
The mechanics of the game are rather simple. It plays similarly to a visual novel, with only one ending and giving you little power over the plot. Most of your choices involve how you characterize Howard—is he in love with his detective partner Renee? Is he timid or eager to go? You point and click your way through finding clues to your next objective, sometimes solving simple puzzles along the way to open locked doors or go through The Bite undetected.
The graphics are wonderfully rendered, and the dark, jazzy music adds a sense of danger to the atmosphere, but these are not the main attractions of the game. Because the plot is so linear, what really shines are the game’s ideas.
Thinking about those on the fringe
This game is about race and class without ever directly mentioning it. Though using animals as allegorical tools isn’t new, Backbone has dogs and apes at the top of the food chain and mice and rats at the bottom. The advantage of this approach is that Backbone becomes timeless; instead of thinking about the particulars of race relations in a certain place or time, we’re drawn instead to general discussions about power and corruption. It's not a perfect allegory, as race is not natural the way species is in this world, but the parallels are clear.
However, the game doesn’t preach a clear message. When the characters doing morally objectionable deeds like murder are the ones trying to uproot a system which determines social standing through biology, what are we supposed to take away? Backbone trusts you to think it through rather than feeding you a message.
Perhaps one of the most quietly important moments of the game is a cutscene in which Howard sits with other undesirables in their living camp. The people here were all pushed out of society for something, whether it be losing a librarian job for putting more radical texts in the collection or falling into drug addiction.
In the background, a voice softly croons about wishing for the warmth of a parent’s hand. It’s then that you realize so many characters in this game have been driven by love for their child, like Howard’s driver chatting about his kids, or the mother mourning her missing daughter, or the privileged class resisting change in order to secure safety for their families. Even Howard has a strained relationship with his mother that is explored but not expanded upon in the game.
This group is a family as makeshift as their camp, but they are only able to continue on because of these relationships. And when society sees them as nothing but expendables, who are they actually?
The game asks us: Are we still ourselves when an organism changes our DNA and overthrows us from the seat of mind? Are we more than our nature? In what ways are we more than our class? What, metaphysically, are we?
Could we be defined by our relationships—the people we love and are willing to protect?
More questions than answers
The game starts with the illusion that we’ll have a straightforward experience. Howard needs to find a missing man, but it soon becomes clear that isn’t the real mystery. The game poses many plot-based questions we don’t get answers to (like how exactly are Rose and the girls okay beyond the wall if it’s a barren wasteland?), but the thematic questions confuse me more.
The game waits until the last act to get deeply and confrontationally philosophical about what makes us who we are. By that time, it doesn’t have much time to explore those questions. As players, we’re forced to look retroactively to understand what the game dialogue could mean.
Though this encourages replayability so we can piece together the mystery of the game and not only the mystery in the game, the ending felt like it came too soon. But maybe that’s the point.
Backbone is a simple game to play, meaning that the dialogue and theme development had to carry the experience. While the narrative rushes to an uneasy finish, the story gives you a lot of meat to sink your teeth into.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Reviewed on PC