[Cleaning the Backlog] Adios

Adios is a short, strictly narrative experience. No matter how hard you try, avoiding spoilers while talking about it is near impossible. So be warned—this text can somewhat spoil the game for you.

By the phrase «cinematic experience,» when used in the context of videogames, people usually mean visually appeasing spectacle of destruction or dramatically charged cutscenes. Adios lacks both, yet it’s the most cinematic game I’ve played in a long time. Like Italian neorealism films, the game embraces and utilizes the mundane instead of avoiding it; like French New Wave cinema, it weaves long and seemingly empty conversations, hiding under their covers motivations, fears, inner struggles, and beliefs of the conversing characters.

These are untypical tools to pick for the sake of telling a story, even in their ‘native’ medium—movies. They are powerful humanity emphasizers within a story, but relying on them in a videogame is a double risk. When players control the camera and the visual flow, they are hard to be kept ‘in the zone’. Nevertheless, the writing rarely loses its focus, and while dialogues tend to wander away constantly from the story’s primary conflict, they don’t stray away too far.

Adios’ primary conflict is between the pig farmer, who no longer wants to dispose of bodies for the mob, and the hitman, who tries to make him change his mind. So they spend a day together on the farm—shoveling manure, milking goats, tinkering with the car—and talking. Although they’ve been collaborating for years, it seems they never actually spoke to each other much. This time some personal stories get shared, and even a couple of jokes are made—perhaps even a hint at some sort of friendship between the two can be caught. But in the end, the farmer is adamant in his decision, and the hitman is committed to delivering consequences.

While the story-telling techniques used in Adios are associated with Europe, the story’s spirit is American to the bone. Rural Kansas—a geographical metaphor of the middle of nowhere; a lonely farm with a lonely farmer who breeds rare American pigs, looks after one of the last American chestnut trees, has an old American sport truck in the garage, and has a weird hobby of fixing soda machines—an epitome of individualism. This man lived as an individual, made mistakes as an individual, and there’s no other way for him to die than as an individual—by making a decision that he can’t fully explain to anyone but himself. Yet, this individual was forged by trauma—the Vietnam War. Other wars also mentioned during conversations—Korean War, Gulf War—it seems every generation has similar forging trauma.

Now whether this particular theme was intended by Adios’ writer or not doesn’t really matter. This is the way the story tuned with me personally, and for me personally—it works perfectly. The creative choice I’m not entirely sure about is the choice of medium. Why is Adios a videogame? Why not a short film? Why not a movie? Why not a stage play?

Why interactivity matters in Adios? It’s not a question I can give a sure answer to. It would’ve been much easier to answer this question if we played as the hitman, and our goal was to convince the farmer to change his mind. One can easily imagine dialogue trees with choices and various consequences. But in this case, it would be a completely different game. Why, then, was it crucial to put the player in control of a character who had already made critical decisions before the game even began?

Of course, it can be a mere artistic mistake. In this unfortunate case, there’s nothing to talk about—a poor choice of medium is a crippling blunder that may completely neutralize the artistic impact of the misguided text. But Adios intentionally limits—or even straightforwardly cancels—any variability of the player’s choice. The game presents theoretical dialogue options—something that we, as the farmer, could have chosen to say—but they are greyed out.

Like in Depression Quest, greying out the options is a means of subverting expectations. Players are used to making choices, but the game openly and demonstratively deprives them of doing so. In Depression Quest, this technique emphasizes the protagonist’s depressive state of mind, in which, without help from outside, a person sees only one way to act—the worst one. The farmer in Adios is pretty depressed, but is there something more than that?

If I’m right about the game’s central theme—traumatic individualism—then this case of subverting expectations fits alright. The trauma that initiated the farmer’s perverse individualism leaves him no choice whatsoever. From the very beginning, as he chooses his way to stop the war by returning back to it, through the series of self-destructive decisions throughout his life that alienated him from everyone dear to him, to the very end—when he decides to quit whatever the cost—everything he does is deterministically suicidal. Even when he speaks with his estranged son for the final time, he further pushes him away, although he knows perfectly well that there are different options to lead this conversation.

The hitman expectedly fails to convince the farmer to change his mind. But he has enough compassion for his former accomplice. He leaves, saying that he’ll return in the evening, giving time to the farmer to prepare: to make sure that neighbors will feed the farm animals, to bid farewell to his son, and to feed his dear horse for the last time. Then, we prepare a final meal—literally before the execution—and put a shotgun on the table. The shotgun is another greyed-out choice—theoretically, we see an option to give a fight—but the game ironically deprives us of it. The gun isn’t even loaded—again, demonstratively—the shells lie outside.

This final piece of irony eventually made Adios click in my mind and work as an experience. It made me sit and think for a few minutes while the credits ran—an exceptionally rare occurrence in the videogame medium. These few minutes filled the whole experience of Adios with meaning. For me personally—as an individual. Perhaps, even as a traumatized individual—as probably we all are in this shitty lonely world.

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