With all the recently released indie sci-fi goodness such as Gemini Rue and Technocrat‘s (Technobabylon) works I feel it’d be a shame to overlook one other certain brilliant indie sci-fi adventure game. Well, “recently” by procrastinator’s standards anyway but you know. It’s never a bad time to learn of a good game.

The Vacuum is not a game to be missed. And there’re certain reasons for that aside from the truly huge excitement I got during playing it. The number of things done right in this game is simply astonishing. Let’s return to the indie scene of 2008 and take a look at this remarkable and important example of wise game design. I’ll try my best to explain why I think the Vacuum is not only a good game to play but also a good game to learn from.

You know, the problem with describing really good games is that all their good aspects are intertwined with each other very well, and that makes it hard to separate them and becomes a good quality on its own as well, so you just don’t know where to start. Our game in question for example makes a good use of its setting. It takes place in space but it’s not a sci-fi action story about shooting at green guys with blasters, it’s some sort of a detective story, survival thriller with some slice of life thrown in. So what do I talk about now – how well murder mystery is integrated into a believable life situation or how successfully subtle realistic life matters are inserted in-between the bits of detective plot? Well, guess what, the game scenario makes one perfectly flow into another.

It goes like this. Leo and his girlfriend are travelling the cheap way on a cargo spaceship. Still lazily lying in her bed she sends him to get her some tea. A simple understandable errand that requires you to just walk to another room, have a small chat and maybe explore a little bit is enough to make you immersed, but before you can possibly get the notion to get bored, stuff immediately happens. Explosion, dead bodies, ship malfunctioning, no idea what’s going on. That doubles the immersion – not only you participate in something believable, it’s also interesting.

But it only gets better later. You meet other people who survived whatever it was and naturally you begin to discuss the situation. And you take part of making absolutely rational decisions, not some ‘Duh, something bad has happened, let’s go fight some EVIL!’ talk. If that doesn’t make you sympathize with game characters I don’t know what does. And these decisions are not just smart-sounding for you to say them, you’re given the opportunity to actually make the decisions that – surprise, surprise – affect the course of the game. And the consequences of the decisions make a lot of sense too, so I think it’s safe to say that the game will feel satisfying even if you guess who the killer is from the first screen of the game (Just kidding, your girlfriend isn’t the killer. Wait, am i spoiling here?). Because suspicion is obviously not enough.

And that’s actually just another brilliant side of the game: suspicions and threats. Everybody is afraid of everybody else. Sure that’s not a new concept to whodunit stories, but it’s all about how it’s handled here. Some people like some particular other people and distrust another, some care only for their safety and some struggle over the control of the situation. What do you do? You decide. And keep in mind – all this takes place in sequences of making decisions, sane arguing, detective work and taking necessary measures. No ridiculous triggers or story twists put there just because.

Speaking of detective work, one of the most pleasant things an adventure game can deliver to the player is to reward for their personal enthusiasm, acuteness and attention. In other words, to offer some completely optional content that is only there for those who actually thought to look for it. The Vacuum does have these beautiful elements that are easy to overlook, absolutely not vital to reaching the end of the game but very rewarding to find. What’s especially pleasant here is that the game doesn’t cheat to acheive that effect. Even though there’re quite a lot of space to explore in the game, none of the clues are placed at random places that you’d only stumble upon through blind bruteforce searching of every single screen. No, quite the opposite, everything is very logical in this department too and if there’s a clue somewhere there’s a good reason why would you look there or even a direct hint to it. I’m not sure if The Vacuum is a strong example of a detective game with huge mystery to penetrate with your intellect, but the way it delivers the investigation process makes me wish all games went this way.

And as if dramatic story and a bit of mystery solving weren’t enough, The Vacuum throws in a bit of a personal relationship element. Again, extremely sensibly and naturally. Thing is, Leo’s girlfriend in the game isn’t just an entity destined to be his girlfriend forever, she’s a character with her own mind and how his relationship with her carries on during and after this incident very much depends on how he acts towards her during the game’s events. Can’t help but admire how subtly this bit added in the game. It’s not a out of a place dating sim in the middle of it all, it’s just a light but sound reminder that human relationships don’t cease to matter in any situation. And I wouldn’t want it there any other way.

Naturally, I could continue this fanboyish dribbling about how amazing it is forever but perhaps that wouldn’t be right, that wouldn’t be true to the subject matter which is very elegant and very much on the spot. So I’ll just allow myself a few more words.

When it comes to execution The Vacuum has satisfied me as deeply as not many games have come even close to. Except maybe the music didn’t deliver what I’d wish for, but it wasn’t an atmosphere killer either so that’s a minor thing. Rather obviously a similar situation with the graphics but there I was rather pleased with their elegant modesty. If I were to draw comparisons I’d definitely start with Blade Runner. Anybody who’s played Blade Runner (hopefully) knows that its design is just daring in its complexity. Or, to be precise, daredevilish. The Vacuum pulls off something like that just in a smaller scale of an indie game and it works just as well. Another comparable game of the similar sort would be Culpa Innata. An example of another sort would be something like Heavy Rain, a game that tries to do things that in my opinion it fails to do well and sometimes even doesn’t try at all, while The Vacuum without all these production values manages to do exactly these things right: easy-going captivating and truly non-linear experience.

You should definitely check this game out. I found it incredibly pleasing and inspiring both as a player and as a game maker. So I really hope that David Proctor finds time for another equally wonderful game in the observable future.

Of course there’s still a long path of further improvements of both gameplay and content that can be taken. And The Vacuum sure hints to the right direction to go.

Nemo’s Score: 5 out of 5 starks

Download the free game here.

Author’s Bio: qptain Nemo is an aspiring indie game developer, composer …and a part of Lazy & Sleepy.

Igor’s note: The Vacuum‘s music was prepared by the AGS music guru Sebastian Pfaller, so I have no idea how Nemo found it inadequate. (<_<)

The Vacuum fanart by Herman the Handyman