Boat Rocker Media
iOS and Android
March 23, 2017
I’m a big fan of Orphan Black, the best (and to be honest, only) Canadian clone drama out there, so when I saw that there was a new mobile game I all but leapt on it. Not even its $7 CAD upfront price could deter me — surely that meant that I would be getting value for my hard earned seven Canadian dollars, and enjoy this game free from the pressure of in game purchases. It’s true that paying up front freed me from frustrations built into the game to induce in-game purchases, but it did nothing to free me from the frustrations of the game itself.
Orphan Black the Game is a turn-based puzzle game. You play as one of the clone sisters from the show, starting out as Beth Childs, then becoming Sarah Manning when the story turns to her. You also have the option of unlocking clone sisters, based on how quickly you complete each puzzle. The goal of every level is essentially escape — you must avoid, and sometimes destroy, a series of obstacles, unlock doors and make it out of one hell to move onto another. Obstacles come in the form of Orphan Black-themed sprites, including bouncers, orderlies, monstrous patients, and later, some kind of flying blood demon ghost. Spoilers! I guess… can you really spoil for a game like this? Anyway, we’ll get back to the blood demon later. These sprites aren’t truly enemies, they’re an assortment of largely unresponsive obstacles whose movements are simple patterns. Learning those patterns is key to unlocking the game’s puzzles. In order to get through one puzzle, you may have to trap a “stalker,” who merely follows you two steps behind, with a Neolution mutant who only moves when you walk across his sightline. In another, you may have to do the same, while also blowing up a bouncer with a conveniently placed (by the game, not you) bomb, and trapping others with moving platforms. As you proceed through the game, the puzzles become progressively more complicated, adding more enemies and other other obstacles, including forcefields and holograms.
All of this is fine, I guess. The game is attractive enough and uses Orphan Black music, sound effects, motifs and voice acting to good effect. Your little Beths and Sarahs look enough like their TV show namesake that it does look like an Orphan Black game, even if it doesn’t quite feel like one. Much of it is just that, a look, an aesthetic gloss on a generic puzzle game. Phone calls you receive from other clones and key Orphan Black characters, like daddy cop, Art Bell, or everyone’s favourite warrior mum, Mrs. S, serve to remind you of the show’s plot but don’t really work to move the game’s plot forward. The game’s plot, if it can be said to have one, is a close mirror to the show’s, with the levels based around various clone’s canonical storyline. A series of puzzles moves you through Beth’s backstory, which we learned more about last season. A second series moves you through Sarah’s initial discovery of the Clone Club, from season one. But the game doesn’t allow you to participate in the story or to learn anything new along the way — you are merely going through the motions of escape, constantly running forward into a new and worse trap.
That does resonate with Orphan Black a little, doesn’t it? That sense of racing headlong into worse and worse straits? But while the show puts the clone club through a plot wringer so punishing I sometimes wonder if the writer’s room has industrialized pain, it also gives the clones and their rest of their families moments of triumph, intimacy, and most importantly, connection. Orphan Black the Game makes you a spectator to their worst days, unable to truly participate, but shares with you none of their best. The greatest triumph you can experience in this game is making it though one puzzle, only to start another. Over time, as the puzzles become more complicated and the potential solutions narrow down to one specific set of moves, this goes from annoying to infuriating.
Unlike many puzzle games, this one doesn’t reward you with subtle aural or visual cues. You don’t get a “well done” or a pleasant chime. You may, if you’re quick enough, get the occasional gold star, but you need quite a few of them before you can unlock the other clones, so even this becomes irritating. Want to play as conniving, Christian soccer mom, Allison Hendricks? You’ll be waiting awhile, friend, unless you immediately comprehend the nature of each new obstacle presented to you, and the path through each increasingly complex puzzle. As I got closer to the game’s end, I found that even a slight fuckup, just one wrong move, would make it impossible for me to complete the puzzle. The game informs you of your abject and surely pathetic failure and then restarts you, to run the gauntlet again. But, well, I finally made it though little Beth and Sarah’s stories, met Helena, killed and trapped various mindless enemies, screaming at the game the whole time, because I was so very ready for it to be over, and then–
And here we get back to those blood demon spoilers –Helena dies and rises up again as some kind of flying blood demon, straight out of 1998’s Blade and the game gifted me with who cares how many unwanted bonus rounds.It was at this point that I gave up on Orphan Black the Game. It’s not much fun, the further you get along, and it doesn’t offer much to fans of the show, other than the barest taste of actual Orphan Black (the cast’s voices, those by now much-missed motifs). As Helena transformed into a winged, bloody wretch, I grew to hate this game — really hate it, not just dislike it because I am not actually all that good at puzzles. It’s unfun! That’s the first thing I have against it. The second thing is that it’s a bad tie in.
It’s a licenced product so tenuously attached to the source material that it can’t leverage the glow from my undying love of Orphan Black and so annoying that it actually made me love the show a little less. How? H O W?
Licensed products are meant to extend core brand loyalty to some new product. That license, the presence of familiar characters or a comfortable milieu evoked on the box, makes you more like to buy that cereal, backpack, duct tape, snow shovel or branded game, no matter how weak the connection. But good licensing deals work both ways: the good feelings associated with the brand are extended to the new product, and in turn, that new product makes you feel even better about the brand. While licensing everything from snow shovels to ketchup can be a good cash grab, over-licensing can diminish the strength of your brand, stretching it out like well-used Transformers Play Doh. (See below. PS. WTF!?!?)
(Ok, listen. Transformers are metal people. People made of metal and wire and perhaps some tubing. Why Play Doh? Why squishable molds of metal people? I just don’t understand.)
What are you for, Orphan Black the Game? Certainly you’ve made me miss the show even more and you do have my seven Canadian dollars. But you also have my disdain and you almost have my contempt. Because the key question is this: what about this high stakes, sci-fi drama suggests that the best kind of game to adapt it to is the mobile equivalent of those crackerjack ball puzzles, where you just have to get the ball through the hoop, past some dead end, and thence to the centre of the maze?
Tiny Beth Childs and Sarah Manning deserve better.