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April 15, 2008Glenn Turner

There's something to be said for keeping adaptations faithful to the source material, in not mucking around with a proven formula, in retaining the elements of what kept the original work so vibrant and compelling.

That said, I couldn't help but scoff when, half an hour into Ubisoft's Lost: Via Domus (hereafter referred to as 'Via Domus' to avoid confusion with the show), I was treated with a Lost-branded recap of my prior half-hour of play. That's right, the Lost narrator kicked it off with "Previously, on Lost:" before the last 30 minutes echoed before my eyes. Just like the show recap I skip every week!

While I've previously clamored for improved recap in games, I didn't mean for immediate recaps, regurgitating the events I just experienced. But yet, here it is, accompanied by the Lost closing title card and level segue 'fly-by' title sequence. A cute nod to fans of the show? Sure, but that doesn't mean its inclusion isn't entirely inappropriate, unnecessary or obnoxious.

These, and dozens of other little details, are thrown in simply because they're recognizable components from the show without regard for how it'll impact the tone and pace of the actual game itself. The loading screen's littered with shadows of Lost's infamous numbers, plus inappropriate fan-favorite Lost quotes like Hurley's "You've got Artz on you." – a tacky quote if you recognize the reference, baffling if you don't. "The Numbers" also make another appearance in a rapid flurry when your character dies. Why? Why not!

The fundamental problem with Via Domus (apart from the fact that it's not considered to be show canon, and that the scenario writers failed to grasp the pre-existing characters themselves, resulting in a pushover, overly sympathetic version of Kate, a John Locke that sounds more like a fading mystic, and a bully-ish Jack) is that they tried to shoehorn the show's formula into a game. They tried to parcel out the levels like 45-minute long episodes, complete with title sequences and recaps. In a serial television context, sure, title sequences and recaps are necessary: The week-long (or longer) gaps can cause you to forget some more significant plot points. But in a game, unless you're loading up an aged save, it's uncalled for.

Via Domus also tries to adhere to the standard current-day island/flashback structure and, while the flashbacks are the most successful part of the game, their integration into the gameplay is sloppy and poorly executed. It's meant to mimic the show, to capture the moment when two characters are interacting and one mentions something that tangentially relates to the primary character's prior life. Cut to their reaction shot, cue the Lost flashback sound effect – WHOOOOOOOMM – and there we are, transported to their past. In Via Domus, when a character provokes a flashback while you're trawling down the dialogue tree, you don't get the flashback until you've not only elicited the response from them, but you've actively quit out of the dialogue tree.

It may sound like a small detail but, by refusing to jolt control from you when the flashback should be elicited, you're able to wander around the tree, perusing additional questions, maybe dabble in a bit of trade, until finally exiting. By then the emotional impact of the dialogue's context has been mostly forgotten, reducing the flashback's significance to 'just another incident' instead being construed as one of the thematic underpinnings of the game. Worse yet, the flashbacks are doled out one-per-level, actually making the game more formulaic than the show.

Why were such attributes slavishly adhered to for the adaptation? Simply because it was an adaptation. Far too many interactive adaptations off as little more than a litany of winks to the players, a series of in-jokes and self-referential nods to the gamer to affirm that 'Isn't this awesome? You totally recognize this line or object, don't you? Despite the fact that mentioning it now makes no sense, and has no place in this game, you still recognize it, and that's what's important!' And the references do have value because, often, the player is a fan intimately acquainted with the show, and they want to be rewarded for their familiarity. They want feel like the game's riffing off their knowledge like a close friend, resulting in the same sort of tightly-knit bond the player has with the show.

However, interspersed show trivia can't compensate for a fundamental disregard for the character's tone and principles, a facet best illustrated by the following loading screen-based text tip:

"The castaways are always a good source of information."

Really? The castaways? The castaways from Lost? The same castaways who always manage to evade any direct question posed to them? The castaway characters that, in four televised years, have managed to find more questions than answers on their bizarre island?

It's the nature of the serialized drama to tease answers out, to leave audiences in a perpetual state of longing, and Lost magnificently deals with this through a delicate balancing act of the main characters hardly telling each other anything, for fear that they either show their hand, risk endangering someone, or risk endangering themselves. Consequently, we're left with characters that are never straight with each other, and never tell each other the whole story.

Unfortunately, while such duplicity feeds Lost's dramatic tension, the crux of Via Domus requires you to enlist the support of additional characters, without question, because you're a self-proclaimed amnesiac with little-to-no reason to lie about hiding his identity. Under different circumstances, say, circumstances where the characters motions aren't already pre-ordained by the source material or when the additional characters have have suspicions or motive to lie to you, this could be salvageable. Not here.

Via Domus is a victim of its own trappings. It wants to give the fans the best Lost experience ever. It wants to involve you, as a fresh character, in an impacting way on the major Lost characters during the most pivotal moments during the show. Not only that, but it wants to recreate the show's methods after the fact. And, given the structure and history of the show, that's just impossible, not only within the confines of the game but within the confines of the show. Take for instance, the Lost episode 'Expose', which featured newly minted castaways Nikki and Paulo who, all of the sudden, stumbled upon several major Lost areas before any of the major players did, including the infamous Pearl station. The problem wasn't so much that they found the areas beforehand, but that their discovery tarnishes our sense of the major characters, it undermines our sense of their abilities. Prior to Expose, we're confident that Locke and Sayid were the expert trackers on the island. If there was something to be sussed out, they'd be the first on the scene. But, nope, two bickering, back-stabbing con-artists simply stumbled over these areas, scooping them. Scenes like these demean the lead characters' accomplishments and, under some circumstances, it can undermine an entire storyline.

But similar undermining occurs in Via Domus as you 'stumble' over Locke's discover of 'the hatch', or you 'stumble' out of the airplane and 'just happen' to meet up with 'Others' Ben and Juliet. Yes, it's integral to the game since, as far as the developer's concerned as, if you don't experience a Lost game without dealing with the heavy-hitters (Jack, Locke, Sayid, Desmond, Ben, Juliet), you may as well be playing a non-licensed game. But, unfortunately, forcing this sort of interaction creates a hollow experience, pseudo-retconning that results in lies upon lies upon lies, all horribly transparent to the fans they're allegedly catering to in the first place.

These detractions aside, the game isn't completely without merit. Once all the flashbacks have been exposed, you realize that the amnesiac fits right in with the show, saddled with an appropriate amount of guilt and emotional baggage, and that's something. Problem is, they really should have used that internal strife as a stepping point for the game instead of the conclusion. The flashback structure utilizes a photographic element, allowing you to examine the scene in slow-motion, from every angle, but in a washed out, sensory-impaired manner. It's a smartly interactive take on the flashbacks that, while clunky and occasionally frustrating, is vaguely refreshing in theme, execution and presentation. Sadly, it still fails to measure up to the ingenuity the show writers have wrung out of the flashbacks in Lost's fourth season, and it certainly doesn't excuse the amazingly dull torch-bearing cave exploration moments that fill out the rest of the game.

Could Via Domus have been successful? Given its ambitions to insert a brand-new character into Lost (pseudo-)continuity, I can't help but say that the project was doomed from the start. Plus, weakly conceived cave wandering and uninspired voltage-based fuse puzzles (the major crime being multiple fuse puzzles) do nothing but diminish an already substandard experience. Fans of the show will be frustrated with the jump in tone, the incongruent characters and the strained motives while those not intimate with the show will find themselves bewildered. Lost: Via Domus leaves you stranded, waiting for rescue from a more adept developer and maybe, just maybe, someday they'll come and take us all away to a more engrossing place.

This review was written in regards to the Xbox 360 version.

4 comments for ‘Lost: Via Domus - Adaptive Perils’

#1 Richard Apr 23, 2008 04:46am

"While I've previously clamored for improved recap in games, I didn't mean for immediate recaps, regurgitating the events I just experienced."

Or better still, be shown again and again, every time you die in that 'running away from the smoke monster!' section.

#2 Glenn Turner Apr 23, 2008 01:48pm

Thanks for the comment Richard. I've been enjoying your site for quite some time now.

Luckily, I managed to avoid being tripped up by the smoke monster most of the time so I didn't endure those endless replays. Hiding from the smoke monster though, now that was tedious.

#3 Richard Apr 23, 2008 02:04pm

Thanks ;-)

I had to replay that bit more times than I want to admit. I was fine, except I kept mis-timing the slide.

And yes, hiding from the smoke monster was my big anger-choking moment as well. Incredibly tedious, ridiculous (it's a SMOKE MONSTER! How am I blocking this with a CAGE?) and best of all, it completely threw any sense of direction you had every time you stepped back out.

(I'll confess to a certain guilty satisfaction at typing in the numbers though. And I'd have forgiven almost anything if there'd been a scene where you got to punch Jack until he agreed that if he was ever captured by the Others, his first and only question would be "What the &^%* is going on?!")

#4 Braidon Berry May 13, 2008 04:28pm

The caves were hell