For those of us who love the idea of digital espionage but who don't have the ability to hack our way into a paper bag, Exoriare is here to fulfill all of our cyberpunk fantasies. The new alternate reality game from Smoking Gun Interactive sucks you in to a world of government conspiracies and stands poised to keep you hooked for a long time to come.
It's difficult to describe this game with too much detail. Such an immersive experience really needs to be tried first-hand to get the full effect. Both the keyboard and mouse are going to be involved, and gameplay ranges from interactive fiction (with a clever nod to a classic IF game) to piecing together a jigsaw-type puzzle and decrypting coded messages. There's a fair amount of puzzle-solving involved, but fortunately there are forums available if you want to ask for help. In fact, registration for the forums is built into the game, so it seems that helping others and asking for help are encouraged by the developers.
Exoriare is presented differently than most games. Far from just a browser title, there's also a companion graphic novel, all of which leads up to an as-of-yet unnamed cross-platform game, to be released in the future. The first parts of the game and novel were released last week, with promises of more content to come. There's no word on how much more we can expect, or how many updates there will be before the experience is complete, but the first expansion is set to come out later today, so now is a great time to get in on the experience. While the details that have been revealed are pretty limited, the people at Smoking Gun Interactive have made it known that once all of the parts have been unveiled, they will all tie together to complete the Exoriare experience.
You can dive straight into the game without reading through the accompanying graphic novel, but I wouldn't recommend it. There's a pretty extensive background story to this game. Everything can be completed without knowing what you're doing, but it won't be nearly as much fun. This is a game you need to soak in, not charge through.
Analysis: Although Exoriare is their first foray into the world of browser-based games, the people of Smoking Gun Interactive are far from inexperienced in the world of video games. In fact, some of the staff worked on Company of Heroes, one of the highest-rated strategy defense games of all time. Couple that with a superbly-drawn graphic novel and this might be one of the most professionally produced browser games around.
With such big names behind it, the bar is set pretty high right from the start. Fortunately, Exoriare manages to leap effortlessly over that bar, in a way that's sure to make cyberpunk fans squeal with delight. The graphics, the storytelling, the atmosphere... everything about this game does an excellent job of sucking you in and making you feel like you're part of the story. Granted, true hacking probably isn't so puzzle-filled, but you'll get so caught up in what you're doing that you won't even notice if it's not exactly realistic.
There are a few accessibility issues I feel I should mention. There are some rapidly flickering images, so people with epilepsy would be wise to steer clear. Even if you're not prone to seizures, the flashing can get annoying when you're trying to concentrate on what's on the screen. There's also a considerable amount of adult language that might turn off parents or the easily offended. Aside from that, you'd be hard pressed to find any faults. Solid gameplay, an absorbing atmosphere, and accompanying media all lead to a game that is likely to become an instant classic.
Or start with the graphic novel.
UPDATE - Global Forager:
If you've been keeping up with our new Way Too Casual Podcast, you might have heard that the world of Exoriare is expanding. With the new stand-alone game Global Forager, you can take part in the fun even if you haven't played through the rest of the continually expanding game. Although registration is required, it is handled automatically for you, so you won't even have to provide your e-mail address if you're concerned about privacy. Once you get signed in, you're tasked with taking over a computer network, by making a line connecting one side of the constantly changing playing field to the other. You do this by taking over sections one at a time, while trying to get around the defending network that is trying to keep you out. You're given a number of "exploits" that you can use to try to gain an advantage, but the enemy also has a few tricks to deploy just when you think you're close to winning. The more of the network you take over, the faster you can use your exploits, but don't spend too much time trying to build up your network; after 25 turns, you're shut out and the game and will have to start over. Once you've completed the initial level, you have access to the global network, which is currently being taken over by your fellow players. You'll get to join in the fun at this point, helping to take over regions that haven't been secured yet. Once all of the regions are taken...well, it's not really clear what will come next. That's part of the fun of Exoriare, you never quite know what to expect.
Saying that Global Forager is difficult is an understatement. It's probably going to take you many, many tries before you beat the initial level and make it into the real meat of the game. And then you realize that the level you just spent a large chunk of time trying to beat was an easy level, and there are 2 higher difficulty levels to tackle. The learning curve is fairly steep, but once you play around with it a bit, everything seems to snap into place and start to make some sense. But the difference between knowing what you're supposed to do and actually being able to DO it is pretty huge. Fortunately, I'm happy to report that the payoff is definitely worth your while. Getting to participate with players around the world really helps to immerse you in the game and make you feel as if you're part of something big. If you've played through the original game, you'll have some idea of what to expect. If you haven't, it won't be immediately clear what's going on, but there are some very active forums that can help you to catch up. As long as you don't let yourself get overwhelmed by the initial learning curve, Global Forager is a great way to join up with a large community intent on saving the world from War Games-style destruction.