I had not played The Final Station (which you can find on Steam for fifteen bucks) before, and it was only by virtue of a Steam Code sent to my deadname email address (under which I previously wrote about games) that it arrived along with a code for the game’s new (excellent) DLC, The Only Traitor (releasing on April 19th for $4.99) that I ended up playing it at all. The Final Station is a sidescrolling survival shooter, with simulation elements, and one of the best minimalist/low cost narratives I’ve encountered in an game, with a great deal of subtext delivered through environmental storytelling.
The narrative of The Final Station is deceptively simple, at first. You are a train operator (perhaps engineer?) on a train making it’s way from town to town in the Russian countryside a little less than a century after an alien force invaded earth in an event known as The First Visitation. It soon becomes clear that a Second Visitation is at hand, and you’re train is required by the government to help aid in the fight against them. Maybe. Superficially, the narrative is a thin invasion tale with a dour ending, but it’s opt in, the cost of experiencing it only what you want to put into it.
Regular gameplay involves the train coming into a station, and the player having to retrieve a code to unlock it from it’s “Blocker” so that it can move onto the next station. In most levels this involves running through large complexes, bunkers, or underground shelters, since the station manager is hiding or was killed during the visitation while away from his post. Visitor missile-pods filled with a strange gas are turning people into zombies, who form the bulk of the enemies, whom you can kill either with melee attacks or firearms, but ammunition is limited and must be scrounged from the environment or dead bodies. Along the way, you slowly encounter more and more (opt in) story elements by talking to survivors (or city denizens in safe areas where you can purchase ammunition, weapon upgrades, and medkits) in optional dialogues, or finding computers and notes around the levels.
The game’s narrative is most remeniscent of Half Life and Half Life 2‘s method of progressive story advancement; this appears to be entirely intentional. In a Steam conversation addressing the game’s single, linear ending, designer Oleg Sergeev mentioned Half Life 2 is his favorite game as a justification of the game’s linear path. Like Gordon Freeman starting out as a scientist involved in an experiment who becomes the face of the resistance, your train operator is drawn into the conflict against the visitors and the government’s actions working to either bolster or undermine those attempts. Like Freeman in Half Life, it soon becomes clear that there’s a whole lot more history to the resistance effort, the train itself, and even your specific role as operator.
Like Half Life and Half Life 2, environmental storytelling comes heavily into play, as areas of the game world reveal the growing terror of the populace through graffiti, increasingly ruined landscapes, otherworldly train stops, and the increasingly dark recognition of the intentions of those in power.
One facet of the game’s narrative is that, with the exception of a few interactions with a hunter-like character who carries a rifle, and a few members of The Council (the international governing body that’s meant to prepare the world to fight against a Second Visitation) the story is entirely opt-in, and in some cases dependent on how well you perform the management sections. During these sections you can craft medkits and ammo and manage the train and its passengers. Characters you rescue will become hungry, and in order to keep them alive you’ll need to feed them with food you find in game levels, heal the injured with medkits (which draw from your own pool of healing items in the survival levels) and monitor the train’s systems, which require you to make regular adjustments or the train will stop, putting them at further and further risk. While doing all this, your rescued passengers will have conversations about the events of the game, the visitors, “The Guardian” constructed from visitor tech to fight them, and the ongoing carnage as the Second Visitation continues. Even this is opt-in, though, as you don’t have to stay in the cabin to listen to them chat.
The Only Traitor DLC focusses instead on a lone baseball-bat wielding survivor, who for most of the DLC is trailing the main game’s protagonist as he moves through the destroyed countryside, in a muscle car that can hold a single passenger. Instead of a train code, you need to find gas, food, and water for you and your passenger in order to move on from each level. In narrative terms, it concerns itself with doling out little tidbits about the rise of the international Council that makes up the world government following the First Visitation, the creation of the bunkers and shelters, and the corruption that twisted the Council’s original intentions.
Made more disturbing is the implication of the final section of the source game with The Hunter, who in the DLC emerges much more clearly as a G-Man like figure, manipulating things with some sort of uncanny, inhuman power. It makes the source game narrative much darker, especially his involvement at the very end, implying a deeper, more troubling reason for his actions. Another section implies that the conclusion of the game, which originally suggests that the visitors are trying to help humanity, may not be accurate at all.
The DLC, addressing the linear concerns of some fans, is designed for a certain degree of replayability. Since you can only take one passenger at a time in your muscle car, and you can swap them out at almost every stop with other survivors, you’ll only get their entire story if you stick with the same passenger once you grab them, offering different insights into the game world as you converse with them during the drives between levels. Like the regular game, these can be skipped (you can play almost the entire game without getting any story, if you want) but the passengers are also responsible for your healing between levels, and crafting your ammo and medkits; and have different stats for those skills and their sociability (willingness to talk).
The Final Station isn’t perfect, it’s sometimes plagued by hit detection issues (shooting most enemies in the head kills them, but not always depending on the angle or distance, and one of the train minigames is not readily apparent how it’s supposed to work, and doesn’t have instructions) but it’s so much stronger than the mindless sidescrolling shooter it initially appears to be, especially in it’s use of a minimalist narrative to suggest a larger fictional universe that leaves the audience to do the work of filling in the connections and details. It has that rare—but becoming much more common—quality of being an unreliable game narrative, where the information you’re presented with may be fractured, inaccurate, or even lies told by some of the characters, and the joy as a player is to get to put it all together and play a second intellectual game, on a level above the action.