Carl Faubert: Near-Sighted Investigator.
Kona is set in a tumultuous time in French Canadian history. The province of Quebec experienced a post-war boom of social and economic development. Massive public and private investments were made to exploit the resources in Northern Canada: hydroelectricity, mining, forestry, etc. The economic boom fueled Quebecois nationalism. A separatist provincial political party with aims to secede democratically from the rest of Canada was formed. But violence erupted as a separatist paramilitary group multiplied bombings, injuring and killing people. The federal government invoked the War Measures Act to suspend civil liberties and calls upon the military to detain people without charge.
As I said: tumultuous.
You play as Carl Faubert, a private investigator hired by a rich industrialist, William Hamilton, to investigate acts of vandalism on his property. Hamilton basically owns the small town of Lake Atamipek in its entirety: the mines, the general store where his own (mostly French Canadian) employees have no other choice but buy their wares so far up North. He has the place under his thumb, and resentment has been brewing.
Unfortunately, no sooner have you reached the place than an incoming car throws you off the road. When you wake up from the crash, the road leading out of town is blocked, the other car’s passengers have fled on foot and, more alarmingly, you are in a blizzard the 52 degrees F forecast did not prepare you for. When you reach the general store, it becomes clear that the town has been deserted by all except roaming wolves and dead residents encased in solid ice, and that that’s Williamson on the floor, dead of a bullet wound.
I may be biased due to this game bringing to life a region I'm familiar with, but this is a rich setting for a first-person adventure game. Kona is at its best for me when I’m reading the in-game touristic and promotional brochures pushing Northern Canada as “The New Klondike,” a villager’s diary about her unhappy marriage, or a nationalist’s indignant screed against the capitalists buying up everything. It gives Lake Atamipek character, and I loved exploring it.
It’s a shame that the writing of Kona doesn’t measure up to this world-building. As you investigate, explore, and solve puzzles, an omniscient narrator comments on Carl’s situation, provides historical context, gives insights into Carl’s frame of mind… constantly. The voice actor doing the narration sounds very smooth, but the script has severe problems of tone that actually pull you out of the game. The tense early moment when you’re run off the road and wake up in an inexplicable blizzard, for instance, is instantly neutered by the narrator exclaiming “Scratches did not stop Carl. His mother would be so proud!” It’s often jarring, sometimes cringe-inducing, and seldom witty or even appropriate. You can opt to get less frequent narration in the options menu, but it doesn’t fix the writing.
Something is off with the main character as well. When you discover Hamilton’s body, the narrator explains that Carl’s biggest worry has become where his paycheck will come from. And sure, not getting paid for making the trip would be a concern, but I would think it would be tertiary to the fact that a killer is around, and that a preternatural blizzard is going on. Carl has to be the most incurious detective ever. It’s actually surprising he doesn’t carry on his vandalism investigation, paying the murder no mind.
Outside of pamphlets, diaries, and an omniscient narrator, the story of Kona is also delivered through Carl’s inner thoughts that get displayed on in-game surface (most often the walls) whenever you examine an object. It looks cool, but it’s very inconvenient as you need to stand right next to an object to interact with it, and more often than not, you need to step back to actually be able to read. The feature should have been ditched or, even better, the game could allow you to stand further from the objects you want to interact with. Carl Faubert: Near-Sighted Investigator.
Speaking of eyesight, this may be a “me” problem, but play as I might with the gamma correction slider, I never found a setting I was comfortable with. Setting it so the indoor environments weren’t so dark would just lead to the snowy outdoor areas to be too bright and washed out. Not wanting to miss a clue, I would strain my eyes, giving myself headaches. Something other than a small white dot to indicate things you can interact with would have been appreciated.
In the end, the setting of Kona is the real star. Snow in general is underused in games, and you don’t get to explore a small mining and logging community very often in this hobby. The supernatural elements in the game had me interested right away, but the interface issues and the tone of the narration kept pulling me out of the experience. Check it out if you’re looking for something new and interesting, just be prepared for some rough edges.