When I saw the opportunity to review a game based on Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, I jumped at the chance. It is not often that novels get adapted into video games, and I was interested in how Ovid Works would adapt Kafka’s short story. In Kafka’s work, a salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug. The story then details his struggle with his new and bizarre situation. I was curious, how would the developers adapt this story into a video game?
I was quickly disappointed with the direction Ovid Works had taken with this adaptation. Like the novel, the game centres around a salesman named Gregor Samsa. However, this time around, instead of turning into a man-sized bug, Gregor transforms and shrinks to the size of a normal-sized bug. From a first-person perspective, the gameplay of Metamorphosis revolves around the player navigating the now giant-sized environments, such as desks and bookshelves, with platforming elements and light puzzle-solving. Gregor is tasked with reaching The Tower, where he hopes he can solve the twin mysteries of his own transformation and his (still human) friends’ arrest for an undisclosed crime. In order to do so, he must complete a series of menial tasks to reach The Tower. By adapting The Metamorphosis in this way, as an adventure platformer with light puzzles, it felt like a waste of an interesting premise.
In its defence, the platforming works well, for the most part. Judging distance with jumping is relatively straightforward, with there being a large margin for error due to Gregor sticking onto most non-vertical surfaces. Other platforming sections require Gregor to utilize sticky substances on his legs to attach himself to vertical surfaces, and whilst doing this can be disorientating, I found these sections to be enjoyable as they offered something a bit different to the rest of the platforming areas, because aside from this, these sections lack any features that make the game stand out, and any semblance of a challenge is nowhere to be seen.
It is a problem that runs through the rest of Metamorphosis. The puzzles are all pretty simple and don’t require creative solutions. There are times when the player has to explore the environment, but these are usually within linear environments. A map clearly shows the player points of interest that direct players to where they need to go to progress. Progress is gated by simple goals that lack an interesting hook, like stamping a certificate, that fail in motivating the player to push forward.
This all makes Metamorphosis a game that is far too simple as a gameplaying experience with no sense of challenge. As a result, it relies heavily on player investment into the central mysteries and the story to motivate progress. It is through these aspects of the game that it becomes clear how it is influenced by Kafka’s work. Each time the player thinks they have achieved a goal by completing a menial task, they are confronted with yet another barrier and another task as a result of bureaucracy. This is often maddening, and in this way is a reflection of his work, which was often based on nightmarish depictions of bureaucratic processes. Metamorphosis gleans its sense of humour through this aspect, heightened by conversations with other bugs who often outline these nonsensical processes. A lot of humour is also mined in these conversations due to Gregor’s ability to talk his way through any situation based on his skills as a salesman. These were often my favourite part of the game.
It was with these aspects that I started to warm towards Metamorphosis. It is at its best when it embraces the surrealism of the setting, and this is also seen with the visuals, which for the most part, lack imagination and detail. The design of the human characters in particular looked pretty poor. However, at certain points the game breaks off into surreal imagery, which is often striking and displays an artistry not seen elsewhere in the game. Arguably, this could be by design, the contrast between the regular environments emphasising the strangeness of the surreal imagery, where the setting’s mix between reality and fantasy also can be described as Kafka-esque. I realised that whilst the game clearly is not an adaptation of The Metamorphosis, it is demonstrably a game influenced by Kafka-esque themes.
However, just as the story seems to be going somewhere interesting and to fully embrace surrealism, it unfortunately rushes its conclusion. Metamorphosis is a short game, at around 3 hours long, and whilst the simple gameplay means that it can be seen as a positive that the game doesn’t outstay its welcome, it comes at the expense of the story. Whilst I enjoyed the Kafka-esque elements and themes, the short time we spend with these exposes these as shallow. The rushed conclusion connects the central mysteries in a way that is predictable and without sufficient context, it lacks any kind of profound meaning.
I commend Ovid Works and their attempt at developing a game inspired by Kafka. After a disappointing beginning, I did start to warm to the game and enjoy certain parts of it, such as the surreal imagery and the humorous dialogue. I definitely did not hate Metamorphosis. But I found the gameplay to be overly simplistic and repetitive, and though this may have been the point, it doesn’t change how it is found lacking as a gaming experience. Whilst its setting and story are both interesting, a rushed and predictable conclusion illuminates how shallow these are. It all adds up to a feeling of disappointment and a missed opportunity in a game that seemed to have a lot of potential.
Developer: Ovid Works
Publisher: All In! Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 12th August 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Metamorphosis was provided by the publisher.