Backbone, a noir adventure game set in an anthropomorphic version of Vancouer, is coming out on June 8. I have already played the free Steam demo, Backbone: Prologue, six times.
Now, the Steam algorithm knows I’m a sucker for noir detective stories and that is, indeed, what Backbone is. It’s got all the usual clichés, like a wisecracking private eye in a trenchcoat, a rainy city trapped perpetually in night time, and a classy night club run by the mob. But that isn’t why I played the Backbone: Prologue six times.
Backbone is set in a dreary version of Vancouver with anthropomorphic animals living in a clearly defined hierarchy. Howard Lotor, the aforementioned private eye, is a raccoon and thus a second-class citizen. One cat on the street derisively refers to Howard as a “striper.” When Howard walks up to a nightclub, the bouncer out front, a bear, doesn’t bother with pleasantries. “No entrance for raccoons. Goodbye.”
Howard isn’t surprised by any of this. In fact, he seems to expect it, implying that systematic racism has plagued furry Vancouver for quite some time.
To be honest I’m tired of fantastic racism. Game companies have long relied on this trope to deconstruct racism through the proxy of elves crammed into ghettos, stateless alien refugees, and disenfranchised robots. It was novel at first but now it just feels like a way to hijack the histories of actual oppressed peoples without actually featuring or highlighting them because of the inevitable angry gamer backlash.
But Backbone? It weirdly worked for me. Maybe it’s because in Backbone, you play as the character who is actually experiencing the racism. That isn’t the case for Mass Effect and for most playthroughs of Dragon Age, in which the player is observing racism happening to others — or worse, is perpetuating it themselves.
The demo begins with Howard investigating what appears to be a simple case of a cheating spouse. His client, Odette Green, strongly suspects that her husband Jeremy Green has been stepping out on her. Jeremy’s been acting weird and coming home late while reeking of booze, smokes, perfume, and something herbal (dank, even).
Throughout the case, Howard speaks with a colourful cast of characters including a drug dealer, a mob boss, and an investigative journalist. Racism is the big undercurrent in all these interactions. Larry, the only other raccoon character in the demo, is homeless…and a valuable source of information, since he’s often ignored.
When Harold finally tracks down Jeremy Green inside the local jazz club, The Bite, he also unintentionally unravels a vast, gruesome conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. The implications throughout the demo suggests that the conspiracy is tied to the racism that plagues Howard’s life, and undoubtedly, many other characters in Vancouver.
Again: I played this demo six times. The cast is compelling and the story has all my favourite noir checkmarks while also promising to be deeper than the average pulp yarn. If nothing else, the art direction is gorgeous and it oozes atmosphere. On my first playthrough, I stood idle inside The Bite for a good 10 minutes because the music was that good.
Raw Fury, the publisher behind Backbone, announced that the full game will be released on June 8 for PC. Keep your eye on this one. It’s showing a lot of promise.