Kairo is creepy. It’s creepy because it drops you into a pit of grainy monoliths and industrial ambient sound. It’s creepy because it’s subversive in its simplicity and obscurity. It’s creepy because it urges you to discover its secrets, though they remain cryptic when found.
These secrets house the answer of what Kairo is, in the strict, narrative sense of the question. If you’re at all like me, you’ll pick up on a few hints – get a little taste of what Kairo is all about – but will unfortunately have to leave the heavy lifting up to the true researchers like Joel over at Electron Dance. It’s surely impossible to play through this game once, without any outside assistance, and pick up on all the little details that he documents in his spoiler intensive article on the game.
But while Joel picks apart the miniscule details to construct an accurate picture of the What, Where, and Why of Kairo, the average player will only have access to the initial experience. This article is not about the hidden narrative of Kairo. Far more interesting, in my opinion, is the unadulterated experience of playthrough one. This first playthrough feels like a hallucinatory walk through a contemporary art gallery, actively avoiding the type of clarity that can later be extracted.
The player enters a fever dream – a realm of bleary edifices, sounds, colors, and spaces. A psychological horror game based in the architectural and auditory – none of it particularly scary – but all of it just the right type of unsettling. Exploration is your only initial instinct in this alien world and as you employ it, you’re rewarded with a sense of progress. New rooms become available and your map slowly populates. Delving deeper into the structures in Kairo, simple puzzles become your focus. You’re not quite sure who/what you are as you complete these tasks but you assume you’re human at the very least. But this anthropomorphic sentiment is not easily provable. In fact, a more likely immediate explanation is that you’re some type of non-human, whose goal is entirely unintelligible from the perspective of a person. Human or alien, solving these puzzles allows you to glean a sense of purpose. Perhaps this absurdly beautiful collection of dimly-colored antechambers and chambers actually exists for a specific reason. Kairo is the embodiment of a creepy secret numbers station – something is going on that you’re not quite aware of, yet you’re right there in the middle of it.
In fact, the puzzles have a certain mechanical nature. One solution sends electricity through rotating rings while the solution to another sets water flowing to turn some hidden turbines. You realize your objective is to set these cogs into motion. You’re never entirely sure what kind of relationship the throng of connected and disconnected rooms and puzzles has to the ‘real world,’ but you are slowly tempted to believe that there is, indeed, some hidden association between this place and Earth. Discerning the hard truths of this connection is problematic and it is only at the very end of the game that you realize what was at stake the whole time.
Navigating these rooms, you are slowly fed a drip of images. A portrait of Einstein, a desolated city, famous works of art, circuit diagrams, the Buddha, a pair of dice, a pile of coins. These pictures are the artifacts that remind us where we come from, like an archive of great, important, and familiar things, lest we forget our origins on this haunted vessel. Other remembrances of home can be found on Kairo. One room resembles a park. One room houses maps of Earth. Certain hallways air static-drenched human voices from eerie obelisks. These snippets of human life never quite pacify the desire to return home, though Kairo has us question whether or not there is a home to which we can return.
The creeping lonely feeling is akin to feelings I remember when I first played Myst, and while comparing Kairo to Myst feels like a cheap tactic, it’s hard for me to ignore the similarities in tone. The game feels bleak, mysterious, foreboding and somehow threatening. To me, the world of Kairo, just like the world of Myst, feels passively sinister. A similar sense of apprehension exists in Mateusz Skutnik’s Submachine series. There is something off in these worlds and it’s up to the player to discover the secrets of these spaces with the ultimate goal of somehow returning to a safe, familiar place. Games like this are peculiarly good at making us feel as though we’ve been away from home for a very long time. Kairo emits a type of uneasy ambience that can’t be easily boiled down to words.
While the atmosphere of Kairo is spectacular, the actual gameplay components feel plain, unoriginal, and superficial. The puzzles are simplistic (not just in the minimalist sense) and occasionally disjointed. It rarely takes more than a brief period of trial and error to solve any one of them. If you’ve played many puzzle games, you’ve already solved most of the puzzles in Kairo. I am certain that smarter puzzles, with a stronger relationship to the game’s biggest strengths (sounds, structures, and exploration) could have been constructed to replace these basic placeholder challenges. It’s annoying when a puzzle feels like it’s been arbitrarily inserted into the flow to keep me from moving forward too fast. A slightly unrelated gripe has to do with the number of glitches I encountered during my playthrough. I found myself having to restart more than once after getting permanently stuck on the game’s geometry. There is also a pretty consistent problem with visual clipping and being able to see through walls. These are all little issues, but so many of them dampen Kairo’s shine. Fortunately, this game focuses on its strengths more than its weaknesses. It’s obvious that the visual and auditory landscapes and not the more classical first-person puzzler elements are at the heart of Kario. The puzzles are a side-dish (albeit not a very tasty one) to the main course of haunting sounds, bleak, fading colors, and a simple, stirring type of absurdist architecture.
Personally, I prefer to leave the full-picture half-complete. Filling in the pieces with my own sense of why things are the way they are seems far more genuine than gulping down the potion of ‘truth.’ This does not mean my respect I don’t respect Joel from Electron Dance for the massive amount of work he put into his analysis, or that I choose to strip all authority away from Richard Perrin, the actual creator of the game. What it means is that analyses that aim to find a specific truth in such ambiguous material is always bound to turn up more questions. The author may have had some very specific intentions when creating Kairo and Joel may have been able to pick up on just about all of them, but those definitive answers are not what made this game so beautiful.