“What if we made games more like movies?” is a boring, hackneyed question that floats around far too often. Starward Industries threw it out the window, asked “what if a game was like a book instead,” and then proceeded to answer that question with The Invincible. The Invincible is ostensibly based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1960s “hard sci-fi” novel of the same name, where “hard” just means there’s a lot of real science in there, but Starward makes some smart changes that make their vision of The Invincible more thoughtful and relevant than the source material. It trips over itself sometimes and doesn’t quite reach the philosophical heights it seems to be aiming for, but The Invincible is an impressive achievement in sci-fi storytelling nonetheless.
In space, no one can hear you have an existential crisis
Starward (wisely) chose to replace the rather boring Rohan of Lem’s book, who serves mainly as a vehicle for getting Lem’s point across, with Dr. Yasna, a better-realized character with a passion for science and firm convictions about the world based on her empirical understanding of it.
The Invincible isn’t afraid of quiet, which is one of its biggest strengths. Yasna speaks to herself in the game’s first 20 minutes of solitude not as a way to fill the silence for the player, but as a way to cling to hope that she might not be alone on Regis III after all. Conversations are to the point and meaningful when they do happen, aided by some excellent voice acting. The emphasis is squarely on giving you time to contemplate what’s happening and look at the world from Yasna’s perspective. It makes The Invincible more like an immersive reading experience than a traditional video game, but there’s an even more important reason for that contemplative approach.
I’m gonna get a bit nerdy next to try and explain why Starward’s vision of The Invincible works, even if it’s not in the way the team – or Lem – might have wanted. The big problem with the sci-fi of Lem’s time, hard or not, is that, so often, the ominous future just isn’t that concerning or it’s already happend, and we’ve done nothing about it. Orwell warned of the surveillance state’s dangers with vivid, sometimes ridiculous examples in 1984. Well, we live in a surveillance state now. It helps stop crimes, and YouTube stalks us digitally so it can recommend songs we don’t want to hear. That’s about it. Petty bureaucrats don’t go around strapping rats to the faces of malcontents like they do in Orwell’s future, and we’re free to think what we want, assuming we take the trouble to actually think at all.
Lem’s big question was “what if evolution isn’t linear?” and he pondered the horror of humans discovering that less intelligent lifeforms could be more capable than people. It’s a weird mix of early postmodernism that felt outdated even for the 1960s, just two decades after World War II, when Lem and others saw without a doubt that the 18th century myth of human progress was exactly that: a myth. The unspoken corollary – that the way we understand the world might not be the only way to understand it – is more interesting, and that’s what Starward wisely chooses to focus on.
A warning too late
Going into too much detail beyond The Invincible’s opening hours would count as significant spoilers, but it eventually boils down to “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” with a heavy emphasis on humans and technology. The rise of AI means the points raised are somehow more relevant now than they were when Lem first published it, but The Invincible still falls into the same problem as Lem’s book and other cautionary tales in that vein. It raises questions and then hopes the shock is enough to make you think and maybe even change your view, and it just isn’t.
We’ve seen enough warnings ignored and avoidable atrocities committed that this form of caution story doesn’t have the paradigm-shifting power that Lem’s book might have had four decades ago. The Invincible works better as a story about Yasna, the confident scientist, having her worldview completely shattered multiple times than it does a cautionary sci-fi tale with lasting philosophical value. That’s a genre problem, though, and not necessarily a Starward problem. Watching Yasna go from ignorant isolation to knowledge and then doubt and awe is still one of the most memorable story arcs to come out of 2023. The fact that I can even write a sentence about a video game’s serious efforts in philosophy is an achievement in itself, anyway. The Invincible may not be earth-shattering, but I respect its ambition.
Back to basics
The Invincible’s gamey aspects are a bit more mixed. Starward’s contemplative approach to interactions extends to the futuristic gadgets you use, which forego sci-fi flash in favor of usefulness. Bio-trackers help you find lifeforms. Scanners point out things you can’t see with the eye alone. It’s all very utilitarian in a way that fits perfectly with The Invincible’s time period and the ideas driving the crew forward. Using these items and your logbook and even moving around feel so natural and human. Yasna’s no acrobat She scrambles and struggles to climb ledges and runs out of breath after running for a few seconds. (She’s just like me for real). There’s a welcome sense of crunchy realism in everything you do, and it ties you more closely to Yasna and Regis III as a result.
One of my favorite parts of The Invincible is how it translates this sense of presence and realism to the environment. More than once, you have to use your map, some environmental clues, and good deduction work to find the way forward or track down a missing item. Puzzles are usually not that complex, but it’s so satisfying when you land on the right answer. It’s also pretty clever. Here’s Yasna, a high-tech space traveler, reduced to using “primitive” methods to solve problems, a very nice nod to one of The Invincible’s major themes.
The Invincible’s hands-off approach is also one of its biggest problems. Yasna is very selective about which ledges she can climb, but it’s impossible to figure out what you can or can’t interact with until you’re right on top of it. Even then, the icon sometimes displays for things you can’t do anything with. I spent longer than I care to admit in an early area trying to climb a ledge that an interaction icon kept glitching out on before realizing I was supposed to be somewhere else.
Yasna’s map isn’t exactly the most helpful either. That’s understandable under the circumstances, but some of the boundary markers are straight-up misleading and make getting around more frustrating than it should be. I also ran into several glitches during scene transitions that broke the game and one where everything went black for no apparent reason. Starward is aware of some bugs at launch, but just bear in mind that your first experience with The Invincible might not be as smooth as it could.
Annoyances and bugs aside, The Invincible is as bold and smart as its protagonist, and I can only hope it starts a trend of equally thoughtful takes on big ideas from history and literature.
This review was based on a digital copy of The Invincible provided by the publisher. The Invincible launches for PC via Steam on November 6, 2023.
- Thoughtful adaptation of the classic novel
- Excellent puzzles with ties to the game's themes
- Strong sense of immersion in everything from the tools you use to how you use them
- Exploration is sometimes needlessly frustrating
- Glitches and bugs can impede progress
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, The Invincible review: Mind game
$24 (current discount) is close to my buy point for such a game with 8 hours of sci-fi exploration. I've read the novel recently and this seems like a good premise for a game