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Playing Kafka review – a well-intentioned but sanitised attempt at adapting the unadaptable
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Playing Kafka review – a well-intentioned but sanitised attempt at adapting the unadaptable

If Franz Kafka had lived to give notes on Playing Kafka, a new video game adaptation of his work, a big one might have been: where’s the sex? What this interactive version of The Trial has in branching narrative, it lacks in sexuality: one can imagine the author-cum-playtester apoplectic at the absence of sadomasochism and lust. Overall, the choices made in this literal and lightly interactive adaptation seem calibrated to what is appropriate to leave running on a museum iPad. Simple binary choices and touchscreen controls set the bar to entry low, and there is no imagery to scandalise a visiting classroom.

Playing Kafka, released just weeks before the centenary of Kafka’s death, is a collaboration between the Goethe-Institut and the developer Charles Games (a studio, not a person). It adapts Kafka’s unfinished and posthumously assembled novels The Trial and The Castle, along with a long, critical letter from Kafka to his father about their relationship.

Playing Kafka.View image in fullscreen

The Trial loses most in translation, speed-running through the text and paring back the main character’s complex interiority until he is a blank, biddable avatar. The mechanics of video games can serve stories and experiences no other medium can deliver, but it’s not enough in this case to compensate for what the developers have given up. Nor does the letter to Kafka’s father gain emotional heft from perfunctory interactivity and pattern-matching puzzles. Maybe his dad would have liked it.

Larger and more profound than any of Kafka’s plots are his worlds, and the sense of the Kafkaesque: of an obscure organisation indifferent and incomprehensible to its participants. This is sort of antithetical to good game design practice, which demands clear rules, victory conditions and systems that behave as expected. In Kafka’s world, the court is unknowable: it lives outside the courthouse in attics and tenements, wallpaper and lamplight. There may be no court at all, no rules and no point.

Accordingly, Playing Kafka never suggests there is anything to achieve in the experience. It is full of movement without progress, choice without consequence. It can make for a stultifying video game, to a player and a purist: the luminary of German letters has been adapted to the systems and parlance of a choose-your-story mobile game.

Playing Kafka video game screenshotView image in fullscreen

The Castle fares the best here. Kafka here never gave the novel an ending, which may have freed the developers from the pressure of arriving at a point. Unburdened, their version is a commendably daffy, playful and tedious exercise in, perhaps, nothing at all.

Would Kafka approve? Obviously not – he didn’t want this work published in the first place. But a Kafka adaptation that cannot satisfy its author might as well trap him in a hell of his own making. Kafka playing Playing Kafka would have been Kafka’s ultimate nightmare: lost in a maze arranged from his own words, confounded by obscure if not non-existent objectives, dialogue options that offer no choice at all, and ultimately unable to progress after a bug sends his character’s lawyer clipping through the floor. In the thought of it there is, at least, something a little Kafkaesque.

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  • Playing Kafka is available now; free on PC

Source: theguardian.com