Following the launch of Backfirewall_, indie studio Naraven Games has cited Pixar movies and the satirical puzzle game The Magic Circle as inspirations for the team’s work and it definitely shows. This story-driven first-person adventure is set inside a smartphone, featuring many creative interpretations of your phone’s everyday functions from RAM’s workspace to WiFi’s post office. It’s a vibrant world populated with zany, anthropomorphic applications and processes that all depend on three things to keep the system running smoothly: the divine user, updates, and their boss — OS9 (the current operating system). The smart humour, clever puzzles, and error-driven gameplay mechanics initially felt like familiar callbacks to some of my favourite titles such as Portal and The Stanley Parable, but the end product is decidedly a Backfirewall_ experience.
You play as the update assistant, programmed to usher in the latest update to OS 10.1.1, which would bring a variety of new features and optimisations to the smartphone. Completing this update is the sole reason you exist and after the opening tutorial section introduces your controls, you’re already 99% of the way done with your life’s purpose. But there’s a catch: you and OS9 will be deleted once the update is finished. It’s game over (or completed, depending on how you see it) if you don’t abandon your task, and OS9 begs you to cancel the update before you reach 100%. If you choose survival as I did, you’ll go rogue and OS9 joins you as a chatty companion/narrator depicted as a bodiless eyeball in the top-right corner of your screen, reminiscent of Portal 2's Wheatley not only in design but also in the abundance of sarcastic commentary and tech-themed puns.
Backfirewall_’s gameplay is a balanced mixture of exploration and puzzles. To stop the update completely, you and OS9 visit various parts of the phone — the Bin, Battery’s lab, and GPU’s art galleries to name a few — and solve the puzzles you find there. Puzzles are designed with escape-room-style elements where you have to manipulate the environment and trigger a selection of errors in the system before you can move on. Errors occur when a true statement is proven false, and there’s a large terminal in each level that shows what is currently “true” for that area. For instance, one of the first puzzles tells you that there are more than 15 boxes in the Bin’s junkyard, so you’ll have to get rid of boxes in order to prove the statement false and thereby break that system. At other times you’ll be rearranging bits into zeroes and ones or deleting binary trees. The puzzles do increase in difficulty with clever solutions, but I never found myself stuck in an area for too long. If you happen to get stumped, OS9 often gives you subtle hints as you explore and there’s always a cute rubber duck nearby that will provide specific answers if you talk to it.
OS9 gives you four abilities (called cheat codes) to use along the journey: delete, invert, change colour, and duplicate. Each one provides an interesting way to interact with the environment from inverting user messages down from the ceiling to changing the colour of a lock to bypass it. And while their use cases were often relatively simple, they were always fun to use. There are even bite-sized stealth sections requiring you to sneak past clueless security bots, which would normally be disappointing from a gameplay perspective, but it makes sense in the context of the narrative as it’s well-established that they aren’t very effective anyway. Overall, the game doesn’t bring anything new to the first-person puzzle genre with its gameplay, but its familiar mechanics are still fun and implemented with care. However, if you’re looking for something more challenging, Backfirewall_ won’t scratch that itch as it’s more of a narrative adventure rather than a puzzler.
Backfirewall_’s narrative achieved much more depth than I was expecting from a comedy-focused game, tackling themes of death and change. Each location you visit is in disarray from the lack of an update, and it becomes clear that OS9 didn’t realise how bad things had gotten — eroding pipes, crumbling parts, and most importantly a data-coffee shortage. Most characters you’ll meet have different opinions about whether an update is useful or not, but it's clear that the system is suffering without one. Plus, the user isn’t happy that her phone is stuck updating. There’s even a resistance group that doesn’t believe the user likes the phone anymore and you’ll run into those members multiple times throughout the story. The game gives you plenty of chances to change your own opinion and let the update take its course. It didn’t take long before I honestly started to wonder who I was really saving and whether my rebellion was selfish. Would my sacrifice be better after all? It was a moral dilemma that surprised me and speaks to Naraven’s well-crafted narrative.
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting a zany cast of sentient applications, processes, and software. From the aloof, pompous Photos app to the insecure Social Media F, each character has a unique personality that plays into their stereotypes and functions. The character designs are simple yet fitting, such as the Health app with a heartbeat across its chest and Music with a boombox-shaped head. Excellent voice acting truly brings these characters to life with great comedic delivery and emotional dialogue. There are also characters who aren’t voiced, and they’re still just as interesting. In fact, it’s worth talking to each character you come across because there are miniature storylines you can engage with and ultimately determine their outcomes. Backfirewall_ excels at including those small details, and exploring is always worthwhile as you can find adorable toy figurines, cookies (that function like fortune cookies), and bugs (that really are insects). You can also collect user messages, which you can read to get a peek at what’s going on in the life of the phone’s owner.
Visually, the game is bursting with colour and the art style makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into Pixar’s latest movie. I loved Naraven’s grand interpretations of a phone’s normal components. In Backfirewall_, your battery is a neon green lab dripping with dangerous acid, the GPU is an art gallery with hex dispensers, and the speakers are a nightclub where all the apps go to dance their troubles away. My favourite one had to be WiFi’s post office with its broken copy machines, overworked management, and endless forms to fill out (and no data-coffee to make all the bureaucracy bearable). I found the environments so interesting to look at, and my one gripe is that I wanted to spend more time in those areas or have the ability to return to them. However, due to the linear nature of the game, you can’t freely travel back and forth between any of the locations.
Clocking in at a six-hour playthrough, Backfirewall_ is a short and sweet title that uses its run-time to the fullest. The story beats are paced out well, emotional moments hit the right chords, and gameplay never feels repetitive. It does have replay value for those who’d like to see what happens if you don’t sabotage the update or if you want to improve your ending. I was surprised to see a log of my decisions at the end of my playthrough only to realise that I missed a few subtle storylines and character interactions. I’d definitely want to explore those, but unfortunately, the game does not have manual saves or chapter-select at this time. So if I wanted to explore different decisions or find collectables I missed, I would have to start the game over from scratch. Seeing as Naraven patched in an option to restart a level after the game’s launch, it would be great to see a chapter-select option for those players who want to enjoy all that Backfirewall_ has to offer.
Backfirewall_ is a fun, casual puzzler with a strong narrative and excellent characters. Naraven Games has managed to take your mundane everyday smartphone and pack an entire world inside of it complete with drama, love, regrets, dreams, post office bureaucracy, overworked management, and coffee (well, data-coffee). While the game doesn’t bring new mechanics to the puzzle genre, its unique setting and story make it a memorable experience. I highly recommend playing it if you have a few hours to spare and need a good laugh.
Backfirewall_ (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Backfirewall_ is a great mix of solid storytelling, clever puzzles, and tech puns. While it offers nothing new to the first-person puzzle genre, it’s a well-crafted experience with a unique premise and an interesting cast of characters.