Metamorphosis by Ovid Works
Metamorphosis is a video game based – in part, at least – on the titular short story by Franz Kafka. Protagonist Gregor Samsa, you might recall from the story, “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams [and] found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.”
That’s the gist of the premise, but the developers at Ovid Works take things a step further, adapting the game into a deeper overview of Kafka’s unsettling but pointedly political literary oeuvre.
Sticky Feet and Insect Action
To get the mechanical discussion out of the way, Metamorphosis plays as a first-person platformer, and a fairly good one, at that.
Making good use of Samsa’s perspective as an insect in a human-sized world, puzzles involve navigating the likes of drawers, chairs, and of course the hidden ducts, tunnels and spaces behind walls we rarely think about.
Wall-crawling makes for a particularly clever twist. Step in something sticky and you can right-click to climb directly up vertical surfaces, just like real insects!
Samsa can also walk in place to solve more traditional adventure game puzzles, like moving gears to set off an alarm clock.
I will point out that while the puzzles, the environments and the occasional view of Samsa’s insect legs from the first-person view are charming – albeit in a disturbing way – there was something about the motion controls, in particular the sudden shift in perspective during vertical crawls, that induced motion sickness to the point that I could only play Metamorphosis a little at a time.
Individual experiences will vary, of course, but sensitive players may want to take note.
The Kafka Crossover of the Year
The plot of the short story itself, one might argue, wouldn’t make for much of a video game; in the original story, Samsa never even leaves his apartment.
Ovid Works nimbly addresses this by combining it with Kafka’s other most famous work, the unfinished novel The Trial, by making Samsa a friend of that book’s protagonist and giving him – and us – a cockroach-eye view of its tale of an oppressive, faceless bureaucracy.
Metamorphosis does an excellent job conveying both the oppressiveness and the surrealism of Kafka’s work on both a literal and figurative level.
As mentioned, the more literal puzzle elements work well in conveying the absurdity of Samsa’s personal situation; a particularly effective moment involves his initial realization as he walks – or rather crawls – down a hallway of increasingly insectoid photographs to a room that at first appears to be full of huge furniture; excellent use of the “impossible hallway” optical illusion to convey our hero’s suddenly reduced stature.
The developers also take a more metaphorical approach, on occasion; one early scene involves platforming between giant 3D letters to convey the sense of being unexpectedly trapped within a previously unseen bureaucratic system.
Not a Gratuitous Overuse of the Term “Kafkaesque”
While multiple games have tried to reproduce Kafka’s themes on both a physical level – notably 1996’s Bad Mojo, itself heavily inspired by the short story – and a more metaphorical one, like Papers, Please and Beholder, Ovid Works’ Metamorphosis is the first I’m aware of that’s managed to do both at once.
The developers’ clever approach of combining Kafka’s works is an incredibly effective method of conveying the writers’ themes in a way that’s also mechanically engaging; Metamorphosis might be a bug-crawling simulator, but it’s not a “walking simulator,” in the more derogatory use of the term.
While Kafka himself would likely be baffled by modern fan culture’s obsession with minutiae, cross-overs, “canon” and the like, as a contemporary reader and video game enthusiast, I can only commend Ovid Works’ latest addition to what we can unofficially call “the expanded Kafka universe.” From big themes to little details – like era-appropriate wallpaper – the game is a stunning interpretation of Kafka’s justifiably paranoid, depressive vision.
And while occasional scenes might have made me feel literally sick to my stomach, that’s nothing compared to the suffering of poor Samsa or his friend, Josef K., so please spare them a pitying thought or two, then grab a copy of Metamorphosis for yourself.
Metamorphosis is available via the Nintendo Game Store, Sony PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store and Steam.
Check out the official trailer for Metamorphosis below: