When I learned that Kona was set in my home province of Québec and developed by a Québécois studio, I knew I had to play it, and I knew I had to play it in French. As soon as the well-voiced narration started, my concerns were soothed – the language here is an enunciated but accurate reflection of Québec’s own French, not made more European for an international market. This is important – a great deal of this game involves rummaging through the material refuse of the lives of people in a small town, so the authenticity of their existence in space and time needs to ring true.
Many reviews have noted out that Kona takes place in “northern Canada,” and while technically accurate, this phrasing obfuscates the cultural context and perspective which animates Kona. You will not find the verdant rainforests and pan-Pacific mosaic of British Columbia here; nor the anglophone commercial heartland of Ontario; nor the rocky, melancholy shores of the eastern Maritimes, or the endless skies and fields and ranches of the Prairies, or even our true north, bone-chilling and vast and sparse. This is not a pan-Canadian story – it is a Québécois story, one rendered with detail and earnestness by Québécois game developers.
Kona takes place in northern Québec in 1970, and as protagonist Carl Faubert stumbles around the tiny mining village of Atâmipêk, the state of the province is in evidence everywhere in the lives and writings of its inhabitants. Catholicism is fading in the wake of the Quiet Revolution. The October Crisis, which saw the assassination of the province’s Labour Minister by the “Front de libération du Québec” separatist paramilitary, is fresh on everyone’s mind. Montréal’s urban hub is growing further away from the rural countryside in wealth and values, and global modernity is beginning its encroachment.
The story is told from a classically Québécois perspective – the francophone majority are the in-group, leading varied and distinct lives and having both mundane human struggles and darker conflicts that lead to trouble: a family struggles with its failures to live up to Catholic values; a mechanic is obsessed with government espionage and extraterrestrials; a priest turns to alcohol in old age, as his faith’s place in the world diminishes; a nationalist is stockpiling weapons and explosives, preparing for a bloody separatist revolution.
Meanwhile, a wealthy anglophone outsider has come to awkwardly integrate himself into the community, threatening it with disruption and disenfranchisement. Indigenous Cree still live here as well, but the francophone townsfolk seem to think of them as features of the land rather than members of the community.
The game’s Québécois perspective is authentic and in many ways true to life, but it also proves itself to be inward-looking and limiting. The Cree of Atâmipêk are presented more as a nebulous force than as a collection of people with relatable humanity, and their existence as a colonized, marginalized people is barely addressed. One of the game’s central mysteries does pay lip service to the shared humanity of the Cree, but it comes at the heels of several hours in which they are viewed mostly with suspicion and distance and an air of mysticism.
Likewise, the narrative trope of the wealthy anglophone showing up to cause trouble, which is used both here and more widely to obscure the francophones’ own history as colonizers, is indulged without deeper reflection. The game hints at some of the difficulties inherent in trying to replicate European-style nationalism on a colonized territory shared with the descendants of its original inhabitants, and at the challenges inherent in trying to police ethnic boundaries and cultural influences while basing an economy almost entirely on resource extraction and export, but those hints end up going nowhere.
The narrative may fall short from that broader perspective, but its focus on replicating the feel of Québec in the pre-digital era infuses the rest of the game with a sense of tangibility and, to someone from Québec like myself, familiarity. The graphical style is stylized enough that failures in realism don’t matter much, and are realistic enough that everything feels familiar and recognizable.
The dialect is proper but accurate, warmer and heartier to my ears than European French. The music creaking out of the radio sounds like open-air festivals I went to as a child. The rushing of the wind and the shaking of the trees feels like winter in Gatineau Park. Wood-filled stoves lit on fire in the snow feel true to memory. Kona knows what it’s like to drive a crappy old car through a boreal forest during a whiteout, and what it’s like to march through knee-deep snow with a flashlight as wind howls through the trees overhead.
As for the gameplay itself? There are survival and crafting elements here, but they are mercifully simple and streamlined, existing only as much as they need to for the purposes of situating you in the world. You’ll be gathering resources like matches and tinder, firewood and gasoline, aspirin and flares, but for the most part these are easy enough to come by. You need to keep warm, healthy, and sane, but so long as you visit fires frequently and avoid getting chomped on by wolves, you’ll be fine. The controls and interface are pleasingly straightforward, getting out of the way so you can experience the world fully.
The vast majority of gameplay involves rummaging through houses and sheds and backwoods, trying to figure out what happened in this strange little town. You’ll be reading diaries and news articles, examining moving boxes and broken machinery, flipping switches and taping things together. Occasionally you’ll come face to face with bold wolves, who sometimes run and sometimes attack (though you can chase them off without harming them).
Breaking into some of the game’s locations requires reading clues, finding special tools, or tracking down keys – it all feels like detective work, with a bit of MacGyvering thrown in for fun. It’s slow-paced and methodical work, satisfying but without much tension outside a few key moments, and it smoothly reveals a great deal about the lives of Atâmipêk’s inhabitants and the mystery surrounding their disappearances and deaths.
If you’re wary of games that feature survival mechanics or crafting or constant warfare against the local wildlife, fear not: Kona is a well-crafted investigative mystery first and foremost, an earnest slice-of-life second. It’s worth playing as a game for the quality of its craft alone, but it has something more as well, especially for North Americans. It’s a reminder that somewhere on this continent is a land where English never took root; where the wellspring of culture is not Puritan but Catholic, not land and commerce but resource extraction; where the nation-building story is not about expanding into the West, but doggedly persisting into the future.
It is not a complete look at the complexities of French and English colonialism or at modern cultural and economic challenges in the province, but it’s an earnest representation of some of the differing and occasionally contradictory ways the Québécois see themselves.
PUBLISHER – Parabole | DEVELOPER – Parabole | ESRB – T | PLATFORMS – PC / PS4 / Xbox One
VERDICT[mks_separator style=”solid” height=”2″]
RECOMMENDED – Kona is a well-crafted, good-looking mystery game with survival elements that enhance rather than obstruct the player’s experience. More than that, it provides a well-realized – if somewhat narrow – sketch of some of Québec’s culture and challenges from the period. Play this if you like sifting through people’s lives and getting a glimpse of the things that animate them, or if you like the idea of solving a supernatural mystery in a cold wilderness.