Even in space, you can’t escape the rat race.
You can tell a game is trying to be clever when its title is a pun. Corpse of Discovery is a cryptic play on words for Corps of Discovery: a spacefaring organization which has employed an unnamed astronaut to boldly go where no one has gone before. You take on the role of this strapping young Major. Having landed on a strange alien planet, your mission is to venture out from your newly constructed base to survey the surroundings. It’s a simple job. Do it and you’ll be richly rewarded – able to retire from work and return home to your loving family back on Earth. It sounds like a standard set-up for a sci-fi horror title where everything goes horribly wrong with mutants/aliens/zombies, but Corpse of Discovery’s scares come not from monsters, but in how the game mirrors our everyday lives.
Let’s get the easy part of this review out of the way first so we can get to the juicy bits! Corpse of Discovery turned up to the “Are you a game?” test late, hung-over, and forgot to bring a pen. Every “level” consists purely of going from one waypoint to the next, whether to plant beacons, survey lifeforms, or do whatever other task you’re assigned. Occasionally you have to jump over things. Sometimes you have a jetpack that lets you boost really far over things. Sometimes you need to hide in the shade because of solar radiation. There are these weird floaty alien monstrosities that cast evil player-killing detection cones over the terrain, but since they’re so few and far between, and the levels are so wide-open, avoiding them is easy. That, believe it or not, covers the entire interactive portion of the proceedings. As a game, Corpse of Discovery is an automatic, almost soporific experience. I only suffered one (non-scripted) death, not because I was subjected to any kind of challenge, but because I completely zoned out and walked off a cliff without looking.
Your EVA unit is your constant companion during Corpse of Discovery. The levitating blue-eyed ball of a robot is there is to tell you in a overly emollient, posh accent where the next mission waypoint is. She is absolutely brilliant. She’s like GLaDOS if GLaDOS worked in Human Resources. Her role is to ever-so-subtly remind you of the importance of completing the mission. She’ll make appeals to you that you’re doing this for your children, enthuse you with what an honour it is that you might get a rock named after you, and she’ll sometimes even emasculate you with jabs at how your wife will probably replace you with a superior mate should you fail. At the end of the very first mission, EVA also has the duty of politely informing you that no rescue is coming and you’re stranded on the planet to die.
And seemingly, you do die. And yet, you find yourself waking up once again back in your little outpost with the same warped strains of “Ave Maria” coming from your bedside radio. You move, zombie-like, towards the briefing room to do your final mission all over again, but on a different planet. Your sense of where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it starts to fade as the same cycle seems to continue.
This, for me, was the real appeal of Corpse of Discovery: the dissection of the very notion of duty, and how capitalism has warped the definition of it for its own ends. The protagonist is always strung along by his noble goal of providing “the good life” for himself and his family. EVA even teases the protagonist about how the “big score” always seemed right around the corner; how if you work hard enough, you’ll earn the right to relax and enjoy life. But the big score never comes. The grinding toil goes on and on – the messages you receive from a family growing up without a father are just echoes of a life left behind. With every re-incarnation, you wake up back in your outpost and time seems to have elapsed without you realizing it – things being scattered, weathered and out of place. The Major is stuck, like many of us are, on a hamster wheel where the carrot of “The Good Life” is forever dangled but forever out of reach.
There’s plenty going for Corpse of Discovery other than its bland gameplay. It’s genuinely funny, raises some profound questions but never answers them fully enough to dispel the sense of wonder. There’s a real authenticity to the game, especially in the messages the Major’s wife and children leave him. His children actually talk like children, for one thing, and speak endearingly about mundane things without being irritatingly precocious like so many TV/Movie/Game younglings. The music lends an eerily ethereal tone to things. Music is sometimes used as a meta-commentary, like a stranded probe you find that plays a funky disco song where the lyrics detail the major’s life. I loved how even deep in space, the Major always seemed to have a nostalgic 80s song, or a video clip of funny cats on his laptop. These neat little touches anchor the story to our reality even as it situates itself in an inexplicable world.
The problem is that Corpse of Discovery is fundamentally a walking simulator with a jetpack strapped on. The alien worlds you explore are much larger than those you traverse in titles like Dear Esther or Gone Home, but much more empty and generic. There’s more to examine and interact with within your little planetary outpost than there ever is outside. Even though the game has the word “discovery” in its title, there’s not really much exploration to be done. The sprawling alien worlds are quite pretty at first – such as the muggy alien jungle where water drips down your suit’s visor – but they’re all uniform and featureless other than the plot points you find at the next objective.
However, I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of emptiness and loneliness is partly a design choice, because Corpse is far too well written and clever for it not to be. The alien worlds are metaphors for how distant the major has become from his family in the paradoxical pursuit of spending more time with them. One of the key themes of the game is how explorers are so relentlessly romanticised as heroic figures even though they are often – like the Major – just surveyors beholden to the economic interests of their patrons. What made Corpse of Discovery special to me, was that it made me think about the supposedly noble duties we are given in life and question: is it worth leaving everything behind to follow the waypoints someone else has set for you?
Final Verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Phosphor Games; Developer: Phosphor Games; Players: 1; Released: 25th August, 2015 ;
Full Disclosure: A copy of Corpse of Discovery was provided to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.