Balloon Diaspora is a whimsical, elegaic chat ‘em up, point and click adventure. Ambiently scored by Oliver Blank it follows your quest to repair your hot air balloon; a quest you accomplish by talking to an assortment of odd symbolist stick figures who seem as happy fishing for seagulls as they are labelling ice with songs in a chilly black and white dreamscape. It is, in brief, a remarkably faithful adaptation of the experience of taking ketamine in an Icelandic field while listening to ambient Sigur Ros remixes (or so I hear)
In Far Too Long:
The world of Balloon Diaspora is glacially beautiful.
Before we even get to the gameplay of this short title (and it is short), it’s important to note how much Cardboard Computers does with so little. The characters may be largely motionless and the environments rendered in flat monochrome but the stark design of the place, the nonsensical floating architecture and the sheer uniqueness of the world do make for a genuinely memorable terrain. A fellow with a fishing rod sitting on a floating island in the night snow is a lovely visual and the slight soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the visual style of this little indie title.
Beyond the sheer design of the world the animation, though smooth is fairly rudimentary (as befits the throwback style of the game).Though you do move smoothly through the world after every click you clack on the screen, and the transition between areas is cut with an interstitial scene of your balloon ride with your buddy, make no mistake: this is a game that transports you from dialogue tree to dialogue tree. This is a game about conversation. We’re here to get our talk on.
But in rather an odd way.
Pretty much the first action you engage in after you take your first point-and-click steps in the world find you encountering Silas, who will be your companion, guide and hot air balloon provider for the rest of the game. The standard operating procedure of many games at this point would be to have your character be informed by Silas in some way since he is the inhabitant of the world. After all, game characters- especially in introductions- are there to be information safes for your character to crack, but this game is not interested in that structure. Instead you’re asked to define your own story. Is it your balloon? Where are you from? What’s your name? From an array of answers you pick your own backstory. There is no ‘best’ outcome, the answers do not inform a skillset and no answer will bar any content from you. The game will remember your responses to all of the questions, naturally, but the only reason to pick a particular answer is because you want that little piece of information to be attached to the character you’re building and to hear the lyrical responses of the questioner.
One of the main subquests (though the term seems absurd in this no-peril adventure) involves relating sets of finding to a professor-like character. Having gathered the information you have several choices when relaying them- but none of them are ‘good’ or ’bad’, ‘sabotage’, or ‘aid’ in a way that you may expect. There is no fail state so the choice you make simply comes down to your own whim and what sounds good to you- what character are you making for yourself within the dialogue system. For instance one option had me choose from telling the Professor “Their poetry is similar to their prayers” or “Their prayers are close to poetry”. The thought put into the distinction is what elevates the game’s dialogue: the player should slow down, appreciate the words and the ideas and make a choice based on this.And then enjoy a little poetic response informed by this choice.
This is not about getting a good ending or succeeding at your task -since i cannot fathom a player who would be challenged by the actual central ‘problem’- rather, it’s about building up a picture of your past through the questions you are asked and informing other characters by your answer choices, then enjoying their frequently gnomic and seagull-based responses.
It’s an interesting game that puts a focus on character agency by asking you to freely choose between a whole set of dialogue options in a consequence free world, where the point is the ambience and the imagery, both in graphical terms and writing terms. There is no question about your victory so the focus shifts to what kind of chacracter you wish to be and what effect you want to have on those you interact with and, as a mood-piece or experiment it succeeds quite memorably.
In terms of the negative, the game does re-use the same sets of questions for many of the encounters, which introduces a slight rote feel at some points and the whole experience could be run through in around twenty minutes quite easily. But for a unique and meditative slice of balloon-based point and click surrealism, you could do far worse than Balloon Diaspora- and let’s face it, there aren’t that many other games aching to fill that niche.
The game is free to download and short to play through. So, if you enjoy this kind of experimentation with the medium and a genuinely aesthetically unified and interesting little world to play in, you should definitely give it a look. Just don’t expect that many high speed motorbike karate battles.