‘The game is for quite intelligent, conscious users’. That’s how developer Civil Savages describes Norman’s Great Illusion – a 2D visual novel that addresses the problems of capitalism. You play as Norman, an engineer at a local factory. He’s very much a ‘cog in the machine’ – hard-working, committed and loyal to a fault. You control his decisions, trying to navigate (and survive) a society that is falling into fascism.
It’s certainly an original concept. It’s rare to see a game that is so directly focused on politics. It’s probably even rarer to see a decent game about politics. Norman’s Great Illusion is that – at least narrative-wise.
Every game starts the same – you have $300, a stable work and home life, and relative peace. And every day is the same – you have breakfast, go to work, go home, have dinner, go to bed. Slowly though, things begin to fall apart. You’ll find that you are constantly losing money. Your household spending will always exceed your income, no matter how good you are at your job. And as the country falls into disrepute, you’ll be met with difficult decisions that carry real weight and will probably come back to bite you later on. Your family life might slip, or your work environment will become volatile as a result of your decisions. You have to make the choice: do you sell out to the government out of loyalty or as a means to keep yourself above the breadline, or do you try and represent the best interests of those below you at the risk of losing your job, or worse?
No matter what you pick, you’ll reach one of the seven different endings. Four are the options given to you after you run out of money. The others are based on the decisions you made, if you managed to survive the year. They’re all depressing to say the least, but I couldn’t help but find them compelling. After finishing, I wanted to play through again to see what different choices could potentially lead to.
Perhaps the only issue I really have with Norman’s Great Illusion is in the narrative, and how ham-fisted it is. The developers seem intent on shoving the message CAPITALISM IS BAD down your throat at every turn. Every time you leave the house you’re given a random quote condemning the nature of the ‘system’. The choices you make are hardly difficult ‘shades of grey’ decisions. Pretty much every one is either sticking up for the working man or selling out to the powers that be. And all the endings are so negative. In those that stood out:
- I joined a Marxist organisation and went on the run.
- Died in the war.
- Had my wife and child taken by the government.
Perhaps I should have seen this coming. On the Steam page for Norman’s Great Illusion, the developer writes: ‘If you think nothing could be better than capitalism; please DO NOT BUY our game’.
Unfortunately though, the solid narrative is paired with some absolutely terrible gameplay. There are two minigames. Two. And that’s pretty much the entire gameplay. One is a driving minigame, where you need to drive your car to and from work without crashing it. It sounds more exciting than it is. All it amounts to is clicking when the bar lights up green. The other is a work minigame, where you do maths problems of various difficulties against a time limit. Less than two mistakes and you’ll get a bonus. More than five and you’ll be sacked.
The main problem is that you’ve seen all there is to see after playing the minigames once. And you need to play them over and over and over in order to make the decisions needed to push forward the somewhat interesting narrative. Comments from the developer suggest that making the minigame monotonous and tedious was intentional, and visual novels don’t place a heavy emphasis on gameplay as a whole, but I’m not letting them off the hook that easy. Video games are entertainment, designed to be pleasant distractions from the humdrum of daily life. So why would I play through a game that seems to be an extension of it? Similarly, why would a game leave a lasting impact on me (which is the primary aim of Norman’s Great Illusion), if I’m bored out of my skull whilst playing it?
So what do we have with Norman’s Great Illusion? A refreshing concept, for one. It’s not often that you get to describe a game as a study of capitalism told through the lense of a normal worker. And on the most part it’s pulled off rather well. The politics are a little ham-fisted, but the branching moral decisions and endings are interesting and promote a modicum of replayability.
Unfortunately, the gameplay risks overshadowing the entire thing. I’d wager that most people will likely never see more than one or two of those seven endings. Forget leaving with a lasting message about the dangers of capitalism – the only thing you’re likely to remember about Norman’s Great Illusion on Xbox One is how utterly tedious those minigames were.