HomeTech Playing Kafka review: a well-intentioned but antiseptic attempt to adapt the unadaptable

Playing Kafka review: a well-intentioned but antiseptic attempt to adapt the unadaptable

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Playing Kafka review: a well-intentioned but antiseptic attempt to adapt the unadaptable

YoIf Franz Kafka had lived to give notes on Playing Kafka, a new video game adaptation of his work, one of the most important ones might have been: where is the sex? What this interactive version of The Judgment has in terms of branching narrative, it lacks in sexuality: one can imagine the author and tester apoplectic in the absence of sadomasochism and lust. Overall, the decisions made in this literal, lightly interactive adaptation seem calibrated to what’s appropriate to leave running on a museum iPad. Simple binary choices and touch screen controls set the bar low and there are no images to shock a visiting classroom.

Playing Kafka, released just weeks before the centenary of Kafka’s death, is a collaboration between the Goethe-Institut and developer Charles Games (a studio, not a person). It adapts Kafka’s unfinished and posthumously compiled novels, The Trial and The Castle, along with a long, critical letter from Kafka to his father about their relationship.

Playing Kafka. Photography: Charles Games

The Trial loses the most in translation, rushing through the text and reducing the main character’s complex interiority until he is a blank, docile avatar. Video game mechanics can offer stories and experiences that no other medium can, but in this case it’s not enough to make up for what the developers have given up. Nor does Kafka’s Letter to Father gain emotional weight from superficial interactivity and pattern-matching puzzles. Maybe his dad would have liked it.

Bigger and deeper than any of Kafka’s plots are his worlds and the sense of the Kafkaesque: of a dark organization, indifferent and incomprehensible to its participants. This is somewhat antithetical to good game design practices, which require clear rules, victory conditions, and systems that behave as expected. In Kafka’s world, the court is unknowable: it lives outside the courthouse, in attics and tenements, wallpaper and lamplight. There may be no court, no rules, no meaning.

Consequently, Playing Kafka never suggests that there is anything to be achieved in the experience. It is full of movement without progress, choice without consequence. It can be a brutalizing video game, both for a player and a purist: the luminary of German letters has adapted to the systems and language of a mobile game in which you can choose your story.

Screenshot of the Kafka video game. Photography: Charles Games

The Castle is doing better here. Here Kafka never gave the novel an ending, which may have freed the developers from the pressure of reaching a point. Unencumbered, his version is a commendably wacky exercise, playful and tedious, perhaps with nothing at all.

Would Kafka approve? Obviously not: he didn’t want this work published in the first place. But a Kafka adaptation that fails to satisfy his author could also trap him in a hell of his own creation. Kafka playing Playing Kafka would have been Kafka’s worst nightmare: lost in a labyrinth created from his own words, confused by obscure if not non-existent objectives, dialogue options that offer no choice, and ultimately unable to progress after a bug sends its message. The character’s lawyer crosses the floor. When you think about it, there is at least something a little Kafkaesque.

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