What makes the events of someone’s life a story worth telling? The Fidelio Incident, developed by Act 3 Games, focuses on the story of a man named Stanley who is tasked with discovering the location of his wife, Leonore after their plane crashes off the coast of Iceland. But the journey to recuse his wife from the cold is only a part of the story. The Fidelio Incident is a beautifully simplistic, yet deeply affecting adventure through the ragged edges of Stanley’s troubled past, and the love that served as the melodic thread stringing together major events in his life.
We were able to speak with Act 3 founder and the creator of The Fidelio Incident, Ken Feldman, about our experience with the game and the inspiration behind it. Interestingly, the game’s backstory developed from a rather unexpected place: the sex party from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Feldman says the game’s original premise of a man exploring a frozen landscape searching for his wife needed a deeper foundation, so they began doing some research, which lead Feldman to the Kubrick film.
“[T]he password for the sex party was Fidelio. I Googled the term and found it was Beethoven’s only opera about a husband Fernistan (Stanley) in political prison where his wife Leonore disguises herself as a security guard and helps him escape. I had the base for a story; what did he do to land himself in prison, how did the escape go down and what has life been like on the run? As Beethoven did, it was important to personalize the story by telling it from Leonore’s perspective and her love for Stanley.”
Indeed, though we see some of Stanley’s memories through his own perspective, much of what we know about him is viewed through entries in Leonore’s diary found scattered over the landscape. It is her love for Stanley that allows us to look at the events of his past through a different lens; one that is perhaps more willing to accept Stanley as both more than his past and also a product of it. While history often depicts people as either heroes or monsters, seeing someone through the eyes of a lover makes things far more complex and complicated. According to Feldman, this is exactly the sort of feeling they wanted to establish.
Feldman explained they wanted to ground their story in history, the controversy over political prisons, and the very real violence that has impacted Northern Ireland.
“The news cycle around political prisons has been relevant for the last several years but I didn’t want to do that story, instead looked at our recent past and the events in Northern Ireland with The Troubles. It’s a topic we covered quite a bit in the 80’s and 90’s with Daniel Day Lewis movies and The Devil’s Own from Brad Pitt. The history is interesting, complicated and has not been told through games.”
While this troubled part of Northern Ireland’s history plays heavily into Stanley’s story, Feldman explains their goal wasn’t to investigate the politics, but to “use the setting to illustrate our story and define believable complex characters.” During gameplay, we found that seeing these events from a personal perspective, and particularly through the eyes of two lovers deeply affected by the turmoil, made the joys and pains feel incredibly intimate. As Feldman and his team intended, we found ourselves trying to see things through the eyes of Stanley and Leonore, sometimes even when what was driving them seemed foreign or unthinkable.
“The Fidelio Incident has a very dark story that focuses on violence, redemption, and love. Our primary goal was to tell a story that hasn’t been told through games, a grounded story rooted in history. A story that challenges the player to understand the characters’ motivation. We are not trying to tell a political story or take sides in the conflict. Instead, we tell a story through the eyes of two lovers whose lives are overcome by the events around them.”
While the love between Stanley and Leonore is the thread that holds the narrative together, The Fidelio Incident is a stunning symphony that has been carefully woven to make the players experience Stanley’s isolation and desperation with every element. The environment is both beautiful and desolate, made of muted tones highlighted by shimmering ice, deep snow, cold winds, spots of burning wreckage, and the occasional pop of red.
Stanley’s only nemesis is the cold. You must fend off hypothermia by locating steam vents or approaching smoldering piles of wreckage from the plane in order to warm up. Death is easily avoidable much of time as long as you don’t stray too far from a source of warmth for too long.
Steam and warmth play a huge role in the game for obvious reasons. Aside from a couple, in the beginning, puzzles will often consist of turning steam valves on and off in order to open new pathways. We did get stuck a few times, but overall the puzzles are manageable and not enough to cause a major setback or lead to frustration. Greater variety might certainly have added more interest in the puzzle mechanic, but like everything in the game, even the puzzles are significant to the story. According to Feldman, it represents Stanley unlocking memories as he battles the surrounding cold.
Of course, what is a game based on Beethoven’s only opera without suitable music? The soundtrack to The Fidelio Incident melds perfectly with the story and the environment. It is sometimes subtle like the snow-covered landscape, deeply reflective and melancholy. It is then sweeping and grand like someone going over the years of their life, with all the exhilarating joys and pensive regrets.
“Our composer, Michael Krikorian, is getting his Doctorate in Music from USC. The Fidelio Incident is his first game. He wanted to use themes from the opera’s overture throughout the score, even in the more atmospheric compositions. To modernize the music, Michael focused on two instruments, the piano, and the cello, to tell Stanley and Leonore’s story.”
It is no surprise that The Fidelio Incident is so well designed from the story, to the environment, to the music. Feldman told us he has a lifelong love of games, and still gets much of his inspiration from his early work.
“I have always loved games and art and was a huge Star Wars fan growing up. After finishing my master's degree, I moved to SF hoping to land a job at Lucas Arts. Instead, I ended up at EA around the time Quake 2 shipped. All my spare time was spent making levels in Radiant for Quake, it was a dream come true and is still the foundation of everything I do.”
Feldman worked as art director on God of War 3 for Sony Santa Monica before he and a few other members of his team decided to create a new IP for the studio. Unfortunately, their work would never come to fruition. The game was canceled two years later. But, Feldman decided to take this disappointment and turn it into an opportunity.
“I had been at Sony for 14 years and decided to start looking at my options. I gave serious consideration to starting a small team, building a demo, then shopping it for a publishing deal. Instead, I took a job at another game company and decided to build The Fidelio Incident as a side project, working nights and weekends with a couple of close friends. Act 3 Games was created as my LLC to self-publish the game on Steam.”
So, Act 3 Games was born, but the completion of The Fidelio Incident did not come without its challenges, particularly when it came to Feldman’s personal time.
“The biggest challenge in creating The Fidelio Incident was doing it as a side project with no budget while having a day job. It meant being extremely vigilant about my personal time. It also meant not neglecting what was most important in my life, my family and my responsibilities.
This was the first time I've led a game; it meant wearing a lot of different hats. There were dark days trying to figure out the story, iterating on the gameplay, and trying to land the right actor to play Stanley. Those issues wore on my nerves, but I had been through a lot of game development in my career and just tried to push through, trying to not let hiccups and stress get the best of me.”
As for what the future holds for Act 3, Feldman says it is still a bit up in the air, but The Fidelio Incident will likely remain woven into any future plans. In fact, Feldman hopes he might have a franchise on his hands.
“Since Act 3 Games is a side project, it is difficult to say what we will do next. We would like to get The Fidelio Incident on console or possibly VR. Walking around in VR through the caves, the trees, etc., is mind blowing. Long term, I would love to turn The Incident into a Black Mirror-like anthology telling fictional human dramas centered around an incident grounded through real events in our history.”
The Fidelio Incident could be classified as a "walking simulator," a game designed more as an experience than perhaps a traditional game in the vein of titles such as Firewatch and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Gameplay elements are far more reminiscent of the former, with some climbing elements and more direct interaction with the game environment. Stanley also receives calls from his wife, Leonore, during his journey, helping to further the narrative, and keeping the two lovers close while still out of reach, adding to the tension and sense of isolation. The tale is told at a steady pace, interrupted only by how long it takes the player to complete a puzzle.
Perhaps what is most impressive about The Fidelio Incident, aside from the high production quality, is that Feldman and his team have managed to tell a story that spans years, and even continents, and convey it in a way that feels personal, and somehow both unique and universal. After all, love and suffering are parts of everyone's life. The tale of Stanley and Leonore forces us to consider the humanity involved in a tragedy, in poor decisions, in love that refuses to let go, and in the redemption we sometimes can never find until someone else sees something redeemable in us. All of this comes together to form a harmonious symphony of sights and sounds, and a story truly worth telling.