Seems like just yesterday I was being attacked by naked men.
That was way back in Penumbra: Black Plague, actually. At the time it was pretty disconcerting, but little did I know it was merely one small step in a grand design.
It all started in Penumbra: Overture. That’s where they debuted their system where you could pick up and move the objects around. It sort of worked, but mostly just felt clunky. Then in Black Plague they decided what we really needed to be doing was running from the monsters instead of throwing barrels at them like Donkey Kong. That was definitely an improvement, but still a bit underwhelming. Meanwhile, the story actually got worse.
Gotta give them credit, though. These guys obviously believed in their own vision, and so instead of giving up after a few wrong turns they stuck with it and kept on pushing forward.
Amnesia came next, and you could see that they were getting a lot better at this. Manipulating the objects felt much smoother. You still had to run from the monsters, but now it was scarier and more thrilling. They added some new elements to spice things up, like the insanity meter that tied in with the ambient darkness. The story was still mostly a drag, but it was also getting deeper and more interesting at the same time.
Afterward they must have gone right back and kept tinkering with this formula, tuning and polishing it until the pieces all finally clicked. In the meantime I guess somebody sat down and really thought about the story until they had some real ideas that could do more than just make us feel bad.
That brings us to this game, the culmination of a 10 year-or-so experiment in the same basic design.
I’ll give you the punchline right now: this is the best horror game I’ve ever played.
One thing that was noticeable from the very beginning in Overture (other than the lethal effectiveness of barrels) was the attention to detail. They had a distinctive way of integrating puzzles into the environments so that they emerged organically from the flow of events. Compared to a lot of other games, where they just throw a tower of Hanoi or some other arbitrary obstacle in your way every now and then to slow you down, it made the experience a lot more solid, like what you were doing always fit into a coherent larger purpose. It tells me that they’re really seeing the whole picture of what they’re trying to create.
I think that’s what makes the setting here, alien as it is, come across as so fully realized. Everywhere you go you find little details and nuances that didn’t have to be there, but they put them in anyway for the sake of completeness. This place feels like it really was built from the ground up, rather than imposed from the top down as a contrivance.
The benefit of all this is that even though it’s mostly a linear game they don’t need to hold your hand quite so intrusively along the way. They just put you in this environment, let you interact with it and you end up where you need to be in a logical way. It creates a very natural sort of rapport with the game that genuinely seems to respect the player, and that goes for the storytelling, too.
You’ll be wrapping your mind around some pretty heavy concepts here, and they never resort to cop-outs or easy answers. Like, for example, by personifying one side of a question with an obvious villain in order to nudge you down the “correct” route. The whole situation is so messed up that there isn’t necessarily any correct route, so it comes down to how you look at it. Time and time again they confront you with dilemmas that force you to reconsider that perspective, and it’s amazing how it can change over the course of the story.
By the way, I realize I haven’t told you what it’s about yet or what you’re actually supposed to be doing, and trust me: you don’t want me to. One of the best parts of this game is gradually finding that out for yourself.
I’ll tell you one thing, it was the most psychologically immersive experience I’ve ever had in a game. It completely shut down the gamer side of my brain. You know, the part that’s always running in the background, meta-aware of what the game’s really up to and trying to “win.” By at least the halfway point I’d bought into what they were doing here 100%.
Before I knew it I was poring over every last scrap of information like my life depended on it, because I felt like I had to understand everything I possibly could. I found myself hesitating not just for gameplay reasons, but to think about the moral implications of what I was doing as if it had real-life consequences. That’s not the kind of thing I usually do in games. They really get into your head here!
Part of this is owed to the convincing interplay that develops between you and your sole companion, but the pacing itself is also used to great effect. They know just how to speed up the action to create tension and then slow it down to create even more. At one point, for example, after an especially pivotal decision the next thing you do is take a slow, lonely ride down into the crushing depths like something right out of The Abyss. For a long, long while your character just sits there, staring off into the growing darkness, and I just sat there right along with him. We were probably thinking exactly the same thoughts.
I have a feeling this game will end up representing one of those genuine turning point moments that truly sets a new standard. Every game that comes after and aspires to engage the player with a narrative–not just horror games, but in any genre–ought to look at this one as a reference for what the medium is capable of achieving. It’s that good.
When you first climbed down that hole in the ice in Penumbra, who’d have thought this is where it would lead, huh? Persistence really does pay off.