Ever heard of “The Backrooms?”
It’s one of those creepypasta-type things that makes the rounds from time to time. The basic idea is that you can fall through the walls of reality in certain places and get trapped a sort of limbo in the form of an endless labyrinth of empty rooms, like a deserted office building. The aesthetic is grounded in this whole idea of liminal space, like a threshold frozen in a suspended state between one place and another. People and other things may come and go from this borderland, or else they wind up stuck there forever.
Well, I bring it up because at first it seemed to me like that’s more or less what they were doing here. They tell you up front that you’re in some kind of afterlife, and it seems like a perfect metaphor for purgatory, the aimlessness of a squandered life followed out to its ultimate conclusion. We’ve all seen a million different versions of Hell in these games, but this had the potential to be something new.
The unusual setting grabs your attention right from the start. In fact, there’s not even a conventional title screen. Instead you’re dropped right into the first room and the options menus and all that stuff are just part of the scenery. It may not sound like much, but it’s the little touches like that really stand out and can set a distinctive tone all by themselves.
Like Layers of Fear or The Survey or pretty much any of the rest of these walking simulator horror games, it turns out to be a straightforward linear experience, in the sense that you’re totally at the mercy of whatever unseen triggers are lurking in the shadows to move you on to the next event.
While it sounds predictable, that sort of structure can actually work pretty well in certain games as long as the progression from point to point feels natural, which it usually does in this case. Of course, they smooth over the rough edges in pretty much the bluntest way possible: with a remarkably charitable hint system that’ll tell you exactly what to do next if you get stuck.
Well, I guess that’s one way to do it.
Still, the “atmospheric tension” that they’re aiming to generate does mostly come together. It’s always nice to see a little subtlety in these games, especially after something like Outlast; and they use a pretty light touch here, at least initially, employing shadows, silence and small, unexpected changes in the environment to instill a sense of uncertainty and dread. This low-key approach is great for creating terror, although apparently nobody can resist doing that thing where the monster stands there twitching and then suddenly screams and runs at your face.
You can forgive that kind of stuff early on, along with the clunky puzzles and the awkward device of the narrator on the phone, when it seems like something really groundbreaking might be on the way. I’m sad to say, though, that by the end it all comes back down to earth with a thud.
The intriguing mystery of the abandoned offices eventually gives way to more familiar surroundings and it turns into a rote, over-explained tale of family tragedy. Whatever success it achieves in the dark-and-disturbing department is eclipsed by the overall missed opportunity to build the potential of that strong start into a truly unique vision of eternity.
As it is, the only thing that’ll really keep you up at night is the idea that there are people sitting around out there dreaming up torturous, godawful plots like this to stuff into video games.
That might be the scariest part.