“We can coexist, but only on my terms”
Play any first person back before 2000 and expect to have a suitcase of weapons, one-liners and disgusting creatures to eradicate. They’re cathartic certainly but they don’t need much of a story. The simple pleasures of level progression and defeating the enemy becomes your only drive.
The walking simulator genre of games isn’t strictly a new concept but it’s certainly becoming more popular as of late. However, leave behind your guns and linear corridors for the chance to explore. You might have an inventory but it’ll be reduced to what you can realistically carry. Oh and pay attention to the story! These games tend to have a thick narrative throughout, either in the form of written or verbal dialogue. Titles such as Firewatch and The Stanley Parable did a good job of weaving a unique story during your exploration.
And sometimes there might even be monsters. But you gave up your guns for the story, didn’t you? So get sneaking!
Developed and published by Frictional Games, these are the same folk who made Amnesia and it’s sequel A Machine for Pigs. If that title sounded familiar, then you’re in for a similar experience of first-person survival horror. The games begin with a cutscene of our player character (called Simon) driving somewhere. A concerned voice calls out to him, asking if he’s alright in lieu of his head bleeding. He casually brushes aside the query, briefly explaining that his brain can’t stop bleeding from a prior accident. A vial of liquid, a mention of medical scans and he suddenly becomes fretful. The girl shows him a phone. It vibrates and she asks inquisitively who the caller David Munshi is. A squeal of car tyres and everything fades to black.
Simon awakens from the nightmare into a small apartment. The buzzing of the phone was merely his phone in reality. He reaches over to the nightstand and answers it. Dr David Munshi tells Simon to drink a tracer fluid, to assist with an upcoming brain scan. The narrative is now over and the player is firmly in charge of controlling Simon’s character. We see from our first encounter that the game begins in a typical shoebox-sized apartment. Various clues, such as character’s accents place us somewhere within the continent of North America, with additional lore narrowing it down to Toronto, Canada.
Once you find the required fluid and leave the apartment, the location shifts to a subway train. The phone rings again and we learn that Simon works at a comic shop. The dialogue between colleagues is lighthearted and jovial, a seemingly typical day. Apart from the urban hobo muttering, the train ride is uneventful.
We arrive at Dr Munshi’s office, a rather quiet and dimly lit premises. A single locked door prohibits further exploration, so we root around the desk in search of a code to the door. Once found, we proceed onwards down an unoccupied corridor with a number of locked doors. One room has a single chair and to the side of that is a man working at a computer console. We find that this is the Doctor Munshi, although he insists the doctor title isn’t in effect as of yet. The equipment within the room is to help him with a scanning experiment designed to repair brain functionality. So he says.
I don’t know about you but a combination of seemingly abandoned reception, plus a chap who wants us for research purposes starts raising flags for me. Big red flags.
Unabated by the risky procedure, we sit down in the chair that wouldn’t look out of place if it were designed for more nefarious purposes. Some kind of helmet plops down on our face, which turns transparent and we begin to answer a series of questions, followed by a pause. The display in front of us buzzes with static and turns black once again. Eventually, the helmet lifts away, opening into a dark room with a singular dim red light ahead of us. We’re able to leave the chair but it isn’t the same chair anymore. Moving towards the red light, we see it’s a switch and without further do, we’re able to flip it on.
Lights come on all around us and it isn’t only the chair that has changed. We are no longer in a doctors office but within another room altogether. We find out that somehow we’ve arrived in the future, within a strange underwater facility. Strange organic growths seem to grow from the walls, floors and any other surfaces in between. With no humans present, your only company are robots with rather unsettling behaviour patterns.
Playing the game
As soon as you regain consciousness in your tiny apartment, you’re able to freely move around and explore. Drawers can be opened, curtains brushed aside and cabinets peered into. Newspaper articles and books can be picked up and viewed. A second click on the text brings up a caption of that text, should you experience difficulties reading the handwritten original. Computers can be interacted with, retaining familiar point and click interfaces. This is something you’ll find yourself doing later on, such as hacking puzzles and audio/text logs left behind for the sake of world building.
From our humble beginning of exploring our apartment to the questionable medical facility, we are taught the basics of moving around, manipulating objects and some basic puzzle solving. Objects can be rotated and thrown and one or two key items can be retained about our person. Simon shows these automatically when needed. There is no quest journal or objective screen, not even a map on your person to consult. Paying attention to the dialogue makes up most of your mission. Thankfully, reloading the game from the main menu gives you a short text briefing each time.
You can walk, run, jump or crouch-walk around your surroundings. There’s also the option to tilt your first-person view around corners, which is rather handy for later on when you encounter creatures. As demonstrated in the game Amnesia, stealth becomes an important theme. Put simply, there is no way to permanently deal with monsters other than escaping to the next area. If they see you, they will run at you and even open closed doors. The latter is something I found out later on and gave me one hell of a fright.
Exploring the levels is a joy unto itself, monsters or not. The path to the goal isn’t a path lined with locked doors, as is the case with a lot of horror survival titles. Small utility rooms, bathrooms, offices and the like help flesh out a living breathing world. Sometimes a room may contain nothing at all, whereas another has clutter all around but only the computer is accessible. Levels like these make me want to just dive right in and explore every nook and cranny. With the addition of monsters in pursuit, you learn the layout that little bit faster.
Along the way, you’ll discover audio and text logs. Similar to the ones in Bioshock, these journal entries help set the scene with in-depth backstory. While some include heated dialogues between characters, others reveal the outcome of certain plot elements. They’re few and far between enough to tease the player into wanting to know about the world without being smothered in exposition. Later down the line, a lot of them succumb to gristly final recordings. You often find that specific NPC nearby dead, or worse.
Underwater areas can be a little bit cryptic to navigate with limited visibility but this adds to the tension in my honest opinion. In later areas of the game, the darkness increases dramatically and you’re forced to rely on slivers of light to help navigate. Throughout, your slow movement conveys an additional helplessness on top of that. At first, you won’t encounter anything but illusions underwater. But later on, the monsters will step outside from their interior confines and have no problem chasing you outside too.
It certainly didn’t help I was forced to navigate a tight, dark tunnel full of underwater spider-like creatures. Regardless if they were benign, the experience was incredibly unnerving.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to some that I’m a horror rookie. I didn’t see Ghostbusters or Aliens until I was around twenty-two. So it’s safe to say I don’t have a huge collection of scary games either! Navigating a hostile three-dimensional space without any weapons is terrifying. Running, hiding and crawling away from digital opponents as a means of both progression and escape is something I’ve not done since a forced stealth section. And usually, I had at least one knife in my arsenal.
But my point is that this is a good thing. The combination of traversing deserted areas alone, feeling naturally helpless against the enemy all adds up to a thrilling sequence of events. You’ll be shouting for joy once you outwit and avoid the clutches of nasty creatures. Even and especially when you’ve just managed to complete a seemingly trivial objective. The creatures are all equally disturbing, including some of the characters you meet upon the way. I will forever be haunted by one robot who insisted something chronic that it is nothing but flesh and bones human. And there is nothing you can do to make him/it see sense about the entire affair.
The aural effects from monsters are astounding. You’ll hear them coming long before seeing them too, and their cries/gurgles/roars have pinned me to the spot from time to time. Using surround sound earphones helps locate them, but it means you’ll hear them gaining on you should you break the silence and run. And there are a number of times where this is the only option. The seemingly scripted event where I couldn’t escape one monster is clear in my memory. It lifts me up with one oozing limb and for a moment I return to the world where this all began, in that small apartment.
The journey from everyday suburbia to a life-altering destiny is a long, daunting experience. As mentioned, the story is spoonfed rather evenly. A lot of story elements steer the player into working around obstacles and it’s generally clear on what you must do to progress or what to do in order to survive. The puzzles are enjoyable without being overly cryptic and obnoxious. They are the type of challenges where once solved, you’ll kick yourself for not grasping it that much sooner.
A solid atmospheric experience that grabs you by the nerves and plucks them like an instrument throughout.
5 out of 5