Penumbra: Overture

When I lived within easy walking distance of a good art theatre, I used to go to a lot of movies that I had never heard of. There was something enjoyable about coming into the experience with no expectations beyond the title. It was in something of this spirit that I bought the Penumbra series when Steam put it on sale a few months ago. They were billed as horror adventure games, and seemed to have gotten pretty good reviews, and that’s about all I knew — and, since people who categorize games often have only a vague notion of what the adventure genre is 1For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation. , even that much was uncertain. From the title, I vaguely expected something sci-fi — “penumbra” connotes eclipses to me, which suggests a plot involving orbital mechanics, but I suppose to another person it would connote constitutional law, and that person would be as wrong as me. The setting of the first game is an abandoned mine in the cold wastes of northern Greenland, where the people apparently dug too greedily and too deep, and awoke something ancient and terrible in the darkness, as tends to happen in mines in games. 2I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

It turns out to be a blend of adventure, survival horror, and stealth game, all done from a first-person perspective with the familiar FPS-style control scheme. (It was quite pleasant trying the standard keys and seeing that they all worked. Can I run? Yes! OK, can I crouch? Yes! Oh, man, I can even lean!) Stealth and horror are such a natural fit that it’s surprising that they’re not explicitly blended more often. After all, given the presence of a horrible monster, what’s more natural than hiding from it? One of my big complaints about the Resident Evil style of game is that fighting monsters and winning tends to weaken the sense of fear. And it had something of that effect here, once I realized that the most common monsters can actually be fought. (There are no guns, but a hammer or a pickaxe can be used as a melee weapon.) Still, fighting is extraordinarily risky, due in part to the awkwardness of the weapon-swinging interface, so stealth is your best bet most of the time. Monster dogs of some sort (rabid? demonic? zombie?) prowl the mines; if you crouch in the darkness without moving for a second or so, your view stretches out and turns blue, simultaneously signaling that you’re safe from canine eyes and putting an unnatural cast to the experience. The best part is that hiding makes the player character anxious: if you look directly at a dog, you start to shake and can give away your location. This is a brilliant touch. Scary stuff is often scariest when merely glimpsed, and here the player is given a game-mechanical motivation to choose mere glimpsing.

The monster-avoidance parts have a certain amount of adventure-game-like content, but not more than is typical for a survival horror. It’s in the isolated safe places that the adventure content really comes to the fore and the game turns into a self-contained puzzle scenario. It’s also in these sections that the game seems least like a horror story. It’s all about repairing machinery and improvising explosives and other such hard-headed masculine activities. Much of it is physics-based, too, with things you can stack on top of each other or throw onto ledges or whatever. Inventory items are typically applied in point-and-click fashion, but most items don’t go into your inventory at all, and instead have to be dragged around with the mouse cursor. Sometimes this can be difficult; I’ve had a terrible time trying to turn valve handles this way. Still, I find it satisfying to see adventure content in a full-freedom-of-movement first-person system, a combination that hasn’t been done enough for my liking.

The overall structure so far seems to be a linear sequence of hub areas made of dog-infested corridors, each of which has several adventure-game rooms on its periphery. Backtracking is made impossible by frequent cave-ins. I could make sarcastic comments about that, but I actually think the cave-ins are presented really well. Especially the cloud of dust that they raise. I can practically smell the dust clouds in this game.

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1. For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation.
2. I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

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