Penumbra: Cured

The ending of Penumbra: Black Plague, and the events leading up to it, confirm some of the speculation in my last post about the role of the virus in ancient times — at least, if you trust the central virus hive mind, which can’t be completely objective on the matter. (Yes, it’s another story about a misunderstood alien hive mind. The more I play of Penumbra, the more I notice ideas from other games I’ve played recently, including ones written later. It’s as if the attempt at so many formal genres at once has turned it into a kind of cliché nexus.) It claims that it was once benevolent, but has been fighting for its life ever since the Archaic (the secret organization that built the laboratories) decided that it was a disease and had to be cured. Ah, but what about the zombies? Just infected individuals sent out to patrol the outer reaches; their zombie-like behavior is a consequence of being too far separated from the core to participate in the hive intelligence properly.

Clarence, now. He’s a different kettle of fish. “Clarence” is the name that the player character’s infection gives to himself, sardonically choosing it after inspecting your memory of It’s a Wonderful Life. A complaining bully with an Oscar-the-Grouch accent, he’s both individually smart and unambiguously malevolent, even if he does sometimes help you survive. Furthermore, he has an unnerving amount of power over your mind. He can occasionally take control of your senses, make you see things the way he wants you to see them — for example, eliminating doors that he doesn’t want you to go through, giving an excuse for Silent Hill-style variable geography. He can even erase your memories to make more room for himself. There’s one bit where Clarence implies that you didn’t actually kill Red in the first game, but that your memory of doing so is just him messing with your head for lulz. He could be lying about that, of course. He lies a lot.

I’ve talked before about how annoying the “disembodied sidekick” in an adventure game can be even when the authors don’t intend it that way, but in this game, they just ran with it. In one scene in a library, Clarence repeatedly gives obvious hints that there’s a secret passage behind one of the bookshelves. It takes a while to find the fake book that triggers it, and while you’re looking, Clarence repeatedly berates the player’s intelligence. In most other games, this would be a bad thing, but here, it serves the authors’ purpose, which is, to make you hate Clarence even more.

When you eventually find a way to cure the virus, Clarence does everything he can to try to stop you, including, in the end, simply pleading for his life. (Strange behavior for a disease!) And despite everything he’s done to you, the simple abjectness of his position provokes some pity. You are, after all, murdering a conscious being, but what choice do you have? You can’t trust him to leave you alone. It’s him or you.

But having been infected once, you retain the ability to contact and be contacted by the hive mind, and thereby get the exposition I described back in the first paragraph. The hive mind isn’t like Clarence — it’s far more menacing. It doesn’t blame you for murder, because it too wanted Clarence dead. Not because he was evil, but because because he was too individual, too human. Fortunately, all it wants at this point is to be left alone, to have the outside world forget that it exists.

But that isn’t going to happen. We still have one more game to go.

No Comments

Leave a reply