Penumbra: Requiem

The third game of the Penumbra trilogy is actually an expansion pack for the second game. Various blurbs say that it “ties up loose ends” in the first two games, but really, the only loose end is what happens to Shelter (as the secret excavation site is called) after Philip’s messages go out, and it doesn’t even address that. I suppose there are probably players asking “What happened to Philip after the second game? How did he escape?” — to which the only sensible answers are “Exactly what you saw” and “He didn’t”. It’s a horror story. Seekers after forbidden knowledge have to pay a terrible price.

Nonetheless, Penumbra: Requiem follows Philip’s further adventures. Just one problem: none of it is real. I’ll avoid spoilers about the precise sort of unreality it is — certainly there are multiple possibilities within the previous game’s fiction — but the game doesn’t take long to start dropping hints of irrationality underlying the world, like in a Philip K. Dick novel. For example, at one point, the automatic PA-recording voice, previously heard issuing GLaDOS-like cheerful reminders about how all personnel are required to bring their cyanide capsules when on shift and suchlike, addresses Philip by name, and whispers advice clearly meant for you specifically. Later, it addresses you as “Player”. (Add Metal Gear Solid 2 to the list of games Penumbra has reminded me of!) It’s surreal, but it also lowers the stakes somewhat: how can you be worried about the effects of your actions in a world that makes no sense?

But then, the stakes are already low, because there are no monsters at all this time around. That means it can’t really be described as a survival-horror or a stealth game any more. (Crouching in darkness produces the now-familiar hiding-in-shadows screen effects, but there’s no one around to appreciate it.) Since there’s no need for places to hide in or flee through, the hub areas made of networks of corridors have been eliminated too. Instead, what we have left is a series of self-contained puzzle scenarios with no logical connections to each other: each segment ends with Philip going through a teleporter. So, it’s more purely a puzzle game than the previous installments — the only thing that breaks it up is the frequent platforming elements (including, at one point, a Donkey Kong homage).

Oddly enough for an adventure game, it doesn’t use the inventory for anything except your standard tools (flashlight, notebook, pain relievers, etc). There are things you need to carry around, but it’s always done by dragging them from place to place in the scene itself, like in Half-Life 2 and Portal. Those games built puzzles around this interface, but didn’t explore it as much as Requiem does, or show how well it works in an adventure context. I’d say it works pretty well, as long as the puzzles are designed for it. It feels more natural than an inventory menu, more like a unified interface of the sort found in Mystlike games, but provides a greater range of action than a pure Mystlike click-on-stuff interface. One key mechanic to support it is the way that objects that have to be put in a particular place (in a slot, say) are guided to that position automatically when you get them close enough. This provides important feedback, letting the player know that they’ve done something right.

I should talk about the light. All three games give you three ways of lighting up dark places: glowstick, flashlight, and flares. Overture had text suggesting that the flashlight was the best light source, but the ridiculous rate at which it chewed up batteries meant that you’d sometimes have to resort to the never-dying glowstick. I personally found that this was hogwash: the flashlight may have been better for lighting things at a distance, but since you can’t interact with distant things, the glowstick, with its 360-degree illumination, was more practical. Somehow, though, I found myself using the flashlight more in Black Plague. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was changed to illuminate immediate surroundings better, or maybe the levels just had more long, dark corridors. At any rate, the whole idea of conserving your light fits better with the survival-horror stuff than with a pure adventure game, so Requiem dropped it, and gave you a flashlight with infinite charge. I basically never turned it off.

I notice that I’m talking mostly about mechanics this time, whereas my posts about the previous ones are almost entirely about plot. That’s because there really isn’t much plot this time around. I’d guess that the authors were thinking that, because this is just an expansion pack and not a proper sequel, it can’t have any important plot developments. It’s like the Sunday episodes of syndicated comic strips: since not all newspapers have a Sunday edition, nothing can be allowed to happen that affects continuity. The mechanics, though, are top-notch.

Penumbra: Black Plague

Black Plague, the second installment of the Penumbra trilogy, starts shortly after the first left off, with Philip, the player character, waking up in a cell in a secret research station hidden under the mines. I’m immediately struck by a number of surface similarities to Half-Life: ruined-laboratory look, mutated zombie-like monsters, booby-traps made of explosives wired to laser tripwires across hallways. It’s a pretty big contrast to Penumbra: Overture in style, but the gameplay hasn’t changed much — if anything, it’s this episode plays less like Half-Life than its predecessor, as I haven’t found anything that can be used as a weapon, except perhaps some bricks I could throw. Presumably the creators got complaints about the awkwardness of melee in Overture and decided to just eliminate it.

This means that stealth is even more paramount, especially since some of those zombies have flashlights. They’re pretty smart for zombies, really, capable of speaking in coherent sentences and everything. “Zombie” is probably the wrong word. Call them “infected” if you like, because documents in the game are pretty clear that we’re dealing with an alien virus here. One that takes over your mind, or, at first, just produces a second mind, which the infected hear as a voice in their head. Red, the madman in the previous episode, wasn’t just insane from isolation, he was infected and knew it. And now Philip is too. There’s a point where you find documents describing the early symptoms of the virus, such as auditory hallucinations and déjà vu, and realize that you’ve already experienced most of them. Shortly afterward, you get a full-fledged voice in your head telling you what to do, taking over Red’s previous role as disembodied sidekick, but more antagonistic.

The interesting thing here is that it seems like the virus-personality might not be necessarily evil. It might, in your case at least, be more of a symbiosis than a disease. It’s certainly capable of being helpful, and there’s been mention made of the virus helping its host to survive (or, as in Red’s case, forcing its host to survive). To a large extent, Philip’s new brain-buddy is as new to this whole situation as Philip is; its whole personality seems to be formed from reading his memories, which means that its notion of what it is and what it should be doing is informed by its host’s expectations. The whole phenomenon is linked somehow to pre-Columbian Inuit superstitions and practices that were abandoned as demonic with the conversion to Christianity (as described in a document in the previous game — this story is starting to pull together elements that didn’t seem connected before). When the infection takes hold, you have a series of nightmarish interactive visions/hallucinations/ordeals involving elements of ritual sacrifice and elements of events in the previous game (with Red’s death qualifying as both). Until you reach the end and come back to the real world, the game basically stops feeling like Half-Life and instead feels like Silent Hill. This whole bit seems like a kind of initiatory passage through the Abyss, and I can easily imagine ancient shamans, who hadn’t yet been told that the spirits are evil, deliberately becoming infected/possessed to share their wisdom.

But then again, zombies. If the infection is supposed to be benevolent, something has clearly gone wrong. If I understand right, the virus has basically killed the original personality in these cases, and, in the process, left itself stunted. But perhaps it did this in self-defense.

Penumbra: End of the Overture

Penumbra: Overture ends inconclusively, which I suppose is its right, as the start of a series. There are certainly loathsome things in the depths — there are a couple of harrowing chase scenes involving gigantic annelids that remind me of D&D‘s Purple Worms — but the one character who talks to you is convinced that there’s something worse beyond the sealed door at the game’s very end.

penumbra-furnaceAbout that one NPC: He calls himself “Red”, and you never meet him directly; the closest you ever get to him is the other side of an unopenable door. He communicates with you by radio (don’t ask me how that works in a mine). He’s been trapped in the mine for a long time, and has gone quite mad, and talks very oddly 1At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!” and is apparently a cannibal as well, if his stilted rantings are to be believed. But he talks as if he expects you to come meet him (despite the obvious danger), and his messages provide you with cryptic guidance through most of the game. And in the end, you kill him. Or he uses you to kill himself — he admits that he really guided you to him for that specific purpose, because the entities that share his head won’t let him do the deed himself. He’s locked himself in an incinerator, along with a key you need to open that final door, the one he desperately wants to remain closed. And it’s a peculiar moment, one of those uncomfortable places where you hesitate to go where the game is leading you. The floor of the room is littered with crude planking crosses — one of the writeups at Gamefaqs sees this as evidence that Red is a vampire, but that interpretation strikes me as bizarre and out-of-place; more likely it’s intended as a somewhat confusing comparison of Christ’s self-sacrifice to Red’s suicide-by-proxy, implicitly casting the player in the role of Judas. There’s definitely a sense of agency about turning the furnace on — you can choose to just poke around avoiding the issue for long as you want, but the consequence of not doing it is that you can’t finish the game and get stuck there forever in the bottom of the mine, just like Red, which presumably means you have a lifetime of eating rats and losing your mind to look forward to. So I make the unpleasant choice.

There’s one more slight detour before you can get through that final game-ending door, and that’s going into Red’s living quarters. You get to see how this unfortunate man lived, and the things he surrounded himself with, and suddenly the dominant emotion isn’t fear but sadness. A letter reveals that he’s been trapped for 30 years, since the age of 14. And that, for me, is the emotional climax of the game. Actually going through the forbidden door and getting jumped in the dark by persons unknown is denouement.

And that’s probably where I’ll leave it for a while. Near the end, I started having those graphics card issues I’ve been having lately. Taking the system apart and blowing the dust out seems like it might have helped me get through the ending, but I want to do a fuller investigation before I start any more graphically-intensive titles.

1 At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!”

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.

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.