The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)
It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.
Penumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.
The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would feel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.
Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes some getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.
The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.
Another part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.
Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.