Survival what now? – Penumbra: Overture

Spelunky?

Genre. Man. What a slippery fish.

In my play through of various Humble Bundle games, I’ve entered the realm of the last 10 years with Penumbra:Overture. Which is a massively overwrought name for a game that should probably be called Telltale Games Presents: Gross Worms and My Friend The Broom.

This game bills itself as survival horror. I get more survival horror out of an episode of The Addams Family. So lets analyze why that might be.

One of the amazing tabletop games of the last decade is Dread. That game’s big innovation to horror around the tabletop is to use another game – Jenga as its central mechanic.

This works because Jenga, like the horror genre, is a thing of constantly escalating tension, building slowly, bit by bit, hint by tantalizing hint, until it all comes crashing down around the character in a disastrous release. If I want something to be spooky scary, it’s more than the darkness and bloodsplatters and the slick, moist noise of something not quite solid and the sudden glimpse of movement. I mean, that’s all nice ambiance, but it doesn’t make something actually frightening any more than stage makeup. Context matters. The CONTEXT needs to be tense, escalating, with something at stake.

Penumbra isn’t concerned with that. Like, even a little. From the beginning your ProtagaBrit has lost basically everything, you know he’s doomed, and there’s nothing more than weirdly persistent curiosity involved as a motivator. There’s nothing at stake. No normal world to return to. No “I’ll be right back!” and then BAM eaten by monsters.

From there, the only thing the game introduces that you can really lose is a babbling madman that chats at you BioShock walkie-talkie style. And rather than have him perhaps slowly degenerate into raving madness, it basically introduces him as a wacky sidekick that you have to murder to win the game (for reasons that are never made entirely clear, leading me to believe it was a canard to obfuscate the fact that they didn’t have working human models…).

So, the ideal in survival horror is to telescope your attention to your quickly dwindling resources so that you have to go through dangerous areas in order to survive. Penumbra doesn’t worry about this. You have a flashlight whose battery is drained, but the infinite-use glowstick is actually usually more useful. You have some flares that work likewise, but, again, not that great. And you can see in the frickin’ dark, if you’re willing to go slow. Meaning even the one resource that gets regularly drained is not that great of a tool, let alone essential. Your health regens, and enemies that can rip you to shreds are rare enough that injuries don’t matter much.

Which, again, just makes me long for some OTHER way to lose than my hideous and inevitable demise. Something at stake, something at risk, something that I would worry about losing.

spooooooopy

So without that, what is Penumbra: Overture? Basically, it’s an adventure game with a spooooooooopy atmosphere. Collect the items, combine some of them, use them on the surroundings, figure out the puzzles. It’s Monkey Island with slightly more viscera, or Portal with less innovation. The game seems to kind of know this – the big setpiece climax of the game is jumping around while holding a vial of explosives, in a way that reminded me of the spikey doom in Gish. But rather than own it, they’ve added a few atmospheric elements and called it a day. Not cool, bro.

Lessons Learned

  • Survival horror is in party about fear of loss. A game where you don’t lose much can’t inspire that fear.
  • Mechanics drive experience – Jenga is a horror game because it inspires that fear.
  • When you fail to be creepy, it’s like failing to be funny – it just drops dead.
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