Through brainstorming I have stumbled upon the realization that what makes the lesser known games of Europe special is the attention many developers give to atmospheric details and design. This is something I feel I have always known, but never truly thought about in any significant way. Many games of this origin are downright unplayable on when they officially launch, and pretty much all of them are janky, a term I use in adoration of these games to describe their general tendency to control poorly, fail to impress visually, and have horribly unbalanced game systems.
To shift the focus of this blog to something of the specificity requested for the assignment, I would like to speak of one of my favorite recent horror/adventure games by the five person team over at Frictional Games, Penumbra: Overture. The game, first of a planned trilogy of relatively short “episodes”, has all of the required features of a true indie game like a broken combat system, obtuse story line, and awkward controls. Luckily, the game also had an extremely oppressive and creepy atmosphere required of any true horror experience.
Sparing the story details, the player is faced with navigating through an underground mining facility in Greenland where you slowly discover some unpleasant things have taken place. Upon arrival, the facility is has been left in complete darkness for, as far as the player knows, anywhere up to fifty years apart from a few naturally and unnaturally lit areas. You are equipped with a flashlight which runs on unreliable batteries and a faint glow stick. As a result, most of the game takes place in darkness. The feeling of scavenging through the unknown in a place which could be the home of virtually any kind of creature is unbearable at times as the game is not afraid to take advantage of the tension it builds to scare the player when they are most susceptible. Penumbra has very few areas where enemies actually appear, but as a result, thanks mostly to superb sound design, I found myself instictually prepared to pause the game at a moments notice when I felt muscles all over my body locking up from the palpable tension the game’s atmosphere imposed upon me.
One particular aspect of Penumbra: Overture’s jankiness (the state of being janky), the combat, which in many player’s experience could incite rage only further amplified the atmospheric tension in my experience. During your journey through darkness you will happen upon some mostly household tools which also happen to function as reasonable melee weapon, like a hammer or crowbar. Your character in the game is a thirty-some year-old physicist. As far as I know, other than Gordon Freeman physicists are not known for their brute strength or alacrity. Penumbra’s combat mechanics consist sliding your mouse in different directions and holding then releasing the left mouse button to pathetically flail your makeshift weapons in front of you in hopes of striking your foes down which may or may not be range of your swing. If you miss your first attack, you can pretty much consider yourself dead. While frustrating, I felt the terrible combat only further enforced the need to remain hidden from any and all threats to this meager physicist.
Games with good atmosphere are certainly made all over the world, but the particular experience small European developers often create for the player happen to be just the right kind of experience I am always looking for in games. Looking back on this post I still feel like it may not be as specific as I need it to be, but it is a step in a more specific direction.