The Penumbra Saga

I might be bad at graphic adventures. At leas the first-person ones. I wasn’t able to finish Amnesia or Penumbra until I forced myself to do so, and only because SOMA made me curious about Frictional’s backlog again. I had a somewhat ambivalent reaction to the, and even though I was able to appreciate a lot of things, there was a lot too that felt antiquated or unexpected.

For a while it was common mentioning how the team was inspired by Super Mario 64 to design the sections of Brennenburg castle. Considering the aesthetic and procedural similarities between the pacing of Nintendo titles and the puzzles of Amnesia, I understand that this inspiration was only evident on the level design area, because other than that, the progression of these games feels radically different. On the one hand, it feels like the rooms and aisles of the Shelter Station follow the same pattern that other Frictional games tend to follow over the years. Narrative exposition is handled similarly as well, in that it mostly relies on wall texts and specific dialogue. Playing Penumbra: Overture again feels like going back in time to a more innocent of the medium where this kind of structure didn’t feel trite or overused.

On the other hand, there’s something weird about the way that you play these games nowadays, and you can feel the time’s zeitgeist at times. The more obvious moment come from the insistence on physic puzzles, and the preference given to the player’s decisions. Frictional Studios originally cut their teeth with freeware titles that are almost impossible to get now, and with their own engine even. By the time Penumbra was released, the team seemed like they knew how to provide a relatively solid experience with the tools at their disposition. It’s just feels like they didn’t think that they would be able to provide that much variety with them.

I suspect that this lack of confidence on their own engine is what ultimately led down the narratively-driven path that they’v been following for so long now. Being blunt, they weren’t exactly breaking any molds with these games, and the novelty of the “talkative companion” embodied by Clarence and Red already had clear references in Half-Life 2’s Alyx. Their main difference is that these companions tend to be more antagonistic and unsupportive towards you, which in a way feels like they predicted the sarcastic playthroughs that fill Youtube now. Nevertheless, the “innovations” of this game weren’t as innovative or original at the time, and the only thing that felt kinda interesting was the way that they were used to explore the themes of the saga.

When we being our expedition to the wastes of Greenland, the game presents itself as a very traditional horror thriller. Like so many graphic adventures now and then, we spend most of the time looking into rooms, reading notes, scavenging items and uncovering mysteries. The sudden appearance of our first enemy (after a pretty tense moment) puts us in guard and makes us aware that this ain’t no Scratches nor Gabriel Knight — This is a stealth-based graphic adventure, and as such you need to hide and use the WASD as God intended. If we’re knowledgeable about the genre or at the very least have played a couple of FPSs we’ll know how to handle this. There are barely any weapons though (save for an almost useless ice axe), which means that you need to spend most of the time hiding or running away from the creatures that roam the place. Of every action I remember within the game, hiding behind crates while waiting for dogs to pass by is by far the thing I recall the most. Taking care of them with your tools is an increidibly tense experience, and at times very effective.

Compared to these specific moments, the rest of the games tends to feel a little tedious. There are many puzzles to solve, but most of them amount to using the right item in the right slot, and hope that the engine helps you out with the physics of some of them. Playing Penumbra feels very similar to playing one of those Half-Life 2 Source mods that were so popular in the mid-00's. Mods like Invisible Killer, Found on the Tape y the endless variations of SCP-087. Another older mod that I recall from the earlier days is Half-Quake, a fascinating conversion of the original Half-Lifel wherein you play the role of a dammed soul looking for repentance in a hellish environment, all the while a sarcastic voice comments on your progress. The similarities between this and game and Clarence is very similar, but it becomes extremely obvious in Penumbra: Requiem, where you face nothing but hellish puzzles.

All this comparisons serve me to situate Penumbra within a larger context of game design, but when it comes to the games themselves, there’s not that much to say. They are, above all, thrillers that revolve around solving mysteries, and anything else feels like filler to our main quest. It does mean, however, that the game feels very wooden at times, given how every character plays their role in such an exaggerated manner and lack the strength to stand by themselves. Red never abandons his shakesperian mannerisms, Clarence remains untrustworthy until the end and Amabel Swanson is barely a footnote. Despite all of this, the gameplay feels so good at time. Our first encounter with one of the “humans” is by far the best one of their type, and I don’t think any future Frictional title has ever surpassed it. The feeling of isolation and loneliness is also keenly felt with a couple of invisible characters that stand out better than the visible ones, mostly because their predicament feels extremely unnerving if you have just a small ounce of sympathy. Other moments feel very gimmicky, like the Thing homage in the middle of Black Plague.

En líneas generales, el juego mantiene siempre un equilibrio tenso entre la inquietud general de los lugares y el (no siempre efectivo) ejercicio intelectual, y cuando esos elementos conjugan bien, lo hacen muy bien, pero cuando prevalece uno, es el primero el que queda siempre en mejor lugar. Pero, hasta la “aparición” de Red en nuestra radio, el juego no ha pasado de ser un juego de exploración con tintes de supervivencia. Cuando la extraña voz del malhadado minero empieza a resonar y a regurgitar todas esas referencias literarias, el juego empieza a adquirir un tono surrealista. Seguimos explorando y aprendiendo sobre el lugar, pero ahora todo queda en entredicho por culpa de la improbabilidad de encontrarnos a alguien que lleva años sobreviviendo en las profundidades de la mina. Sumado a este hecho, tenemos las cada vez más obvias referencias al grupo detrás del Refugio (una especie de versión retorcida de los masones), y empezamos a hallarnos con situaciones cada vez más improbables y específicas ¿Un lago con dos excursionistas muertos, uno de ellos hundido justo lo suficiente para alzar su bastón en gesto desafiante? ¿Una escena de persecución con arañas y piedras rodando que más se asemeja a Tomb Raider que a otra cosa? ¿Una pócima que tenemos que llevar de un lado a otro por un pasillo que se ha hundido y ahora parece un montón de plataformas sueltas? No hay nada que nos de a entender que algo de esto es falso o una alucinación, pero es la sensación de artificio la que nos deja intranquilas.

Then come the big Decisions of the game, which aren’t really because you need to perform them to finish the game, and in a way, those feel like prototype to the later ones that we can see in SOMA and other titles. At this moment in time, they feel like trite cliches, but in a way, they predict a particular form of inconsequential choice design that some games use today to instill moral dilemmas on contemporary players. The Shelter works most of the time as a puzzle-filled Black Mesa, with snow instead of sand, and has more all the usual trappings of these kind of games, but the surrealist that follow the last moments of Black Plague and all of Requiem lend themselves to this new form of decision making that Frictional would develop further in the future.

Even though you need to fulfill the Tuungait’s tests to continue, these moments are the ones that feel more forward-thinking of the lot because they are the ones that predict the game design of many future titles. Even though they are mostly retreads of the same challenges that we went through with some Half-life mods, their subterranean presence will become dominant for decades to come and influence how designers approach their map design from both a logical and moral framework.

Requiem feels like a solo drum of the ending of Black Plague in the sense that it’s a follow-up to this kind of design. It’s not everyday that you can say a whole paradigm of puzzle design being abandoned in favor of another in real time. In literary terms it feels almost like going from a naturalistic framework to magical realism. The fact that some of these puzzles are direct references to classic arcades like Donkey Kong, adds a little bit of post-modernism to the whole stew. Requiem’s jump from survival horror to Portal-style puzzle solving reflects the metatextual evolution of many games of this era, in the sense that it feels like we’re entering into a brave new world that we now know influences a lot of the games of today.

It feels weird travelling back to 2006 after more than a decade of design that was directly influenced by that particular era of gaming. Even though Penumbra is barely a footnote on the larger history of survival horror, modding and even puzzle-solvers, it works as a reflection of the beginning of all these trends. Even though the game barely stands out by its own merits, its inconsistencies and uneasiness is the same that we would feel in years to come with much more popular titles like Bioshock Bioware RPGs and Portal. In its own meta way, Penumbra is a vertical slice for European and American design ideologies that reflect back on the whole story of the medium, and for that alone it deserves scrutiny and consideration.

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Jugador, Doctor y estudioso de los videojuegos/Player, Phd. and Video Game Scholar

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Tomás Grau de Pablos

Tomás Grau de Pablos

Jugador, Doctor y estudioso de los videojuegos/Player, Phd. and Video Game Scholar

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