Diary of a Horror Game Novice
Day One: ďTo think that such a
small event can change your life in such a violent way.Ē Philip
Itís dark. The house is quiet. Iím all alone. Iíve heard that is
the perfect time. I turn out the lights and slip the disk for the new
horror adventure game, Penumbra: Black Plague in the drive. I have
studied the manual and now Iím ready to experience the terroróat least, I
hope I am.
Darkness! Upon a black screen a strange message appears, white letter
by white letter. ďThere are things I need of you. Things you may not
understand, and may not wish to do, but please do not make the same
mistakes I did.Ē
Pensive music envelopes me and haunting images from the previous game,
Penumbra Overture, fill in needed background information. A velvety
voice narrates, reminding me that a cry for help from Philipís
long-assumed-dead father started all this. It ends with Philip lying
senseless on the ground. Alone, so alone.
The view changes and I (Philip, since this is a first person game)
awake in a decaying filthy room, cold and confused. Carefully, I survey
the room. Since this game is 3D, I can move freely around it and examine
everything. The door is locked and the ceiling is falling to the floor in
bits and pieces. All is gray. Danger lurks everywhere. I must leave now,
There is little here--a desk, a filthy mattress on the floor, some
metal shelves--and nothing of comfort. Swelling music leaves taut nerves
in its wake. Strange sounds assault my ears--creaks, thrums, scrabbling of
nails or mice or I know not what. But, I fight on. With much effort and a
little ingenuity, I find a way to escape. Each step is frisson-filled. At
each corner I expect to be killed. Eventually, I am.
The game takes me back a few minutes and I try again. This time I avoid
death but move slowly, cautiously, anxiously, never sure of what menace
will appear. Finally, I can take no more and exit the game to the warmth
and safety of my house. A sleepless night lets me know that I canít play
this game alone and in the dark. Iíll try again in the daylight.
Day Two: ďWhy, oh why, are they always holding a key? Or a note?
Or a swipe card? Why is it never, I donít know, a cheese sandwich? Iím
Iíve escaped my locked room, only to find myself following a trail left
by desperate people fleeing an evil they donít understand and cannot
fight. Iím in an underground government research facility deep beneath
frozen Greenland. Outside all is snowy white, but here all is muted and
gray. Destruction, neglect, vandalism fill my sight. Someone has built
barricades to keep out an unknown being or thing, but Iím not sure they
I desperately want to find my father. I need information. I urgently
wish to save my game, but I canít. It auto saves upon completion of
certain tasks and if I can live long enough to find a specific artifact, I
can save for myself in those locations only. But I canít save at every
turn, as there are only ten save slots. I plow on, and am rewarded with
certain documents that increase my knowledge of the place and the story as
well as my sense of doom.
I need both the keyboard (W,A,S,D) and the mouse to navigate through
the facility. I can run, but usually I creep, needing to go forward to
find answers--and yet afraid.
Thanks to a special physics based program, I really can interact with
the environment. A simple click wonít do. I must pull my hand backward to
open a drawer, and push my hand forward to close a door. To break a glass
pane, I must smash it repeatedly. I can pick up objects and balance them
precariously or manipulate them into new positions. Sometimes this is
novel and immersive, but at other times it is awkward and aggravating. All
the while, I must listen attentively for the sounds of my enemy and be
ready to hide or run.
I can hide by crouching down behind something. But if I do, I must be
careful to not look at the enemy. If I can see him, he can see me. And he
is much stronger than I am. I have no weapons so I must use cunning and
intelligence and speed when necessary.
I continue to explore, picking up useful items and moving quietly so as
not to alert ďthemĒ that I am here. I find many locked doors impeding my
progress, and of course I must find the key. I need to stack barrels and
boxes in order to reach a needed item or area. I seem to do this often.
I have to jump from one place to another and Iím not very good at it.
In one area, I have to do this in near total darkness, leaping from moving
platform to moving platform while a snarling presence right behind me
urges me to hurry. In another area, the camera shakes wildly and dust
fills the screen, but still I must run and jump and crouch as I flee to
safety. Sometimes I find that I have to mute the computer in order to calm
down sufficiently to complete a task. Even though I chose the ďEasyĒ
option (among Easy, Normal, and Hard), I die often. But the game is
compelling and I keep coming back for one more try.
Day Three: ďItís not too late to slam your head against the wall
until you pass out. It might be easier than carrying on.Ē Clarence
Having screwed up my courage, Iím ready to try again. I find more
levels of both the story and the buildings. But something strange has
happened and I am in a waking dream state. One of the puzzles is very
gory. In order to continue, I have to remind myself that no matter how I
feel, this is nothing but ďonesĒ and ďzerosĒ on a screen. Though I do not
have to contend with any sliders, mazes, mini-games, or sound puzzles,
several times I have to complete a set of actions in a short period of
time. If not, I die. I also have to wade through a room knee deep in
blood. Later, Iíll need to collect and manipulate body parts to solve one
puzzle. This game is not for the squeamish.
I find more documents which, thankfully, are automatically recorded in
my notebook along with a general ďto doĒ list. The story is filling out
and the news is not good for me. Eventually I find I must use a gas mask
which restricts my vision, fills my ears with the sound of my own
breathing, and increases my level of alarm. In addition, Iím no longer
sure if what Iím seeing and hearing is real or imaginary.
Suddenly, a voice not my own speaks to me and names himself Clarence.
His voice changes from threatening to taunting to coaxing and back again,
and all is excellently done. Sometimes he helps a bit, but mostly he just
reminds me that Iíll likely not live to find my father or to leave this
I seldom see anyone, except those creatures who continue to plague me
and the rotting corpses of scientists who were not successful in their
quests. They could not stop the threat and they did not manage to escape.
I continue on my journey. The screens between levels are somewhat slow
in loading (about 20-30 seconds) giving me time to calm my thudding heart.
It seems as if even the computer is terrorized as now I encounter several
glitches. I search for and find the
patch but even with it, my cursor disappears when I die, forcing me to
use Alt+Control+Delete to shut the game down and restart. The cursor also
goes missing a few times as a new area loads. I find that sometimes when
this happens, the Escape key allows me to continue, but not always.
Finally, my psyche can take no more and I quit for the day.
Day Four: ďI had to put an end to this.Ē Philip
Iíve fought my way through most of the game and Iím very curious about
how it ends, so I take my courage in hand and load the game for what I
think will be my final time. As always, each step is watchful, but at
least I know that when (not if) I die, Iíll come back near the same spot.
The story has deepened with each document Iíve found and Iím totally
involved with Philip. I want him to stop the threat and bring the world
back to sanity.
When the end comes, it brings with it a philosophical question which we
must all answer for ourselves. I am stunned and sit in silence for several
minutes absorbing, reflecting, remembering.
Though I doubt I will play this game again (one gory scene involving a
dogís carcass repulsed me, but may not bother others), I am glad I
experienced it for fifteen-plus hours. It was a tension-filled ride from
the first screen to the last. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it,
I kept coming back for more.
1st person horror
and mouse required for movement
Sometimes awkward physics based
interaction system requires movements to open doors, drawers, manipulate
Auto saves at predetermined
User can save but only at
certain check points
Saves limited in number
You can die, but will restart
near where you died
Voice acting excellent
Atmospheric background music
imbues game with tension
Ambient sounds are very good
Settings are grim and decaying
Not consistently Alt+Tab
A few glitches even after
Mostly inventory or logic
puzzles, but does include some jumping and timed sequences
No sound puzzles
No color dependent puzzles
Intriguing story told mostly
through documents and flashbacks
I played on:
OS: Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2
3.2 GHz Intel Pentium 4
RAM: 3 GB
Dual Channel DDR400 SDRAM
Video: nVidia GeForce 7600GS 256MB 128-bit GDDR2 AGP 4X/8X
Sound: Creative SB Audigy LS
DirectX Version: 9.0c
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