A porcelain doll staggers up from a menacing crouch over something ambiguously corpselike, two blackened holes where eyes normally are meet your gaze as you aim down the sights of a police issue pistol. It’s hard to distinguish the cacophonous shattering of ceramic from the sudden crack of a .32 ACP round discharging from the chamber, the shell casing hitting the floor blending seamlessly with the clattering of shards against hard wood.
Golden gears glisten in the gaslight, catching your eye as you return to your senses. It’s not like you’ve never seen action in the line of duty before, but the tight confines of the study and the horrendous acoustics seemingly unravel your nerve, leaving you more disoriented than ever. After coming to terms with the fact that this house is inhabited by malevolent clockwork automata, you begin to formulate a plan to escape not only the confines of this porcelain hell, but also this ridiculous outfit.
Alisa: The Awakening is a different kind of playstation throwback, distinguishing itself from it’s neo-aliterative lo-fi contemporaries by drawing special attention to the finite details most leave on the cutting room floor. A brutally taxing control scheme, obtuse puzzles, and an outstanding knack for perfectly replicating the uncanny surrealist design methodologies endemic in pre-rendered environments of the era… well, Spencer Mansion, eat your heart out (if someone hasn’t already).
It’s readily apparent that this precise recreation of antiquated production values evokes a certain kind of unique digital terroir, but despite oozing charisma from it’s painted pores, Alisa makes it exceptionally clear that the audience will have to work to love it. With timeless graphics comes a timeless difficulty curve, the signature overbearing “Figure it out yourself” puzzles and contraptions found everywhere from Myst to Fatal Frame.
It would be a massive oversight not to address the game’s particularly… unnerving fixation on obsessive hyper-feminization. It permeates the work to a point that even our protagonist, the titular Alisa, makes it a point to state how much more confident she’d be in the military police uniform she’s far more accustomed to. Doilies and tea pots no more suit her than a toucan in charge of a haberdashery. Alisa may be a woman, but this world of delicate accoutrements is entirely alien to her.
As you explore the aptly named Dollhouse, it swiftly becomes evident that whoever has taken our hero captive either has a sadistic sense of humor or a pathological fixation on having to re-create some sort of human scale doll set to fit within the empty house. Every door lock and key has an associated symbol associated to things the human brain is innately attuned to at a primal level, like hands or eyes, drawing an implication that each part of the mansion has some correlation to the functions of anatomy.
One particular lock found in the core of the house is stated to seem particularly strange, even when juxtaposed against the other abominations throughout the estate, appearing almost as if it were grown in place like a tree rather than forged in steel. In a space with such disconcerting emphasis on animated artificiality, the plant-like bindings on the door serve as a thematic inversion. If automata represent unnatural facsimiles of life, the door lock is distinct in how it serves a man-made function despite manifesting as mere vines scaling a wall, demonstrating that the twisted logic of this place extends sinfully like tendrils into the worlds of both man and nature.
…Then there’s Pol, the… helpful? makeshift hand-puppet that either represents comedic relief or perhaps merely serves the role of a merchant for the player, a profoundly puzzling protrusion to be sure. Until the full release, however, it’s hard to say exactly where he falls within the scope of the game’s worldbuilding, but for now he’s a welcome reprieve both mechanically and narratively from the thick tension Alisa manages to cultivate so effectively.
Alisa: the Awakening is far from user friendly and will likely require both extensive re:binding of keys followed by a few minutes of clumsily wandering into walls to acclimate fully, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an unbridled joy.
We look forward to the full release and what psychological mysteries lurk within the deepest chambers of the mansion’s back rooms.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice