We’ve covered a lot of “lost virtual world” styled vignettes, each with a unique take or theme and a particular accompanying thesis. Oleander Garden‘s PAGAN is exceptional and offers up an astounding amount of replay value. Not content to be written off as yet another trope ridden “walking sim”, PAGAN folds its byzantine gameplay mechanics into the narrative in a seamless fashion, and it’s this union that helps to elevate it amongst its peer in the sub-genre.
Set in the dying grip of a fictional MMORPG, PLAZA96, one particularly notorious for its user-antagonistic UI and hostile design principles, you wander the digital wastelands without much of an initial imperative beyond the urge to discover; a fun foreshadowing of what awaits past the game’s starting area. The intentionally clunky control scheme isn’t just a pleasant touch of authenticity hearkening to its roots, but rather a critical incentive for the player to fully engross themselves into the mindset of navigating the obtuse branching paths necessary for a complete story run.
PAGAN focuses entirely on the ways a virtual avatar enables and emboldens us to pursue the idea of a higher self, presenting us with a digital sandbox to confront the uncomfortable truths about how we construct our identities. This theme is evident in how the game leverages Tarot cards as gear for the player character in order to alter stats, with interpretative translations ranging from the intuitive (Strength boosts, you guessed it, damage) to the obtuse (Temperance increasing faith at the cost of speed and strength).
Dotted throughout the landscape are enemies and NPCs representing fellow players, both having long lost their shape and context outside of their names and the loot they drop. The only things which retain their form unscathed are the environment itself and the few remaining bosses that guard critical path items, it’s clear that PLAZA96 has seen better days under the watchful eyes of the now absentee developers. Without a higher power to maintain order over the digital chaos, the only thing to keep the ravages of time at bay are the dedicated fans who refuse to let go and find themselves, by extension, trapped in stasis.
The ruins of the game once called PLAZA96 serve as a crucible, rusted tools at the protagonist’s disposal to aid in their journey of self-actualization, to return to the dark void that once served as the psyche’s womb and find the necessary clues to forge a more complete identity from the fractured facets of a troubled mind. While it would be easy to read too deeply into certain elements of the game and deduce a straightforward commentary on topics like dysphoria, it’s clear on a complete run that PAGAN is actually interested in a more broadly applicable subtext regarding the foundations of identity as a whole.
It’s an effective counter-part to techno-utopian games that tackle similar themes like Victoria Dominowski’s Secret Little Haven (Which Errant Signal did a deep analysis of), contrasting against these titles by choosing to show the gloomier and more spiritual side of internet culture. In the world of PLAZA96 there are no straightforward answers or affirming artworks to guide the protagonist’s process of individuation, instead the way is fraught with cryptic sages, cyber-mystics spewing intimidating prophecy, and divination. PAGAN has a demure honesty that doesn’t resort to exaggerated depictions of personal suffering or overbearing gothic angst that distracts the player from the objective at hand.
The fact that PAGAN manages to cultivate an exacting atmosphere of necrorealism demonstrates the game’s maturity; it’s a piece that wants you to come to terms with those negative emotions we all experience and learn to balance and love them as a part of the whole of the self. PAGAN requires the player to use every emotion represented by the Tarot cards in your inventory in the pursuit of absolution and to liberate your true self in line with the thesis of coming to terms with the negative as well as the positive aspects of the self. PLAZA96 is a horizon to aspire to, instead of a state of mind to embody.
You’d do yourself a disservice to not give PAGAN: Autogeny a closer look, and we highly encourage you to do so.
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