[This piece spoils the majority of ERASURE. If you’re interested in this fascinating experience, give it a try here first.]
An alarm blares at you from across the room. The red light illuminates the office, prompting you to stand up from your desk and check the terminal. “USER DECEASED” in F8. God, another one? Donning your standard-issue headset, you venture out into the hallowed halls of the hospital and take the elevator to the floor of the newly deceased. On the deep-sim pod they’re safely encased within, a similar alarm to the one in your office screams at you. Hooking into the machine, you pull up the byzantine user interface and disconnect the neural link, prepping yet another lost soul for bioreclimation.
The process is one that has become far too familiar for you, the caretaker of the facility, a role somewhat akin to that of a neurological janitor. Whether it’s re-aligning the digital husk of a dog for a user or interrupting those who seek to break security protocol, ERASURE from developer hologram (@hologram_sam) puts you in the shoes of a worker trapped in the endless cycle of the late-night shift charged with taking care of myriad minds exploring the boundaries of simulated realities.
Presented in a charming lo-fi aesthetic utilizing PSX rendering techniques and low-poly models alongside bit-crushed dark soundscapes, ERASURE is a punchy, dense work brimming with terrifying implication. While it can easily be glossed over and read as a bite of survival-horror from yesteryear, the themes permeating it paint a murky picture of corporate overreach and escapism gone awry.
At some point in this universe, a nameless entity has come to run a repurposed hospital housing assumably dozens of pods that run “deep-sims”, constructed virtual realities that can facilitate whatever experience a user wishes. For some, this is an opportunity to flee from the oppressive day-to-day, allowing them to laze about in a peaceful meadow, and, for others, a potential space of derealization where they descend into their worst nightmares. The scope and extent of this place and its overlords aren’t explored, simply prodded at.
Unlike the world of the game at large, the things that are explored in ERASURE plumb the depths of the human psyche muddled by a possibility space dictated through restrictive measures that hinder those who wish to indulge their darker impulses. Tasked with maintaining a semblance of peace within these simulations, it’s up to you to wander the warped and twisted halls of the mind of the occupants that seek the ever-elusive limit experiences outside the confines of humanity.
Take, for instance, the second pod you’re sent to investigate in which a user has “broken security protocol”. As you connect, the user initially refuses your entry, prompting you to brute force into their sim. A mountain of meat greets you, along with a person collapsing into it and sinking downward. Ascending meat mountain, you navigate claustrophobically tight halls before being confronted by a user masquerading as a demonic entity who proceeds to stab you repeatedly. Their assault on your simulated projection brings up your inscrutable interface, and, as you feebly attempt to disconnect from this waking nightmare, your vision fills with the user’s expletives, calling you a “wage slave” that “can’t handle this.”
You find yourself presented with a power user that can’t be quelled via your typical operating procedures. It’s unclear what happens to them as the scene abruptly cuts away to your character frazzled at their desk, pounding their keyboard as another alarm lights up. Even when approaching complexity within a digital space that rivals reality, measures are put in place that obscure the edges of the simulation. For those who wish to bend and break this reality to their will, disregarding the shattering of illusion it inevitably causes, the entity in charge of the facility has a failsafe in place to subjugate these errant users and set them back on whatever semblance of a path that has been laid out for them: you.
Even beyond the unspoken and unseen barriers put in place for these users, perhaps for what the designers considered to be for their own protection, the way in which the player character interfaces with the pods reveals that even those who are meant to keep things running are limited in what they can actually do. The rudimentary menu brought up when jacking in is confusing and doesn’t offer much control outside of resetting the simulation or disconnecting the user. Whoever has made these pods has very clear boundaries put in place, and when a user steps outside of them, punitive justice is administered to the best of the ability of the janitor.
Furthermore, this corp has ulterior motives beyond keeping users in line with their vision. Looking at the “bioreclimation” of deceased users that makes up the bulk of your activity over the course of your shift, it’s again unclear as to what this entails for the person inside the pod. One could assume that your actions, to quote The Matrix, “liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.” Whatever the result, these pods are seemingly directly or indirectly killing people and retrieving their remains for use elsewhere.
At the end of the game’s runtime, your final trip into another malfunctioning pod leads you down a glitch-ridden path. Grotesqueries erupt from a chasm in space that devours a seemingly human entity in the simulation. User or otherwise, this monstrosity flings you into the menu you’ve become so used to, but this time your standard operations have been replaced by different options: to connect to a “new mind” or an “old mind,” both of which throw errors. Your only choice is to “join” a “union.” Doing so shunts you to another menu encircled by eyes. Interaction with them brings up a prompt simply reading, “help me,” with only the option to delete them.
Once you clear them, you’re stranded in some liminal space surrounded by the eyes. Flashes of the beast in full overtakes your vision, some sort of manifestation of this virus or nanophage plaguing the simulation. We end on a shot of the player character holding their head, twitching violently, bathed in the familiar red light of alarms.
A failed revolt? The degenerated remains of some shadowy resistance cabal? The actual fate of the mysterious “bioreclamation”? An overt metaphor for unionization? It’s hard to say definitively what all of it is, and much is left to the rumination of the player. ERASURE is the kind of experience one has to digest long after playing; the multitude of themes threaded throughout the experience prompting endless analysis. Regardless, it’s clear that whatever corporation running this place cares not for the safety of its workers nor those who employ their services. As with any faceless entity exerting control over a populace, intent becomes uncertain, but the consequences of its actions are all too clear.
We become so blinded by the escapist fantasy of a space outside of reality and time that we lose sight of the forest for the trees. These users want to remain undisturbed in their pocket universes, isolated and selfish, unaware of the plague sweeping the facility and uncaring for those who service their malfunctioning units, and they’re more than happy to visit nightmare upon nightmare on those that would dare interfere.
Capitalism, in the end, will grind us all into a fine paste for whatever goals it wishes to attain. The facility is not a deep-sim storage/shop, but a meat factory. Regardless of intervention, these users will simply be churned through and reclaimed into a form that serves the puppet-masters at the top. Nothing human makes it out of this near future alive.
ERASURE is currently available on itch.io.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.