It has becoming increasingly clear that there’s a sort of sub-genre brewing within microindie horror; The Norwood Suite, Bleakstead, Definition Of A Ghuest, and The Space Between all represent an undercurrent manifesting as a new subgenre. These pieces rely on their environments to relay tension instead of leaning on terrifying enemies or a tense narrative. This dream-like quality cultivated through queasy nightmarish vibes can render these games jarringly off-putting for many, both seemingly too acerbic for the gentle palette of most audiences, and at the same time too subtle for the adrenaline thirsty thrill-seekers.
Bleakstead’s outstanding presence finally gives some clarity to what makes this blossoming movement so special.
Growing up, some of our readers have likely brushed against the following scenario: an empty server in multiplayer manifesting the unique isolation that comes from exploring a deathmatch level intended for many and the implicit haunting imprint of now-absent adrenaline. In the face of the mind’s expectation of encountering conflict, the neural pathways forged in fire, the unnerving sensation that washes over you is not unlike sitting in a dark silent room or an office complex at night.
It’s a theme explored extensively in releases like PAGAN: Autogeny, the memorable Dot Hack franchise of the PS2 era, and No Players Online. What was once the pet-anxiety of FPS enthusiasts, a niche nightmare has now started to turn inventive trope, adding to the increasing arsenal of future-past urban legends ripe for exploitation in popular alternative media.
Bleakstead features an aesthetic familiar to those who have played one-hit-wonder Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, blocky environmental outlines and filtered textures give way to large open door environments that mesh seamlessly with simplified interior geometry. It’s the harsh contrast of the simple texture work, the richness of the earthen tones of both the dirt and the bricks, the murky greys sprouting like grass in the asphalt. It’s easy to think all ‘retro’ styled games look the same or were the same back in the day, but much like how Bourbon and Scotch remain distinct from each other despite common roots, engines derived from separate ancestral legacies and influences carry with them a nuanced visual profile that contributes to the resultant complex game feel.
As you wake up in a dreary town, a running theme in the preceding entries from the artist, you find yourself soon talking to a staticy figure that informs you the last bus out of town won’t be for quite some time. Once you stumble into the Diner, things start to unfold in a truly lynchian fashion, that is to say a stunningly mundane fever dream full of vague, ominous scenes drenched in dread. Few pieces portray this specific vibe with authentic replication, yet Bleakstead (and to an extent, ‘Wake Up’ by ThatSnillet) manages to pull it off with exceptional proficiency.
Something Bleakstead and Jedi Knight addon maps share in common is the way they represent interactive elements: unlike its quake derived contemporaries, The Sith engine did not come with a proper SDK that would enable level designers to spawn special-purpose NPCs, instead developers were forced to reverse engineer editing tools. In particular, level designers had a knack for dropping in static objects *disguised* as NPCs that one could converse with or take ‘quests’ from. The notion of cludgy improvised geometric forms and awkward texture work permeates the setup for Bleakstead’s interactive elements. The end result is a jarringly dead world that embodies a *different* kind of uncanny valley, a papier-
mâché of the timeless undead, a haunting facade that encompasses the back rooms of the psyche.
Eventually, a strange ritual spoonfed to you by the stranger in the motel manifests a camera- a literal framing device that begins to reveal the hidden spaces that overlap our own as crystaline protrusions from the noosphere begin to colonize and occupy your very perception of reality. With a new Perspective, it becomes obvious to you that this is no normal town, a fact that is only compounded by how authentically the eerie scenery feels like intruding on a skybox. The lack of music, underscored by a static-like desert wind, continues to drive home the isolation and loneliness that defines this space.
Valerie Dusk has seemingly been using these as a medium for a sort of dream diary anthology, much in the way that Rod Sterling of Twilight Zone fame did in order to inspire many of his famous episodes. It is strange that we do not see more stream-of-conciousness games, something less planned, a little more vague, vignettes dredged up from the deep ocean floor of our imagination.
Bleakstead is a testament to taking outside-the-box thinking and applying it to game design, to treat the medium more akin to vivid emotional prose instead of in the duldrum pursuits of mechanical sanctity. In our instinct to assure viability in the commercial marketplace, we risk severely undermining our ability to reach one another through our art. While many people often advocate for ‘Empathy Games’, those titles self-identifying as such are rarely outside the well-defined walled gardens of twee introspection. Empathy in reality means connecting with darkness, with the grit of our souls, the struggles that subsume our dreams and turn them into trauma. Through their bespoke oddities, these visual experiments tap into the symbolism of how our subconcious screams out to get our attention, and through understanding them we gain a robust appreciation for the diversity of the human experience: Happy, sad, beautiful, ugly, enlightening, frightening, idle, and sometimes so very weird.
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