I like to imagine legions of “art game” enthusiasts queuing up outside the metaphorical Steam store to get their hands on the latest graphically-gorgeous “walking simulator”, NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014).
Once they’ve got a copy of the game, they sit in front of their PC, grinning with excitement as the game installs. It runs – there’s a flash of the Unreal logo – and then it's time for a quick tweak of the graphical settings. Maximum resolution, maximum effects: these people want to drown in its abstract beauty.
And then the game opens... with a cutscene? Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) wasn’t exactly an overflowing cup of player agency, so the enthusiasts deal with it.
But then the brutality begins. And the arrogance of NaissanceE is both startling and traumatising.
NaissanceE is notorious for 3D platforming. According to Jim Rossignol, “the game’s main challenge is leaping around platforms, often in near darkness” and described it as “regularly frustrating to the point of just-need-some-air keyboard quitting”. Jim Sterling struggled with it for eight minutes on YouTube, close to ragequitting throughout.
Having to do first-person platforming is a well-known downer. The Xen segment in Half-Life (Valve, 1998) got it in the neck, and Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008) also caused players who loved its parkour moves some grief when a failed jump broke not just rhythm but continuity as death blasted them back to the last checkpoint. Previous discussions on this site have led me to the conclusion the only first-person jumping that’s worked well is Fotonica (Santa Ragione, 2011), because it focuses on timing to the exclusion of everything else. (ref: Fotonica Astonishca)
But NaissanceE goes that extra mile and is actively hostile to the player because much of the jumping has to be conducted in darkness; the game feel is all messed up and calibrating jumps to the environment is fraught with woe. Even the tutorial tires of the “unskilled” player: you climb up a dark shaft following an orb of light, but if you fail one of the required jumps you’ll fall down the shaft... minus any light. The game doesn’t chastise you, it simply leaves you to struggle in the darkness without a quicksave. Yes, no quicksaves! The developers have improved the frequency of checkpoints since launch, this reducing ragequits, but the game remains a vicious piece of work.
I’m not talking about intention. Intention can take a flying leap through the window of teleological doom. This is about the relationship between player and game - or perhaps absence of.
It woos you. Oh God does it woo you. Take a look at all those screenshots you’ve taken, that you “just had to have”. That crazy bridge across an “electric canyon”. The gorgeous undercity and its dark, clean, uninhabited spaces. It’s like a nightmare cancer version of Mirror’s Edge, where something deleted the people and gorged itself on the colour of the world.
But while it sexes you up with the visuals, it knifes you in the back repeatedly. Those bloody fans. Those long stairs. Those beautiful chasms with no guardrail to hold you back. The flailing around because there are no signposts. The entire chapter called “Deeper into madness”. The gaps in the architecture which you explore at your peril. Why would you do this to yourself? Why would you put yourself through this? Why on earth are you still playing?
Are you thinking about quitting?
Did you quit?
I did not quit. I rose to its challenge. I endured its bloody splendour.
All of these crimes committed against the player – the lack of direction, the lack of a safety net quicksave, the lack of fairness – mesh together to deliver a world that does not care about you (until, of course, you make it). Despite the comforting presence of doors and walkways and bedrooms, this is no place for humans. It’s too clean, a hotel without any guests. Its people never arrived – or did and were wiped out, which is an explanation I lean towards. God knows what the protagonist is doing here: she’s in trouble and she knows it.
I played NaissanceE because I thought it might be a close cousin of Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2012) as the pair are superficially similar: puzzles, abstract environment, disquieting ambient music. Yet they could not be more different. Indeed, Kairo signs off on a positive note and has a decipherable story, NaissanceE is unrelentingly oppressive and ambiguous.
Lack of direction constantly makes you second-guess yourself – maybe you should be going this way? No, that way? And amongst all those wild goose chases, such fine secrets are hidden - from the infinite stairwell to the many optional surprises of the penultimate “Endless Dive” chapter.
The way in which the game ignores your efforts and does not pander to player satisfaction plays beautifully into the loneliness of NaissanceE and the ever-present threat. Yes, threat. The game kicks off with a chase sequence and the disturbing ambient sounds of the game make you paranoid that something is near, just around the corner, perhaps lurking behind you. You keep looking for it. You always keep looking for it.
Such awful dread. After a couple of hours in NaissanceE, I found the atmosphere had stained me, just like a good horror film does: makes you see a little more in the dark than you normally would; makes you a little more alert to creaks in the night.
It also offers a short fourth-wall breaking Stanley Parable routine, to obscure what you have to do. The game tells you “this is not the way” - a direct challenge to prove the developer is in control. If you do not heed this instruction, the game will throw you to the desktop. There are no cute monologues here. Obey or you will not be permitted to continue.
After I completed the highly regarded System Shock 2 (Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios, 1999) I knew I never wanted to play the game again. The constant search for resources, the long, painful climb through the Von Braun... I just couldn't put myself through it twice. I was glad to have experienced it and would always strongly recommend it as a must-play... but the game was so punishing that I knew I wouldn't go back. And the same is true of NaissanceE. I don't know if I can put myself through all those jumps and the disturbing solitude of the game. It hates you
But is there a point to this? Who is “Lucy”? Where is this place? Is it even real? Who is the host? Is this all a personal battle for sanity, or a fight against a man-made beast that destroyed its creators? It doesn't really matter. As Dustin Lance Black recently said in a film about his screenwriting process, “A film is not what happened, a film is an impression of what happened.” Videogames are the same too – and NaissanceE is a spectacular example. I do not know what happened here. I just know that it was pretty bad.
I love that we’ve arrived at a time where it’s possible to sell a wolf in art sheep’s clothing. Go ahead and quit if you want. Good for you. You don’t need this in your life.
But I did.