Monday, 7 May 2012

You said no strings could secure you, at the space station [Review: the white chamber]

Studio Trophis' the white chamber was released in 2005, around the time the point-n-click adventure was becoming the genre du jour of the indie scene. Critical reception was positive, but more high profile titles like Yahtzee's Chzo Mythos series and an adaptation of the Bone comic books by new company Telltale Games overshadowed it. I played the white chamber way back when and earlier this year, during my internetless period, I fired it up again. How has it fared in the years since?

A more classic videogame opening there isn't: the protagonist wakes up in a coffin in a sealed room, with no memories - not even of her own name. One simple introductory puzzle and a creepy conversation with a computer panel later, you find yourself alone aboard an abandoned space station. It's dark, it's rusty, and there's a distressing amount of blood encrusted everywhere. It's a claustrophic opening, and it only gets worse as you get the power back on and open up the rest of the complex. Surreal elements, most of them steeped in hellish imagery or twisted body horror, pile up fast. A humanoid knot of pulsating flesh, growing out of the navigation computer, attacks the heroine. A giant eyeball nailed to the wall spins frantically under the glare of a red traffic light seeping congealed gore. Chasms open in the floor, smeared trails of blood appear from nowhere, and dead bodies - or bits of bodies - start showing up at an alarming rate.

The main character finds her mind slipping through this nightmare - although to what extent is debatable. By the midpoint of the game, it's impossible to tell how much of the horror is real and how much is not. For a while, the only answers come from datadisks left behind by a crew member. Eventually, our hero finds her way down into the titular white chamber, and the truth is revealed. The first time I played through this game, a suspicion of the truth behind the nightmare slowly built up in my mind so that I realised it right before the game revealed all, which is the presumable intent; second time around, it all seems pretty obvious from much earlier on, but maybe that's just the benefit of foreknowledge talking.

Either way, the denouement is satisfying, if depressing. That which has gone before is filtered through a new lens - a lens of greed, rage, obsession, betrayal and regret. The previously visceral horror takes on a darker aspect and incidental actions gain sinister alternate significance. For all the dead bodies and loneliness, the white chamber is a game about being alive and being with other people - and the painful ways it can go wrong.

All of the death and decay is presented upfront with few punches pulled. Writhing cadavers, severed limbs, gallons and gallons of blood - it's all there in a grimy, hyperdetailed, hand-drawn art style which heightens the atmosphere using awkward perspectives and off-angle textures. It might seem like it's just badly drawn at first, but as the surreal nature of the game plays out, the bizarre artwork clicks into place, and it works. Lighting takes the form of glowing coloured blocks, adding at once both a classic sci-fi trope and another surreal aspect to the station's twisted design.

The characters are drawn in an 80s-ish manga style, which feels a little out of place - but not mood-shatteringly so, and to be fair, anime is relatively easy to draw and animate for a small, amateur team. The lead character is expressive, and while her voice acting never really evokes the true depths of revulsion and fear she professes to feel, it's good enough not to detract.

What of the game itself? It's short, so within a single day it's easy to attain every possible ending - including the various gruesome deaths awaiting the protagonist. Some actions which seem pointless affect which ending you receive, although the main thrust of the game is not multi-path. Puzzles often follow the same dreamscape logic as the rest of the game; if you struggle with adventure game thinking then the white chamber is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, there seems nothing unusual to you about reassembling a hacked up corpse in the body-shaped grooves on a bed, then you'll do fine.

The puzzling side of the white chamber is pretty unremarkable, in all honesty, neither good nor bad. The way the puzzles tie into the narrative isn't always as tight as it might be, but it's got an interesting take on the old idea of items suddenly becoming interactive when they weren't before. And as I noted in an earlier post, it nails a great balance of usable items being clear without being blatantly obvious.

But the adventuring isn't, in itself, the main reason I would recommend this game. The narrative and twisted imagery, and the atmosphere created, wouldn't work as well in another medium. As with many of my favourites, making the lead's choices induces empathy and that makes the emotional impact all the greater when it comes. Like Assassin's Creed, Braid and Planescape: Torment, and the excellent The Company Of Myself, the white chamber plays with the standard storytelling devices we know and accept in a videogame. It's done more subtly than any of the previously mentioned titles, but it's all the more viscerally affecting for it. To anyone with an interest in games as narrative, and who likes (or can tolerate) adventure games, the white chamber is a fascinating experience.

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