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Penumbra Trilogy: played at last

Entry 1688 posted in: 3. Gamebits

A while ago I wrote that I purchased the Penumbra trilogy game pack at the staggering price of 5 dollars. For the non-initiated, Penumbra is a first person horror game, but not - as most games of these type are - based upon hacking, slashing or shooting your way through a maze of dark lit corridors and tunnels festooned with flesh eating monsters or blood sucking vampires. More a combination of adventure and survival the game takes advantage of advanced artificial intelligence to respond realistically to noises and light, creating stealth-based gameplay.

The last line just above is, of course, publicity techno-babble, although the freeware Penumbra Tech Demo that was donated to the public in 2006 created quite a buzz in gamersland. That game demo was, so the legend goes, the thesis work (or better said based upon the thesis work) of a group of Swedish students and when thousands of fans from over the word shouted for more the guys (game creators are - by definition - male) decided to turn professional.

Warning: the following text contains serious spoilers!

Meet Red (or red meat?) Penumbra: Overture

I wasn't completely happy with Penumbra: Overture and I have explained some of the reasons why in a previous post. Basically the stealth-mode play didn't work for me and I ended up killing zombie dogs with a pick-axe, a hammer and in one case, out of sheer annoyance, with a broomstick, instead of avoiding them. Although the physics engine was (and still is) a great invention, some more work could have been done to accurately handle and throw equipment around. When you only have a few seconds before a giant worm will suck your brains out you would like the pick-axe movement to be a little bit more reliable. Luckily there are only two or three run-for-your-life occasions in the game where your survival is depending on quick action. (Of course it all depends on the player's reaction speed, I was a bit annoyed when I read that a player completed the run-and-hack scenario in only three attempts while I was currently at number 35.)

When I re-entered the Penumbra forum a couple of weeks ago (my account was still active after 4 years, another proof that Internet's memory - just like the Tuurngaait - goes on forever) I was a bit surprised that there was a 20 pages long lively discussion about Red.

Obviously Red saves the game. You'll never actually manage to meet him, and probably that is for the best, but he contacts Philip, as the protagonist is called, through a walkie-talkie, instructing him what to do next throughout the quest. Tom Redwood, so Philip learns by reading the reports, memos and hastily scribbled piece of papers that can be find throughout the game on desks, in drawers, filing-cabinets or just lying on the floor, was a 14-year-old miner who went missing in 1970 but managed to survive for 3 decades, mainly on a monotonous lunch of slugs, earthworms, spiders, dogs and even…, but only occasionally though, humans.

There is clearly something wrong with Red: although he is still trapped in the lower mining regions he has the uncanny gift of exactly knowing where Philip is and doesn't hesitate to lead him (you, the player) through various life-threatening situations. Red is not a guardian angel, but neither is he totally bad. When Philip finally finds his hiding spot Red has deliberately imprisoned himself and the only way to end the game is to finish him off.

Red's death, by the hands of Philip, is not really murder because the miner wanted to die, but - for unknown reasons - couldn't take his own life. The Penumbra forum has several theories why he refused to commit suicide, the most believable one is that he was a victim of the Tuurngaait virus and turned into a zombie-like being, although that knowledge will only be revealed to Philip in the second part of the Penumbra series.

Red is one of the most disturbing, and believable, characters I've met in a game so far and like I put before, he is the one who turns Penumbra into a believable quality game horror experience.

I'm not the man I used to be Penumbra: Black Plague

Despite its shortcomings Overture was not unsuccessful and received good ratings from the specialised press. But fighting zombie dogs is one thing, fighting game publishers another. At one point Lexicon Entertainment decided to pull the plug, Frictional wryly commented: "It's a plain good old breach of contract done by one company to wreck havoc on all others involved." (A later comment from Frictional Games read: "Our very first publisher didn't really feel like paying us properly for the first game we did in the Penumbra series.")

Luckily a new publisher was found in Paradox Interactive, but that deal was for one game only. The developers decided to abandon the idea of a Penumbra trilogy and revealed that Black Plague was going to be the second, and last, instalment.

This created new problems as originally the makers had foreseen two extra full length games and they were now obliged to condense that into a single one, and rather quick, as precious time had already been lost due the problems with the previous publisher.

Several plot holes seem to indicate this. At one point you, Philip, the player, is informed that the secret base you are trapped in has been build by a secret society called the Archaic, founded in 1519 and endorsed by Leonardo Da Vinci (with all these secret societies he supposedly was a member of one can ask how on earth he found the time to do some painting). Its purpose is to protect earth from xeno (read: extra-terrestrial) influences. Hardly an original idea, this is about all we get to know about Da Vinci and his archaic ET-hunters. This knowledge is of no further importance to the story so one can indeed ask why it was included in the first place; probably it was one of the many ideas that were never developed. And the idea of a secret society building un underground secret base the size of CERN (without getting noticed, even in Greenland) is a bit incredible.

A second plot hole (more an inconsistency) is the start of the story itself. When Philip leaves the mining area in Penumbra: Overture he is attacked by a humanoid creature. Penumbra: Black Plague starts when Philip awakens in a locked room. Obviously his attacker has dragged him there and imprisoned him. But throughout the rest of the adventure all other humanoids (known as the Infected) will always attempt to kill him, and the many corpses from Archaic personnel he meets during his exploration of the secret base proves that the Infected never take any prisoners. So why did this one make an exception? (The reason is of course simple: otherwise we would never have had the second instalment to begin with.)

A third kind of plot holes are slightly reminiscent of the famous Ronald Reagan's bomber pilot story and due to the puzzle-solving-environment of the game. An example: one room contains a cassette player and after some rummaging in a nearby locker you locate a cassette as well. The cassette contains the last words of an Archaic scientist, just before he is murdered by one of the Infected. The obvious question: who took out the cassette from the player and secured it in the locker knowing those murderous zombies normally just leave the bloody mess lying as it is? Perhaps the Infected who killed the scientist had been a cleaning person before.

But the game makers also did some smart moves. Frictional learned that if you give a player a weapon he or she will be inclined to use it. Black Plague no longer contains weapons and the Infected, who are in fact Turngaait-virus-infected humans, are invincible, so the best thing to do is to avoid them and to crouch in a dark corner when they pass by, praying that you will not get noticed.

The atmosphere is so haunting that I literally had to quit playing quite a couple of times to get my nerves back to normal. The forum has testimonies of people screaming out loud, getting the shakes for at least ten minutes or hiding in a ventilation shaft (not literally, but their virtual alter-ego in the game obviously) for half an hour not daring to come out again. Black Plague is haunting hammer horror and not destined for the weaker of us human souls.

What Red was for Overture Clarence is for Black Plague. The character is a manipulatory malevolent ghost, who invades your body and tries to muck with your brain as much as possible, although there are actually a few situations he might help you. When angry he is able to create hallucinations making the dark labyrinth even darker, scarier and more complex than it was before.

Although he was not always reliable Red was an ally which Clarence clearly is not, although as a parasite he wants you to survive in order to survive himself, but when you get a chat from the only (sane and still uninfected) surviving human in the complex you are in for a treat. Amabel Swanson has quarantined herself in her lab, claims to have found a cure against the virus (that you urgently need) and promises you a big hug if you manage to rescue her.

Rescuing Amabel Swanson (amiable swan song?) is something you will fail to do and it is one of the deeper emotional occurrences in the game. It leaves you baffled, battered, angry, sad and more determined to get on with your next mission which will be to get rid of the Clarence voice in your head once and for all.

Amabel Swanson is a character you seldom see in computer games and she may have set a standard for future games to come. Tom Jubert, who devised her character, has written an excellent essay about her:

Who is Amabel Swanson?
More importantly, why does she exist?
The short answer is she was born to die.

Star Trek TOS fans are familiar with the story how the third series (in 1968) was smothered to death by airing the show on a 'graveyard' slot and by cutting the budget to a ludicrous minimum. When the episode Spectre Of A Gun asked for a cowboy ghost town there wasn't a budget to film on location and all scenes were shot in an 'empty' studio with false building fronts. Kirk and Spock (in character) don't hide that they have been put on a stage that mainly exists of 'bits and pieces', but the lack of a proper décor actually enhances the eerie atmosphere of the episode.

As Tom Jubert notes in another, also excellent series of essays on Penumbra, character modelling is time-consuming and expensive and so are explanatory scenes in between levels. Penumbra circumvents that in an intelligent and quite effective way (an exception is probably the invisible, but lethal, werewolf in the dark who roams the dog kennel):

Writing For Indie Games; or
"How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 1
"How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 2


The game contains some dark humour as well. Walking through Science Wing A one sometimes hears announcements coming through the speakers. These messages, spoken by a soft, soothing and reassuring female voice, vary from 'always keep your cyanide capsules ready' to 'do not exchange bodily fluids due to virus contamination danger'. Even pursued by blood-hungry zombies I immediately linked these messages to the announcements in Theme Hospital (Bullfrog, 1997) that ranged from 'patients are asked to be patient' to 'patients are reminded not to die in the corridors'.

More about open Theme Hospital

Black Plague combines the 'real world' with imaginary and hallucinatory events. In the beginning you have to pass through a dream sequence level where the walls have fiery arms sticking out of the wall reminding me of Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, 1946. The ending reveals an aeons old enemy, arriving from outer space on Earth long before the humans appeared. Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), that also contains some body hopping ghosts, had an almost identical enemy.

More about Dirk Gently 

When Philip finally manages to exorcize Clarence from his body by injecting a strong antidote (Substance 65, courtesy of Amabel Swanson) the complete hive of infected zombies seems to be (temporarily) disordered, not unlike the ghostlike alien creatures invading the human species in the adult movie Invasion of the Love Drones, who are chased away when a victim, quoting Hamlet’s soliloquy (Shakespeare), injects herself with a venereal virus. But I seriously doubt if that is where the makers of Black Plague got the inspiration from.

More about Invasion of the Love Drones 

Final test

With the Infected army destroyed (although we are not sure of that) the Tuurngaait alien intelligent being decides not to harm Philip but to ask him a favour (after some pretty weird levels, in one occasion you actually have to die to win). All the Tuurngaait entity ever wanted was to have some eternal peace and it asks to make it sure that its hiding place will never be revealed again.

Philip seems to agree with this, but he mails the coordinates of the Archaic secret base to the outside world with the message: "Kill them. Kill them all." (This could mean that the hive was not destructed and that the Infected survived.)

This game is certainly among the best I have ever played and that is thanks to the atmosphere, the storyteling, the characterisation, rather than to the graphical side.

The flashing knobs! Penumbra: Requiem

Dark Plague may well have been the scariest game ever and fans were asking for more. When Requiem was announced it was described as a short and sweet expansion pack of Black Plague that would further investigate in the nightmarish Turngaait world.

Even a million year old alien being can have a bad day, especially when it finds out that the first human being it trusted sends out a message to the world to come and destroy it. Powerless in the real world, it hurls Philip into a dream world where he has to run for his life as virtual, but nevertheless lethal, zombies threaten to rip his heart out. There must be a way to escape, even if it is from just a dream.


Tuurngaait gives Philip the following choice after his betrayal: either he will be immediately killed by the (remaining) Infected or he must cooperate in the preparations for the final battle. As a non-physical being Tuurngaait needs a liaison officer to give orders to the Infected, who are strong but stupid, and he needs to intervene when they are mentally of physically incapable of finishing a difficult task: repairing the generator, starting the main computer system, arm the defence system… Philip is given a room of his own and finds, one day, a message from a freak Infected who still has some human soul hiding in him (or her)…

In reality Requiem is none of the above.

The expansion pack puts Philip in another unexplored part of the underground base, but there are no enemies around. Level after level he has to jump on moving platforms, run through laser beams, swim under water in search for a lever, avoid flying bolts of fire, use gravity pods to make staircase boxes that float in the air and jump through teleporting portals…, exactly the kind of game that we liked to play in 1994, but then Philip was still a young Quetch listening to the name of Twinsen. (Actually the temple of Bù sequence in that game had a horror theme with skeletons chasing you.)

More about Twinsen and LBA: Twinsen Ma Non Troppo 

Requiem is quite inventive in its puzzles, but it isn't a Penumbra game. We can only be lucky that the series ended after that, or we might have feared to see a Penumbra: Sudoku appearing soon. Probably the makers were already seriously thinking about Amnesia: The Dark Descent by then.

But Penumbra: Black Plague still stand as a rock although the player behind the computer screen would certainly be more safe hiding underneath it.

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