There’s something nearly sacrilegious about trying to describe the sensations involved in moving through NaissanceE‘s world. It is a game of measured exploration–of private, lonely introspection. Whether squeezing past low openings in piles of cube-shaped rubble or dropping from one barely visible precipice to another down an enormous grey-scale pit, the pace of understanding and navigating the game’s bizarre architecture is slow. And because NaissanceE‘s setting is comprised of such unearthly sights and sounds, the time it provides for personal reflection often leads the player’s mind to strange, numinous places where awe and terror commingle.
Unlike the level design of a studio like Valve, which uses visual cues to suggest intuitive pathways, NaissanceE developer Limasse Five deliberately obscures the proper course forward throughout most of its game. The player frequently stumbles through pitch-black areas, moving the first-person viewpoint around slowly in hopes of picking up the tiniest pinprick of light or hazy illumination. Often, once a path has been found, the way it must be followed seems wrong. Tiny steps, small enough that they seem almost like decoration, jut out from the side of a wall overhanging a several kilometre-long drop; a dark, seemingly endless shaft hides in the shadows behind an enormous pillar. Everything the player knows about safety advises finding a different way to move on. But NaissanceE quickly teaches the lesson that the most counter intuitive route is often the correct one.
The world’s Brutalist design–perfectly rectangular venting, giant slabs of smooth, featureless wall–suggest an alien functionality to what comes off to the audience as nonsensical. As Lucy, NaissanceE‘s protagonist, the player feels insignificant within structures that alternate between sprawling, open enormity and claustrophobic tininess. An hour passes in which Lucy squeezes through miniscule openings in dark, cave-like tunnels. Then, without any clear reason, she drops through an opening onto a broad walkway stretching over an impossibly vast plain with kilometres of empty space both above and below. Everything is designed in such a way as to make the player endure the feeling of being either far too large to inhabit a physical space or so small as to be completely irrelevant to the gigantic scale of an area.
The result is something of an interactive art exhibit, where the passivity of viewing disorienting architecture is removed in favour of forcing the player into its very design. NaissanceE deliberately wants its audience to feel as if they’ve lost themselves in a place not meant for them. Limasse Five has taken our implicit understanding of the human form–the space an adult body requires and the movements it’s capable of–and constructed a world that seems opposed to our physical essence. A species that followed a completely different biological and intellectual path through evolution may design a city like this.
The way we respond to interacting with such truly alien architecture is bound to differ. Curiosity drives the player onward, though NaissanceE‘s design feels passively hostile more often than not. But when curiosity leads Lucy into yet another deadly freefall or almost completely unlit space, it can transform into the sort of frustration that is bred by incomprehension. Lucy may fumble through murky shadows for several minutes, but, after finding a way past them, she stumbles through a doorway and stands in front of a large room crowned with baffling staircases leading, Escher-like, into dead-ends or looping, circuitous passages. Faced with architecture like this, a building frustration usually turns into awe. Or, its nearly indistinguishable cousin, terror.
Limasse Five presents its world in a fairly neutral manner: the environment exists and it’s up to the player to decide whether or not they care to continue struggling their way through it. At times, though, NaissanceE appears more than willing to cast indifference aside and invite outright fear. The soundtrack–which sounds like an assembly of keyboards and fuzzed-out horn samples–lends a sinister air to the world design+. So, too, does the (lack of) colour palette, which renders the game world almost exclusively in white, black, and shades of grey. Though the player is given plenty of opportunity to react to the alien forms of the setting in whichever manner they choose, NaissanceE‘s surface aesthetic (and the fact that slip-ups can result in Lucy’s death) bias the experience toward dread.
Still, outright horror tropes are avoided, Limasse Five preferring to let the player’s internal discomfort when interacting with the game’s surreal environment inform their experience rather than signal fear with visible aliens or monsters. That we’re likely to interpret NaissanceE‘s world as frightening says more about the human reaction to disorder than anything else. The impossible architecture, the discordant, mechanical music–these elements inspires the sort of awestruck terror that Lovecraft flailed toward and Borges perfectly communicated. Humans are creatures that desire form and logic. When we’re unable to relate to an environment–when we’re unable to rationalize the bizarre by relating it to the way our everyday reality looks and functions–supernatural awe can easily turn into terror. This sensation is something videogames, with their ability to emulate the experience of exploring a physical space, are uniquely capable of accomplishing. Interactivity allows us to inhabit environments that would be impossible to create in the real world. What NaissanceE does is take full advantage of this in order to build a fundamentally alien world that is as deeply bewildering as it is unsettling.
+ As noted in the comments, NaissanceE’s soundtrack is actually drawn in large part from Pauline Oliveros’ seminal work, Deep Listening. What sounded like synths are actually acoustic instruments performed and recorded in large, resonant spaces. I’m simplifying a lot here: I highly recommend checking out a recording and doing some further reading if interested in the game’s audio (or experimental music in general). Thanks to knellotron for the tip.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, and The Escapist. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.