“DISCLAIMER/CONTENT WARNING: Strangeland is a game that deals with mature themes such as grief, mental illness, self-harm, and self-destructiveness. It also contains horrific yet surreal imagery that may be triggering to some players. This may not be suitable for all audiences.” Spoilers lurk ahead.
“Now you’re wondering: ‘Am I losing my mind?’ No. You’re finding it. You’ve hidden a hard grain of truth beneath smooth layers of lies. A masquerade of metaphors. Here’s a metaphor for you. Your mind is a matryoshka. It’s just you, and you, and you, and you, and you. And we’re here to open you up.” – The Dark Thing
By Peter Torres
Self destructiveness? “Am I losing mind?” My mind is a matryoshka? That’s how Strangeland, a point-and-click adventure game by Wormwood Studios, begins its creeping horror and weird mysteries. Although I’m new to the point-and-click genre, Strangeland is heavy on story in ways I’m honestly struggling to find words for as my experience with this game felt wondrously one of a kind. It will have you questioning everything that’s going on in the narrative – even if you do follow the dark story closely.
I’ll be breaking this piece down into sections to go over specifically how different aspects of the game were both used/displayed and how they work well together.
The Surreal Art
The first thing that immediately got my attention when I saw the trailer only was the art style. It’s something that could be described as both dark and surreal. There are multiple instances of things that could be considered body horror like guts and entrails that left me amazed with how it could be done in a pixelated style. You see people remove their own faces and the splitting of heads. But it’s done in what I could almost call a “clean” manner, as there is no blood. The setting of the game is a carnival in Strangeland where you can see something as generic a clown head all the way up to some strange creature with numerous mouths and an eye. The main menu screen that has two crows (or perhaps ravens) and a skull with purple flames for eyes is also displayed. If you look more deeply, you can see an almost bright cloudy eye and the storm-esque kind of thing (which I find to be very interesting considering the ending of the story I was able to achieve).
The character designs have so much to say about the characters. The unnamed main character is a man who seems to be middle-aged who wears a straightjacket and seems to have a bandage wrapped around his forehead. Another prominent character is this blonde woman in a hospital gown. Seeing these character designs alone you know made me realize there is a story behind them both that makes you want to learn more.
This game certainly does a great job at building atmosphere and intrigue with its visuals. As someone who doesn’t normally consume any media that is horrific or surreal, I can safely say that I did in fact find the art here very fascinating when it went full into surrealism. Some scenes included face removal and the look into people’s heads, which was gruesome yet compelling. Also fascinating was an area with mirrors where you see different heads on the main character’s body. Then, there’s the encounter with a dog. You can see that it is rabid and when it attacks you and the game transitions to show you a screen of the dog attack, I think it looks really cool because of the way the dog’s head lunges at you, a feral dog’s fangs, maw open. Overall, the visuals of the game were truly a sight to behold and it’s very impressive the number of details they can show off with sprites like the bird’s feathers, dog fur, and wrinkles on someone’s skin or on a mask. Definitely a showcase of artistic mastery.
Creepy Interactive Sound Design
The sound design has a foreboding feeling to it. It gets tense, too, when the Dark Thing shows up in an area along with you (the Dark Thing being this black orb of energy that seems almost spiky as well due to what seems like an animated, jittery fluctuation). When this happens a dark eye seems to close in and outline the screen. The music and sound changes and the ability to quickly exit is disabled. I found out the hard way that this wasn’t a cutscene when I tried to stick around for interaction – and just died. But also there are also other tunes that do play throughout the game that can perhaps be considered character themes since they play in the corresponding areas. One I found myself enjoying was one I believe to be the theme of The Scribe Fimbul Fambi. It seems lighter, somehow. Darker, maybe even distorted, versions of the soundtrack appear in the latter part of the game, a wise touch considering the context and themes of death and depressions.
Gameplay With A Terror Twist
The gameplay itself on the surface level seemed standard controls wise, you’re shown the controls before you begin should you press the “How to Play ” option on the main menu before your first playthrough. But as I progressed I learned I could do more. For example, you can go into your inventory and have different items interact with, such as combining a noose with a claw to make a grapple, or using a knife on a dead rat to cut it open. Doing this is necessary to progress the story, at least in my experience (I believe there may be alternate endings). But in addition to that, this also felt like a puzzle game with a Metroidvania aspect in that you have explore an area. Then you backtrack to unlock new areas when you unlock new abilities. I came to that realization at the same time I discovered I could have my items interact with each other. It made me feel more part of the game and I felt more motivated to try different combinations.
Early on, you’re told to not brute force the game by trying every item on every single thing but to instead use the payphone. The payphone is an interactive item in the main center area of the overworld that not only is a sort of plot device, but also a helpful device. Dial 0 at any point and you will be given a hint that can help you move forward. Another nice touch that I found pretty funny was that if you call too many times, the voice will kind of be condescending. Something else of this nature is the Crow in the Scribe’s area, in which an odd, eyeless writer resides. I noticed that it was spewing and could possibly tell me something of importance, I literally stood still in that area and just listened (the Crow says a word every 30 seconds to a minute). But rudely, I’d find out it would say something along the lines of “If you think I’m going to give you a hint or tell you something of importance then you will be sorely mistaken because the truth is that sometimes a word is just a word.” I also found out that it just repeats “a word is a word is a word” afterward. It’s things like that make me really appreciate this game because it’s like the devs knew by this point that we would be listening for potential information. Some would see this as a waste of player time. I thought of it as little, sardonic nudge to move on. Because of touches like this, I was never bored and in fact, was intrigued the whole time.
The All-Important Horror Story (Some Spoilers Are Coming)
During Strangeland’s first minutes, a clown head tells you a joke. A woman falls down a well, presumably dying. The rest of the story is you in the shoes of the main character, trying to find a way to save her. Death is not the end, but throughout, the Dark Thing is a looming, enigmatic threat. You work your way through Strangeland to try and find a way to both save the woman and also defeat the Dark Thing. What precisely is the Dark Thing? Nobody knows.
Mature themes? You’re told from the start that everything is your fault and, later, that the deaths of others are your fault. You are the catalyst for disaster. You’re told this by a voice, which sounds like the character’s voice in his head, noted by the character himself, who can’t even remember his name.
Earlier, I mentioned that the character designs seem to have more story to them than meets the eye and I have a theory to offer. Perhaps both the man and the woman got into an accident together and the woman died and the man survived, leaving him with survivor’s guilt. That guilt eventually made him go insane. The ending I got was that the man discovered that the Dark Thing was a part of him. How does this happen? When he is about to free the woman from a cage, he opens it and the man hears a ringing in his head. Loud ringing. It’s the ring of the payphone. He then starts to vomit up a black substance that takes the shape of the man – except with distorted black energy for a head. The man is told that he always drops the ball at the end, but the man then clutches his head and utters ‘No!’ as if in panicked denial.
The Dark Thing responds, “Don’t bother. I’m already inside your head. You know that. I’ve *always* been watching. Watching you squander and ruin every single good thing in your life. Did you think you could win? Idiot. Take a good look at the setting you made for our little escapade. In your heart, you knew this was a carnival game. You knew *life* was a carnival game, rigged from start to finish. It was never a question of winning. Just a question of how much you would lose before you realized it was time to quit.”
After the man’s head starts to ache and things distort around them, the Dark Thing asks, “Well? Ready to quit yet?” before he kills you. After he kills you you spawn in different areas you’ve been, only being able to leave by having the Dark Thing kill you till you spawn again. The first time you encounter him though, he says, “Not done yet? Aren’t you sick of running? Your whole life… Running from that dark *thing* always just behind you, like a black dog, hungry, angry, relentless. And you fed it, didn’t you? Let it grow big enough to swallow the sun, didn’t you? And now? Now there’s nowhere left to run.”
The second time he says, “That’s the thing with shadows. You can never escape them. Unless … You go into utter darkness. But you failed even at that.”
The third: “You’re too worthless to even quit while you’re behind. Let alone to win. You really thought you could *save* her from that dark crab that had her in its clutches. After all, a man is supposed to be the hero of his own adventure. But not you. *You* are just a husk… a rat.” (Dark Crab being a form the Dark Thing took earlier).
And so the needling continues as you collect items like a noose and claw to make a grapple. At one psychedelic moment, you have golden wings, made seemingly from something visibly similar to the lost woman’s hair yet metallic in composition. You fly away and reach the woman on the upper levels of this odd land, with the Dark Thing chasing close behind. You crash but the woman holds you, telling you, “I got you.”
You say, “I did it. I made it. But the Dark Thing … It’s right behind me.”.
When the monster responds, “There *is* no Dark Thing, you liar,” you’re confused. The game reveals the Dark Thing’s face to be this horrific hallowed out form of the man’s head with the darkness flowing out from its disfigured head, tears streaming like slits going down from the voids that are the eyes. “This… this figment… this fragment… Save her all you want. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. She’s a fake and you’re a fraud. You *already* failed. You didn’t save her. You can’t. She’s dead. This whole carnival is a lie, a funhouse mirror, because you’re too ashamed to look in a real mirror and see who you really are. You know I’m right. The only thing in your whole damned adventure that’s ever been true… Is what I’ve been saying. *I* am your mirror.”
It’s hard to take, this constant bullying of truths. After hearing this you then have a choice to accept or deny what was said. Whichever choice is taken, the result is the same. The woman tells you that the monster is telling you facts and that she is in fact dead – yet still there. Their lives, their selves, aren’t just facts, but truths. That all those symbols and signs you’ve seen, let them witness the world’s truths through the eyes of others like how a lover’s eyes can show one’s own bright self. She tells him that if there’s a shadow in his mind it’s because there’s a light to cast it, that while he has been chasing her the whole time thinking she was the light, to her, he was the light.
They were each other’s lights.
By the end, which I won’t exactly reveal, Strangeland seems to be disappearing beneath him. The last words you hear, the woman saying “Good-bye, my love” as the game comes to a close.
This whole journey is one of self-discovery and acceptance for the man as he finally realizes the truths and facts of his life and embraces the light to move on. The whole time he believed he needed to save the woman. But even though she is dead, she’ll still be there in his heart. All he had to do was realize that whatever happened, it wasn’t his fault. It’s powerful message for those who feel accountable for tragedies that weigh on them to the point the ripple out and cause further damage if not fixed. At least, that’s my interpretation of it.
That was just the ending that I experienced, though. I do believe there are three more, perhaps dark ones that can be considered difficult endings. I should also mention that when I first obtained a knife item, I found out I could use it on myself and possibly kill myself. I didn’t do it but perhaps I will try it out on my next playthrough to see what happens.
I also want to bring to attention that there is an in memoriam screen that appears at the ending I got and would like to offer my condolences to the team and loved ones. Their light truly does still shine.
For a game as dark as Strangeland appears on the surface, I found a lot of light in it. That glow won’t soon fade from my mind. Even though I plan to play more, I will never forget this first experience I had with it. I can’t recommend this game enough. If you can handle the subject matter and imagery, I consider Strangeland a must-play.
Peter Torres is a writer who lives in the Bronx. He has attended our journalism course in partnership with the DreamYard Project.