Reviews That Don’t Exist: Penumbra Overture

“Rocks don’t belong in a crate! They belong in a museum!”

A friend of mine, let’s call him “Justin”, suggested I play a game, let’s call it Penumbra: Overture.

I decided to play the game and damn well enjoy it. Its requirements exceeded the might of my computer, but I didn’t worry about this because that would be like worrying about the physical quality of ink and paper meeting the requirements of William Faulkner’s prose.

For the sake of posterity:

Penumbra Minimum Requirements:

  1. Processor: 2.0Ghz
  2. Memory: 1024MB
  3. Video Card: Radeon 9600

My six year old Apple iBook G4:

  1. Processor: 1.2 GHz
  2. Memory: 256 MB
  3. Video Card: Mobility Radeon 9200

As I review my memories of the game, flicking through them like cards in a catalog, I’m not sure whether Penumbra is a work of genius or a good but average game about caves and an overarching message on the dangers of allowing dogs to run stray.

As I began the game I learned that the main character’s name is Philip. That’s my name; that’s something I can get behind. Already Penumbra was making its bones by giving me a character who I can identify with.

The game proper began and I appeared in a ship’s cabin and was immediately greeted with polygons that flickered maddeningly and monochromatic objects that had no texture, which I later realized also made it impossible to read maps, signs, and the labels of whiskey bottles. I threw the whiskey bottles at the cabin walls in disgust. I couldn’t see their labels because of the visual errata but the cabin definitely smelled like whiskey after my tantrum.

A ship’s cabin without textures or whiskey bottles.

I had the most up to date version of Penumbra, downloaded with the Humble Indie Bundle, and messing around with graphic options seemed to yield little. I wasn’t sure what antialiasing was but I remembered that Alias was a TV show starring Jennifer Garner in which she played a college student who didn’t spend her time drinking and having sex, but spent it being an international super spy. I don’t need a sex appeal heroine to drive flimsy, sensationalist plots so I made sure that antialiasing was turned “on”.

A ship without whiskey is like a house without a roof.

A ship’s cabin without shaders or whiskey bottles.

After my graphic tweaking I was able to give objects textures and stop them from flickering like broken TV sets but this came at a cost. Now there were no shadows and no lighting effects. Everything was bright and boring to look at; there was no visual atmosphere.

So I either could play with textures and no shadows, or I could play with lunatic flickering shadows and no textures.

This was a brave new direction for a developer to take. I knew that Penumbra dealt with concepts of sanity and realized that the visual options must represent two flawed views of the world. The developers introduced the graphics tweaking as a character creation meta mechanic. I could choose one of two cognitive/developmental disorders to be handicapped with, which is more of a choice than someone in real life has. With this realization I now understood why I also couldn’t change the sound volume: being stuck a 100% volume represented another limitation of the protagonist’s broken mind.

A ship’s cabin found according to Google image search.

I chose to play the game, for the most part, with the view which left no textures and flickering shadows and polygons.

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