In Strangeland, you, a man in a half-undone strait-jacket, wake up with no memory of who, what, or where you are. The “where”, it soon appears, is the titular land, a sort of dark carnival floating in a terrible void. It’s rendered in pretty pixels which make everything look meaty even though the colors are all toned down. As soon as you arrive, you see a woman throw herself into a well inside the reception tent.
It’s explained to you – by a crow, a fortune teller, and a caller who hates you – that she does this over and over, because death doesn’t work the same here. You immediately focus on rescuing this woman and go about it like a point-and-click puzzle. And if you’ve seen any blockbuster horror movies in the past few years, or even if you’ve just been engaged in horror tropes before, you’ll figure out what the Strangeland deal is in about 30 seconds.
Its whole vibe is like an episode of Twilight Zone via an episode of American Horror Story via if Tim Burton is trapped in a secret nightmare, and every other inhabitant tells the protagonist that he is a silly loser who makes everything worse. he touches. Many conversations and visual metaphors end up focusing on self, self-image, and how to change. Eyes and mirrors come back a lot. There are several references to a black dog. Do I need to specify more?
I’m not smart enough to talk about all the nuances of this kind of representation; I don’t know, for example, if something in Strangeland is particularly rude or offensive. But the reason horror always comes back to the trauma and depression metaphor is that it’s a lasting effective way to make audiences uncomfortable. Not that Strangeland is going to keep you awake at night, but it does have some cool – or at least graphically weird – graphics that take advantage of its shape. It’s a little embarrassing to see a woman’s head slowly slide across a two-piece cross section as she says “help me!” Even though everything is in grayscale pixels. As a horror work, Strangeland does much more interesting things than your Outlasts, for example.
“As a horror work, Strangeland does much more interesting things than your Outlasts.”
It’s also quite funny sometimes. Throwing stones at a crow that has your face sort of like it, as do several characters. My favorite is a large oven called Eight-Three (as in 8-3), which looks a bit like one of the robots in Futurama. Eight-Three is grand and monotonous, but still can’t be really silly with you. When you say goodbye to them, they say “YOU SAID IT BEFORE” in a way that communicates a raised eyebrow with no eyebrows in sight.
Some of the rest feel like trying too hard to be smart, with fun puns getting a little strained, and metaphors and nervousness crash into a mix of mythical references that would have made me lift my head. eyes to the sky. Get a load of this dot jaypeg guy. But at several points, other characters take on the protagonist for, essentially, being a naval vision hack because of this very thing. A risky move, but I allow it.
I feel like Strangeland’s tone is the Marmite bit, predicted by the strength of your reaction to the kind of sad short stories about bad relationships or depression that have spiders or clowns scrawled in the margins. But the other piece is the puzzle piece, which is unambiguously good. Expect to pick up items and combine them in your inventory, or use them in the environment. Except because of the tuning, it’s stuff like “rat skin” and “homunculus”.
Point-and-click adventure games have moved away from the old type of “use one random thing over something else for some inexplicable reason” puzzle solution. Even so, Strangeland is smarter than most and comes with puzzles and solutions so you can see the way before you gradually light up. Sometimes you can see a lamp flashing on a few steps in the road, and it is very nice when the gaps are filled. Golden wings are mentioned, but you can’t find anything gold for a while after that, and even then you have to figure out how to sharpen your knife – which you know involves finding out the name of a mermaid. … Just like Hannibal, I love it when a plan is put in place.
There are other little touches that I really appreciate. You can use a mouse wheel to scroll and select items in your inventory, for example, and you can use the in-game pay phone to call a tip line that offers specific and helpful advice. Rather than saying “you need to turn on the spirit lamps,” which you already knew, Strangeland will either tell you exactly how to do this, or note that you already have everything you need in your inventory. The voice on the phone is also exasperated by your calls for help.
Strangeland is careful to say that while some puzzles have more than one solution and you can make choices, there is no such thing as a bad ending or a bad ending. Maybe what I liked the most, between the giant talking cicada and the clown masks like those in The Dark Knight and the piece of flesh with many mouths, is that death has many layers in Strangeland . The protagonist can die as many times as he wishes. In some places, this is the only way to progress, or it is a valid part of solving a puzzle.
It’s an interesting suberversion, as dying is often how you know you’ve failed a puzzle in a point-and-click game. I mean, it’s notoriously a state of failure in more games, and Strangeland makes a final choice – a choice that contrasts with the ultimate revelation that in reality death is pretty final.
You can walk through Strangeland in a morning, if you feel like it. Either you’ll love all that is involved with spooky carnival and funhouse mirrors and the black dog and the giant crab, and you engage with all the puns and layers of meaning just fine, or you hate it. All that Donnie Darko bullshit. Who has the time? But it’s a bit of a shame if you are one of these as the depression goo is mixed in with a really nice puzzle design.