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Okay, Teleglitch Is Amazing(ly Hard)

Negative Space

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This is the problem: there’s too much other stuff. I run a PC games site, and even I missed this one arriving late last year. And I shouldn’t have. A top-down, claustrophobic horror-shooter with procedural levels. It’s brilliant, horrifying, commanding, excruciating. We’ve posted about Teleglitch before, of course, but last night the boy Quinns told me that we hadn’t written enough about it, and that it was “a phenomenon”, like a top-down System Shock, he said. Coming back to it today, I realised I’d played a few minutes of it and become distracted, thinking to return later. Short-term memory was over-written. Forgotten. The old beta is still here, installed and abandoned on my gaming desktop. I had no idea. I grabbed the latest version and went back for the afternoon.

Well. Quinns wasn’t wrong.

Look, there’s a demo. You don’t have to bother reading my wittering.

Here are the important bits, though:

LIGHT

And dark, obviously. It’s top down, but you can only see what’s in line of sight. So there could be things lurking around that corner. There could be death. There is death. It creates a flowing world, a constant dynamic blindness to what is out there. Or what isn’t out there. You glimpse cracks of light where you can break through into secrets. Scenes open up. It’s more about negative space than what you can actually see on screen. That void and the constant play of distortion effects sell a convincing atmosphere of altered reality. It’s sketchy in the sense that it is impressionistic and pixellated, and it’s sketchy in the sense that the place as a tenuous grasp on its reality.

And it’s packed with details. These fragments of text are sometimes beautifully written. Each death message made me smile.

FEAR

We’ve been here before I think, and you are probably familiar with a similar timbre of lo-fi threat. The game is tough, and the things that come for you are fast and vicious. It batters you like Hotline Miami’s masked fuckers. And you have limited resources. It’s not just the hit-points that are going to run out, it’s everything else. Overwhelming. Overwhelmed. Quitting out, exhausted.

Then there’s something else here, the sort of dread hum of it. Games do this so well: the sort of sci-fi that works best by not explaining anything, and not really showing anything, but just doing enough to make clear that THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH EVERYTHING. That super-natural aspect of sci-fi fictions which deal with inhumanity and underlying complexities that are of a magnitude beyond our intelligence: stuff, like the alien of Alien, that is both impossibly sophisticated and bestial, or something that is both incomprehensible and liable to tear us apart in a way that we can’t even understand, like black holes. Crushed by maths: threat, the horror of unknowable, implacable forces.

PROCEDURALITY

The levels are the same and yet different. Procedural randomisation of world elements means you might learn the beat and components of a level, but you can’t learn the layout. You can’t know.

CONTROL

People will say this is like Alien Breed, of course they will, but this manages to be the game those games wish they were, whilst being even more lo-fi. It has a fraction of the fidelity of a 16-bit era Alien Breed game and yet it contains multitudes more. This game is their failed intention. The tight control of slowing and aiming with right click, firing with left, and then just turning and releasing the button and fleeing is something perfect in this kind of top-down shooter design. It feels convincing.

You also have an inventory in which you can combine found items. This is critical to how the game works: you will need some of the things you can make, and others might be a waste. I made a gun that I didn’t have ammo for. A brilliant gun, but my old gun was gone, of course. I died. Next time, I had ammo, and that gun took me to the next level. Bombs and guns and rockets: there are a lot of mad, noisey toys here. It’s loud and extremely violent. You will kill yourself with explosives. Smashed into fiery scraps.

There’s another layer of physicality there too, that is almost pointless, and is certainly unnecessary: you can push items around in world. You have weight. The world is not a static, untouchable set piece. There’s not much use for this. But it’s there. Boxes move. And it adds life.

If there’s a major downside it’s that the shapeless pixel world makes it tough to read, and it becomes hard to see what anything might be. It’s also brutal. Brutal. You will die in a corner because you ran out of ammo. You will realise you could have used X or Y to escape that situation. But you didn’t. It’s too late now.

You will plummet backwards and silently screaming down the open elevator shaft of progress through the game, because it defeated you. Procedurality lends itself to having good runs and bad runs due to circumstance, and never more so than here.

It’s going to kick my ass. There is almost no chance of my finishing it. And not just because there’s too much other stuff.

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Jim Rossignol

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