Serena is perhaps the most peculiar tribute anyone could pay to a person. A dark, gruesome adventure game, portraying loss and misery, named for someone who went through tough times at the hands of a prize jerk. I mean, flowers work too.
It's also free, designed to show off Senscape's Dagon engine built for their Kickstarter success, Asylum. Senscape being the new company headed by Agustin Cordes, he of notorious horror adventure, Scratches. And Serena being a game made by him, with contributions from a whole bunch of other indie adventure developers, including Space Quest's Scott Murphy and John Mandel.
It is, without doubt, a curiosity. A horror adventure short starring Josh Mandel as the main voice, with Pushing Up Roses' Sarah Wilson as the missing Serena. You play a husband, in a very small wooden house in the middle of the woods, trying to get a grasp of your memories. Everything you look at triggers thoughts, memories, or confusion, most especially a photograph of you and your wife, with her face entirely missing. You can't remember her properly, and you can't work out why. By exploring all the items and furniture in the home, you attempt to put the pieces back together.
What's most odd about this is how clumsy it feels while working perfectly. I think it's a good thing. Memories start to change after you trigger certain moments, but the route to these feels haphazard. I kept thinking, "Well, it's a good job I just happened to do that, then, or this wouldn't work," before realising that it seemed an awful coincidence that it did keep happening to work. That's what most impressed me about a game that is arguably walking very worn ground, and certainly doesn't have a very original story to tell. This scatterbrained feeling made it stand out, in a ghostly story for which the ending is enormously apparent.
I do remember thinking, "I wonder how they're going to twist on the [censored] meme here," before they ungracefully didn't. However, the inevitability of its reveal doesn't take away too much from the experience.
What does, I fear, is the engine. I'm complete at a loss as to why anyone would deliberately create an engine that glues your feet to the floor in 2014. Myst and its evil hellspawn children were a long, long time ago, and it's been years since the exceedingly great Penumbra games demonstrated superbly how the same effects of intimate exploration can be achieved while allowing the player to roam free. Having to be transitioned from spot to spot feels archaic, and detached me from properly engaging in the little world.
A curiosity, like I say. The list of contributors features the likes of Kill Monday's Natalia Figueroa, AGS master Ben Chandler, Quest For Infamy's Jenny Pattison, The St. Christopher School Lockdown's Laney Berry, and on and on, all throwing in a bit of art, or some content, a book name, and the like. And all because they just really like Serena Nelson. She's very popular! She also had a pretty shitty time last year, and a whole bunch of industry colleagues rallied together in what is the strangest way imaginable! A horrible, grim game about sadness! It's worth noting the concept for the game existed before Serena's crappy time, then called Helena. It evolved.
"She’s a great person," project lead Agustin Cordes explained to me. "A staunch supporter of adventure games, and played a big role in many Kickstarter campaigns (including ours). It made sense to dedicate the game to her.
The game comes out on Steam tomorrow, and is completely free.
A quick note: if I ever get horribly treated in public (um, more than usual?), could the rallying industry make me a game about fluffy clouds and happy kittens? Just in case.