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Wot I Think: Scanner Sombre

Dear Spelunker

A beautiful and novel game suffering from something of an identity crisis, Scanner Sombre [official site] is the latest from Introversion Software, making a play for artfulness after a few years of successfully popularising themselves with Prison Architect. But though Scanner's central conceit - using a laser scanner to 'paint' dot-array colours and shape onto your pitch black, subterranean surroundings - is gloriously atmospheric, it lacks the lightness of touch needed to achieve the emotional clout it so clearly wants to have.

The scenario: you, as an unnamed cave-explorer, embark on an exploration through a system of abandoned underground tunnels, discovering the remnants of those who used to live, work and oppress here through the ages. There is no light down here, natural or otherwise, but you carry with you a LIDAR scanner and a Vive-like headset which enables you to see the world as an array of rainbow-hued dots formed as you pass the scanner over your surroundings.

This is one of the most strikingly beautiful games I've played in quite some time, and the sense of wonder is amplified by the fact that, to some extent, you create the world yourself. The cave system is pre-designed rather than randomly-generated or anything like that, but every player will wave their LIDAR around in both subtly and significantly different patterns. Some corners will never be lit up, some stalactite formations may only ever been seen at their lowest, most abstract resolution, some chambers will have every inch mapped...

You create a unique visual record of your journey, and Scanner Sombre's unfortunately thin conclusion is redeemed by an ornate Haynes Manual-style examination of the marvellous world of spectral colour you saw and 'made' in the run up to it. New tools are acquired as you play to evolve your control over the LIDAR, which in turn reshape how your lost world of light-points appears. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to quote the bard, and the underlining triumph of Scanner Sombre is a sense that your own hand is bringing singularly vibrant life, of a sort, to a dark and dead world.

However, I spoke of an identity crisis earlier, and that is that Scanner Sombre is a slightly uneven blend of pure walking simulator, Dear Esther-style metaphysical narrative and jump-scare horror.

At the former, it succeeds - exploring a world of your own making, no less - but the second feels contrived and the latter is too intermittent and hesitant. I don't believe it actually wants to be a horror game, but it is aware of the inherent terror of being underground in a dark place, with no certainty if there is a way out or even if you are truly alone.

In the moments where the caves feel particularly vast and endless or cramped and inescapable, where a combination of claustrophobia and eerie echoes, drips and creaks resolve into creeping anxiety, this malevolent atmosphere contrasts beautifully with the euphoria of painting colour. In the moments where it tries to show you something more concertedly frightening, it feels a little silly. To its credit, it is very careful about the supernatural, but there is a sense of having its cake and eating it.

As for the slight tale it tells, it's chasing the same kind of emotionally serious tone as Gone Home and Everybody's Gone To The Rapture. Sadly, the resolution feels obvious in hindsight and slightly crude in execution. Its only nuance stems from contrived vagueness, while moments in which the game wants us to have a particular emotional response are bluntly achieved via oft-overblown background music. I found that these tracks often started well in terms of appropriate atmosphere, and again bore clear Chinese Room inspiration, but halfway through ramped up their instrumentation so much as to be almost comic.

In other words, Scanner Sombre is at its best when you're left to your own devices, lonely yet in awe of the sights you see and make, but suffers when the game itself is pulling the strings, whether that be to evoke empathy or terror. I absolutely recommend it, for its four or so hours of dot-matrix world-generation have pleased me greatly, but you should go in knowing that it stumbles over its storytelling hurdles and should instead be treated as, like the titular scanner, a remarkable technological toy.

Scanner Sombre is out now for Windows PC and Mac, via Steam and DRM-free direct from the devs.

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