Alek Wasilewski Interview (Tsioque)

Tsioque
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Princesses have been around in video games for almost as long as the medium has existed, but unfortunately they (and sadly many other female game characters) are still to this day often relegated to the tired old damsel in distress role. It’s refreshing then to get to play as a princess who actually gets to do the adventuring for a change.

Tsioque (pronounced /tsIɒk/) is the upcoming point and click adventure game from OhNoo Studio & animator Alek Wasilewski; the game places you into the small triangular brown shoes of the eponymous princess as she navigates her way through an imp-infested castle to thwart the plans of an evil wizard (who incidentally rocks a fantastic combusting coiffure I might add) who has usurped her mother’s throne. It’s already successfully been accepted onto the Steam Greenlight program, and the team are currently midway through an ongoing Kickstarter campaign to get the project crowdfunded, so if you want to help a virtual princess out, then you know where to go.

Having particularly loved OhNoo’s previous work, Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, I was only too keen to check out their new project and see what it’s all about. I got the chance to talk with Alek, the game’s writer, director and animator, about his career in animation and filmmaking, what his early video game influences were and how collaborating with OhNoo has allowed him to make the ultimate game that he’s always wanted to make. So, just what exactly makes Tsioque tick…or should that be tick Tsioque? Let’s find out.

What made you want to be an animator, and what were your early inspirations as a filmmaker?

Oh man, a big question to start with. I guess it started very early. Like every kid out there, I was left in front of cartoons by parents who wanted a moment of peace. Disney, Hanna-Barbera, obscure Polish cartoons, whatever was currently on. I guess what made the difference in my case was that as I grew up I didn’t dismiss ‘cartoons’ as an inferior art form to, say, film or literature, which then helped me to seriously consider the dream of becoming an animation filmmaker.

I consider myself a storyteller – I’ve been making stuff up and drawing comics since I was four – and I still feel the same joy that comes from telling stories in my adult life. I chose animation because I thought that of all mediums film works the strongest and most directly, and while I didn’t have professional film equipment and trucks full of actors and crew, I had a computer and could draw more or less.

You’ve worked as an animator for twelve years – what made you want to make Tsioque as a game rather than a film? What was important about making the project an interactive experience?

In addition to all mediums I’ve already mentioned – film, animation, books, comics – another one which ranked very high on my inspiration list was games. Next to animation, it’s another previously dismissed art that only now seems to be getting more credit, mostly thanks to people who grew up playing them and recognized their true potential as a means of expression and an art form.

I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing videogames, and by no means I’d call that time wasted – I had a great time, and some experiences were truly unforgettable. It was only natural I wanted to try to make a game myself someday, so as a kid I messed around with modding tools and made a couple of maps for Quake and Half-Life. Then, as time passed and various life choices were made, I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance to make my own game anymore. Until now.

Having already worked on Tsioque for two years previously to launching the Kickstarter, how did you come across OhNoo Studio, and what made you want to collaborate with them?

OhNoo Studio contacted me with some minor Flash-related issue, as both of us frequently work in Flash. They seemed like okay guys, both professional and with the right mindset, I offhandedly suggested making a game together and they said “Okay”. It was only then that I got to work on Tsioque. I had a story in mind that I thought could work for a game, but I would never have started to really work on it if I hadn’t talked with OhNoo first. I already wear too many hats in filmmaking and to put on yet another and try to program the whole game myself would be suicide! They’ve made games, I haven’t, so I trusted their experience. The two years following this talk I spent working on the game mostly solo, occasionally dragging OhNoo away from Tormentum, the project they were doing at the same time.

What prompted the shift to go from independent solo project to a crowdfunding collaboration?

The idea to crowdfund the game came hesitantly, as we initially tried to finish Tsioque on our own. It was only after I kept animating day and night with hardly any sleep, even with help from part-time assistant animators later on, and work still wasn’t going fast enough, that we decided we would need help if we wanted to finish the game anytime this decade.

Your Kickstarter places great emphasis on the fact that the hand-drawn animation required for the game is a huge part of the project, and that this is the area where the majority of the funding will go. Can you go into what sort of creative challenges animating a project on this scale actually entails?

It’s a pure matter of workload. 2D, frame-by-frame animation is a tedious, time-consuming task; it’s well justified why gaming doesn’t take this direction anymore. There are new, cheaper and more streamlined processes that don’t require so many skilful hands to do the job. Still, the effect just isn’t the same, and there is simply nothing like watching hand-drawn characters move – they have real soul.

The creative challenge will be to keep the scale within its realistic limits – high enough to deliver the aforementioned soulful feel of quality animation, and low enough for it to still be within budget. I find it a more managerial task if you ask me, the line is blurry. A lot of it will most likely require me still doing most of the animation work myself.

Caught

The cute art style of Tsioque is a big aesthetic departure from OhNoo’s previous game, Tormentum. Can you talk about how Tsioque‘s look came about, and was it a challenge to find an artistic middle ground between OhNoo’s style, Michał Urbański’s and your own?

OhNoo’s Piotr Ruszkowski was responsible for all art in Tormentum, whereas in Tsioque it’s me who looks after the art and general integrity of the vision. I find it quite funny that the art style in Tsioque is regarded as ‘cute’. My work has usually been called the exact opposite – dark, disturbing maybe, but not cute. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition next to the hyperdark metal Beksinski-esque art of Tormentum that makes Tsioque’s art look sweet and well-behaved, but I don’t mind. I actually find it a relief because I did have some concerns if Tsioque’s art style still isn’t a bit dark after all… totally unjustified, great!

Making artistic sense out of unifying many talents in not easy, but my experience from filmmaking makes me think I have it under control. I’m not sure if it’s about finding a middle ground, I find it more about projecting your vision to other people so they can get as close to it as possible… which later they don’t really do, but very often it leads to explorations so interesting they actually enhance the vision rather than diminish it.

In describing the game’s art direction, you point out that you’re not going for a ‘pseudo-retro pixel art’ look.

Games of old went out of their way to overcome the technological limitations of the era they were made in – often in great, innovative ways. It was a challenge to tackle. Resolution and color palette no longer limit us – but many developers still choose to make pixel-styled games. It’s an artistic choice, a reference, pining back to the good old days. Sometimes the results are great and you get awesome stuff like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Shovel Knight. Other times, however, it just seems like a cheap shot at nostalgia. While, admittedly, we also take a lot from nostalgia, our artistic choice was not to purposely limit ourselves with false barriers. We’re making our game like the old games were made – using available resources and technology the best way we can.

Day of the Tentacle, Heart of Darkness and King’s Quest are listed as some of the key game design influences behind Tsioque – what is it about those classic adventure games that influenced you as both a player and a designer?

The influences of those games were mostly unconscious for me as I grew up playing them! I’ll never forget the thrill of watching the awesome animations that I’d get in reward for solving complex puzzles in Day of the Tentacle, the glistening disc of my first ever CD-ROM game King’s Quest V… I never got very far in the latter but it wasn’t important. It was magic. It wasn’t so much about recreating that same magic feeling, but more about using what I learnt from playing these games to tell my own story, and to be able to evoke in other people the similar emotions I felt when playing these classic adventure games as a kid.

From a game design perspective, what felt important to achieve was that extra care in animation rewarding you for your progress, smooth, well-paced gameplay, and the possibility of death. There was a reason why point and clicks stopped including fail states in games, and it was the same reason why I never got very far in King’s Quest V. It was frustrating having to restart all the way to your last save point just for just trying something, where trying anything to work with anything is (unfortunately) pretty much the epitome of the whole genre.

Still, years passed, the games started to be thoroughly tested, both the players and developers learned a lot. I thought it was possible to re-introduce the death/failure mechanism in a way that doesn’t punish you that much and allows for more immersion – you’re a prisoner in a monster-infested castle; if you’re careless something can happen to you! In fact, a good failure animation can be rewarding as well – I dream of making Tsioque complex enough to have people try to do wrong things on purpose just to see the mess it causes. This requires a certain stretch goal to be achieved, however, and for the moment chances of reaching that goal seem distant. Having said all that, all of the above would of course mean nothing without a proper story.

Castle

You suggest that Tsioque’s gameplay will occasionally feature moments that will “break the classic point and click mould”. What exactly do you mean by that rather intriguing statement, and what sorts of changes from the point and click norms should gamers expect to encounter?

If I was to put it down to one thing, it would be removing that reassuring feeling of always being safe. Still, this sentence is a bit of a tease since the ‘mould-breaking’ aspects in our game – the action elements, minigames, the possibility of death – are widely present in classic point-and-clicks. Take a game like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for example, where you can fist-fight, run from guards and failure at every other puzzle results in your death. These sort of elements are just forgotten, and not regarded as part of the classic point-and-click formula anymore. Well, with Tsioque we’re bringing it back, but in a lighter, more forgiving manner, better adapted to the modern player.

Elle Kharitou and Edward Harrison are both on soundtrack duty for Tsioque. What is it about their musical stylings that made them the right fit for the game’s audio direction?

I knew Ed from our previous collaborations on animated shorts. He did a fantastic soundtrack for my short film Lucky Day Forever, as well as for a Splinter Cell short I did for Ubisoft. He’s a frighteningly talented musician with a growing track record of game and film soundtracks, and at the same time simply a nice guy to work with. He was my first choice for Tsioque’s soundtrack and I’m delighted he said yes. Elle came to the project through Ed’s personal recommendation. I didn’t know her work before, but I have total confidence in her talents and everything I heard from her so far seems to prove I was right to invite her to the project.

The music – as heard in the demo and the reveal trailer – works just the way I wanted it to, and beyond. The dynamic music system we’ve developed for Tsioque brings the experience to the whole new level that could never be achieved in a non-interactive medium, and I’m thrilled to watch it work. It really lets you sink deep into the narrative, where every little action you can possibly do has its own tightly fitting soundtrack. It not just compliments the rich in-game animation, it’s one of the key elements that make this special feeling of being inside an animated film truly work.

You’ve revealed that the game has an unexpected twist of sorts – are you not worried that announcing said twist beforehand might encourage players to approach the game with a mindset to concentrate on working out what the twist is, rather than just enjoying the game?

Good question. As a creator, I’d find it much more comfortable if I just shut up about it and have people experience and discover everything for themselves, without a clue what’s going to happen. As a self-marketer however, I have to at least suggest something is going to happen, because it’s one of the things that makes our game different, and we have to talk about what makes our product special or else nobody is going buy it. I hate this, as much as I hate soliciting my own work and having to convince people that what I do is really great. I’d rather they just find out themselves… but it’d need a finished game first. And I can’t finish it if I don’t convince everyone it’s going to be great. It’s a vicious circle.

I appreciate the fact that you want to tell a full, complete story, and not break it down into separate piecemeal parts to sell through a season pass. Do you think the episodic model of releasing games is starting to feel a bit tired by this point?

Long, episodic narratives for games are not a bad idea on their own; I couldn’t wait for the new season of The Walking Dead Game as much as I couldn’t wait for the new season of the TV series. That being said, it requires a lot of discipline, commitment and respect for the players on the part of the developer to not abuse this model, to not drag a story out forever and keep milking it with no end in sight. With Tsioque, we chose to be completely transparent and offer a clear deal – one complete game from start to finish, no more, no less. An experience you don’t have to wait 2 years from first pressing start and paying $60 to find out what happens in the end.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank everyone who lasted long enough to read to this point! Whether Tsioque gets made or not is now up to you.

Tower

The Tsioque demo is available to play now on PC and Mac and can be downloaded via the team’s Kickstarter page. At the time of writing the Kickstarter campaign is entering it’s final few days, so if like me you also really want to see the game get finished, then consider dropping by to back it and maybe even pick yourself up an imp plushie (or five). I for one definitely want to see and play more of Tsioque, so here’s to hoping the game makes its funding goals. Now what to do with all these plushies…

Piotr Ruszkowski (OhNoo Studio) Interview

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I recently played through an awesome 2D point and click horror adventure game called Tormentum: Dark Sorrow and, to cut a long story short, I really enjoyed it. Successfully funded through Indiegogo in August 2014 and launched on Steam in March 2015, OhNoo Studio’s game is a dark and surreal journey through a nightmarish land, complete with disturbing demons, forlorn figures and bioorganic backgrounds. Curious as to what exactly inspired all this grotesque horror and melancholy, I reached out to Piotr Ruszkowski, Tormentum‘s artist and co-designer, to ask him a few questions about his career, the creation of OhNoo and Tormentum, and what monstrous muses lay behind his haunting but beautiful creations.

How did you first get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?

Well, all of OhNoo’s crew previously met at an educational company and our job was to create educational software including games. The games were rather simplistic and aimed only for local distribution, but they were the means for us to learn to work together as a team. This helped us a lot later on when we tried to do our own little project for tablets. This wasn’t a game in the true sense of the word, but rather just an app, but it was a small step to larger ideas for the next projects like Tormentum. So I like to say that we have come a long way in our evolution. During that process, we have been inspired by many successful independent developers out there like Amanita Design and their Machniarium and Botanicula games. They proved to us that it’s possible to make something beautiful using limited resources. We knew at that time that we wanted to make an adventure game because we weren’t able to do anything else gameplay wise, so we focused on making story driven games.

Tormentum Team

How did you meet Łukasz and Grzegorz, and how did OhNoo come together as a development studio? Also, where did the name come from?

I’ve known Łukasz for many years, we’ve been friends since highschool. We went to different universities but we met again in the same job in the educational company. Grzegorz joined the office to work as a programmer later on, and we all worked in the same room for five years. When the company started a reduction process and fired many workers, we decided to stay together and make our own projects. The name ‘OhNoo’ was the result of a joke we shared during an annual event integration of the past company. We liked the simplicity of that name and decided for it to be the official name of our team.

Door Creature

What was the initial inspiration behind Tormentum, and what made you decide to make a 2D point & click adventure game specifically?

I was creating the Tormentum world almost two years before the actual development of the game took place. Back then, I wanted to make a dark collection of works for my personal portfolio (I had only 15 works at the time) but then I realized that it would be much cooler to have a whole game in such a style. So it was a starting point for us to clarify more details about what genre it should be or how to build an interface etc. The point and click genre was perfect for images to be exposed. Of course I had to prepare them for the parallax effect which needed foregrounds to be cut out from backgrounds etc. but the motion effect was totally worth the effort. The end result was 75 game backgrounds and hundreds of zoom-in screens.

Desert Statues

You’ve listed the painters H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński as main influences on the game’s visual style. What is it about their surrealistic art that appeals to you as a creator and artist, and why do you think it still resonates strongly with people today?

In my opinion Beksiński and Geiger were focused on showing fear, death and suffering in their paintings. That is what I wanted to share with the audience as well in Tormentum, so I was strongly inspired by these artists. The aspect of metaphysic is somehow present in Beksiński’s works which also strongly resonates with me. I think that people appreciate their art for similar qualities.

Embracing Skeletons

The game’s world draws from an eclectic visual mix of sci-fi, high fantasy, steampunk and body horror – genres that traditionally don’t always fit well together, yet somehow you’ve successfully managed it with Tormentum; the game has this unique feel and identity to it as a result. How did you go about incorporating all these various styles and blending them together so cohesively

First of all the world of Tormentum is very dreamlike, so I could go crazy and put whatever I wanted in there. Of course I had to stick to a decayed sense of style, in order to kept it coherent. I was guided by my personal rule that the player must be entertained and not be bored, so I was thinking about how to surprise the gamer to keep her/him motivated and rewarded once she/he finds new locations. So I focused on creating stuff that was both cool and interesting for myself, but also hoping that it would also be interesting for the players as well.

Mine Creature

In the process of designing the levels and backdrops, did you have to make any compromises from your original artistic vision? For example, did you have to simplify any areas to make levels easier for a player to navigate, or make areas more complicated to better serve a tricky puzzle design?

Of course! It’s a natural part of the designing process. Sometimes we would have a puzzle ready first and then I’d have to create a background for it, other times it would vice versa. Sometimes I had to add something to support a riddle, but I must say that we didn’t do any drastic changes or throw away any of prepared graphics simply because we cannot afford to. I remember some stages that needed tweaking a lot to serve as a cool puzzle chamber such as the weight puzzle with the guard in the background or the mine level with wagons. There were a ton of changes.

Castle Chamber

Did the game’s dark story come about as a result of the art style, or did it evolve separately to the visuals?

The world and the whole setup came first and the story was thought out later on. When we were designing the game we had some core ideas for the story, but the finer details had to be hammered out later on. I was loosely inspired by movies like What Dreams May Come and others – especially those about underworlds. At one point we had a dedicated writer who was responsible for the script but he was just not reliable and didn’t deliver his work on time so Łukasz and I had to take care of the story and dialogue ourselves. It was a tough task because we aren’t trained writers.

Grey IcariTormentum reminded me of Silent Hill 2 in the sense that the various creatures and characters you encounter are all visibly suffering and pitiful in their own way. What challenges did you face in designing the creatures and characters in such a way as to get the player to sympathise with them rather than feel revolted?

I didn’t particularly wonder about how the players would receive the characters in the game when I was creating them – it was too early for that. Rather I was focused more on making something interesting, and that was the most important factor for me at that point. Later on, I sat down with Łukasz and thought about how to shape an interesting character with their dialogue. Sometimes it cast a whole new light on them. I think we did a good job with some characters – like the Rat for example. He was the most developed personality from the entire cast of our characters in my opinion, because he was quite an important NPC in the story.

Tower Beast

Having read that you’re a fan of From Software’s Demon’s Souls, I was quite nervous when first playing Tormentum as to whether clicking on the various creatures would cause a death or fail state. While I’m glad the game doesn’t punish the player’s curiosity in this way, was there ever any talk of including a similar cruel but fair trial and death mechanic in the game?

No. The From Software inspiration in Tormentum comes only from a visual aspect of their games. We thought about raising the difficulty of the puzzles during the development process, but in the end we didn’t want to frustrate the players; I wanted to make more of a streamlined and smooth adventure game with awesome 2D graphics. The punishing methods in Dark Souls are great, but in adventure games it could be a pain in the ass! We were looking more at modern adventure games in the Telltale Games’ style for gameplay inspirations.

Eye Socket Puzzle

Personally, I thought you struck a great balance between accessibility and difficulty with the design of Tormentum‘s puzzles. Was this a challenging thing to achieve or did it just come about naturally as part of the design process?

Early in the development stage we had several harder puzzles in the game, but we discovered that they were just frustrating and weren’t fun. We didn’t want to create stupidly hard ones that needed external assistance. We always questioned ourselves – is it fun? Is it enjoyable? If we found a puzzle to be too difficult then we put some helpful hints in, because we wanted players to be able to finish the game without having to break off to check YouTube walkthroughs etc. As for the item puzzles, we always kept in mind the idea to stay as logical as possible. We tried to avoid the usual adventure game tropes of MacGyver-like item mixing and strange illogical item usage. I hope we did it quite well. The main goal in creating this game was to make a sweet and short game that everyone could finish and enjoy.

Cage Puzzle Notebook

I thought the game’s user interface was very considerate to the player in a way that a lot of puzzle games just aren’t. Did the idea to include a virtual notebook for the player come about from your own experiences of playing adventure games?

User Interfaces should be as easy and minimalistic as possible. Notice our game’s inventory placement and its functionality. We have seen many modern adventure games with huge inventories just pop up in the centre of the screen when you click on them. In my opinion, it’s just a terrible design choice because when it happens, I don’t have any room to see where I can match my items on the backgrounds. That is why we chose to move the player’s inventory to the right and make all the items you are holding visible without interrupting the game backgrounds. As for the notebook, we discovered that some of the puzzles might need a pen and paper to solve, so we didn’t want to force people to physically make diagrams on paper in front their computers.

Statue Close-up

The music in Tormentum complimented the melancholic atmosphere and dark visuals incredibly well. I know you’ve already released the game’s artbook, but do you have any intention of releasing the soundtrack?

Unfortunately no, because all the tracks are licensed. Łukasz did a fantastic job of selecting all the tracks to match the atmosphere of each of the locations, and it wasn’t an easy task to do! So yeah I’m afraid we don’t have rights to release a soundtrack.

Your IndieGoGo campaign for Tormentum was a big success – were you pleasantly surprised by the positive response to the game right off the bat?

Yes we didn’t expect anything frankly speaking. It was just a test for us in such crowdfunding methods. The response was positive and very motivational, but I have to mention that the biggest feedback we got was after we released the demo of the game because not everyone treated us too seriously based on just a few images and GIFs.

Is the crowdfunding process something that you’d want to try again with future projects?

Of course! I can hint that very soon we will be back with another project but this time on Kickstarter. It will be a drastic change from Tormentum, so stay tuned. For us, the crowdfunding approach is a great opportunity from a marketing standpoint to let people know about our projects before their release. It is a very important thing in today’s world where it’s hard to be noticed.

TsioqueFinally, what’s next for OhNoo? Can you talk a bit about Tsioque, Snot & Muff and Sky Islands?

Tsioque is a point and click game with cartoony graphics so it’s quite a drastic departure from Tormentum. The main feature of this game is the handmade animation. If you appreciate such craft you will enjoy this game. We were inspired by old classic games like Dragon’s Lair or Heart of Darkness in aspects of their animation and design. We hope it will be an enjoyable point and click game! As for Snot & Muff I can only say it’s cooking away right now. It’s not so much a game but rather a simple storybook as Amelia and Terror of the Night was. It’s just a side project for us. The rest of the projects are secret for now until we’re ready to announce them.

Tormentum: Dark Sorrow – Review

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Eldritch Excellence

Well, it’s safe to say that Polish developers OhNoo Studio certainly know how to subtitle their games. When I first laid eyes upon Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it was pretty clear that the game was going to be dark and disturbing, but quite frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared for the range of emotions it would make me feel. Revulsion, disgust and grotesquery of the highest order yes, but sadness? Regret? Despair? Surely not.

Thankfully though, OhNoo Studio completely blindsided me with their melancholic masterpiece. Upon reaching the end credits, I felt depressed, drained, but also deeply moved in ways I just completely wasn’t expecting. Tormentum is easily one of the finest point ‘n’ click adventure games that I’ve played, and one that I just can’t stop thinking about long after the credits rolled. Though it’s a fairly traditional take on the genre, the game is nonetheless a wonderfully crafted sombre and poignant gothic tale, woven together with incredible care and attention to detail throughout. Its puzzles won’t perplex you for long and the majority of its morality mechanics are predictable and formulaic, but Tormentum delivers with such confidence, style and finesse that it manages to feel both surprisingly refreshing and hauntingly original.

Zeppelin

Take a look at that picture and tell me that’s not a fantastic opening scene. Bravo OhNoo!

Starting with quite possibly one of the most instantly intriguing main menu screens I’ve ever seen, Tormentum immediately beckons you into its strange and twisted world by enveloping you in the tattered, musty robes of its mysterious hooded protagonist. Awakening from an amnestic dream, you find yourself suspended in a cage from the skeletal underbelly of a rather disturbing flesh-covered zeppelin alongside a fellow prisoner (a rather peculiar rat/weasel hybrid fellow to be precise), with no memories whatsoever of your past, or how quite how exactly you managed to end up in this rather worrying scenario. Yes, that tired old storytelling chestnut I hear you sigh, but trust me and stick with it, as from this well-worn opening cliché, Tormentum crafts a gloomy and intriguing story.

Knight

The friendly knight is only too happy to help you settle in.

Initially imprisoned, our cloaked character feels compelled to escape the gloomy castle he finds himself trapped in after receiving threats of torture-induced penitence, (completely understandable under the circumstances) and embark upon a perilous pilgrimage to a mysterious stone statue out in the wastes. However, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange and perilous land…

Tormentum is a concise nightmarish journey through a dark and distorted landscape, but not one without depth and heart. For a start, the game’s art direction is absolutely stunning. Heavily inspired by the works of H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński, the game has a beautiful yet horrific painterly style, incorporating all sorts of hideous body horror elements, hellish landscapes and cruel creatures into its palette.

Desert Statues

From start to finish you’re surrounded by suffering; torture, misery, death and pain permeate each and every screen, and the effect is like journeying through a gruesome gauntlet of Bosch paintings, each one more disturbing and demented than the last. Sepulchral towers of flesh and bone wrench their gnarled towers and screaming buttresses toward the dark stormy skies as if writhing in eternal agony. Grotesque beasts and withered beings cloister in dark recesses, some acting as direct demonic deterrents, others as ominous omniscient observers. Hell, even the relatively humanoid characters you encounter aren’t reassuring in the slightest; often hissing, snarling and sneering at you, or just coldly indifferent to your presence.

Everything feels hostile, desolate and utterly alien, and there’s that familiar sickly combination of loneliness and fevered paranoia in the air that you get when playing games like Dark Souls or Silent Hill 2. At times it can feel like you’re playing an interactive Bergman film; your hooded character roams through dark catacombs, barren wastelands and decrepit mausoleums on an existential Kantian quest for answers in a hopeless, rotting world. In other words, it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

Wall Demon

Strangely though, despite the game’s oppressive atmosphere and visuals, Tormentum surprisingly never slips over into gratuitousness or farce. I found that the heavy mood actually instilled in me a mood of quietly morbid fascination rather than shocked disgust or unpalatable revulsion. The game’s world feels vast, oppressive and completely devoid of warmth, yet somehow it remains fascinating and dangerously exciting to explore. In fact, the closest parallel I can draw to Tormentum in terms of mood and atmosphere is possibly something like the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; not in terms of outright horror or psychological frights per se, but that it evoked a similar cocktail of deeply uncomfortable foreboding, tinged with the morbid thrill of discovery.

Mirror Angel

Speaking of morbidity, like a lot of the best horror experiences, Tormentum has that exhilaratingly tense juxtaposition of temerity and trepidation clashing together at all times to drive you deeper into its mysterious world. Interestingly, I found that a lot of this tension came not just from the creepy art direction, but also directly from the puzzles themselves. In particular, the game does a fantastic job of forcing you into making some absolutely gut-wrenching moral choices with the various characters you encounter on your journey. Although a great deal of these choices are largely the sort of typical well-telegraphed binary good/bad nature you find in countless games (i.e. do you kill a certain character or decide to spare their life), their presentation in the context of the game’s heavy atmosphere makes them feel gripping and compelling rather than hackneyed. As the whole world is twisted and strange, it’s never quite clear whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, good or evil, caring or cruel.

Tree

As Tormentum progresses however, there’s a handful of more nuanced interactions which aren’t so transparently labelled as a clear-cut right or wrong, good or evil choices, but rather lie in much more juicy and ethically ambiguous territory – several of which left me extensively agonising over which was the right decision to make for quite some time, let me tell you. It’s here where the game excels, requiring you to make decisions that, at times, felt comparable to Telltale Games’ usual modus operandi. What’s important though is the fact that regardless of how you decide to act in the strange world of Tormentum, the fact that you can sympathise with each and every one of these wretched creatures and sorry souls you encounter, no matter how repugnantly vile, is testament to the game’s minimal yet powerful narrative.

The minimalist ambient soundtrack is also a key part of the experience, subtly contributing a great deal to the game’s atmosphere and mood. Eerie drones, dissonant horns, ominous synths and booming timpani swirl around with rustic guitars, weeping theremins, ghostly vocals and sombre strings to create a warped yet delicately melodic score. It interweaves incredibly well with the visuals, and it’s also cleverly used as a sneaky red herring in a couple of scenarios to completely deceive the player. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the audio design demonstrates an astute and admirably devious intelligence lurking below the soft harmonic surface.

Skeletons Embracing

Tormentum’s rich visual tapestries subtly use clever and deep symbolism throughout. Clever and creepy.

Whilst the game may look like a Dante-esque nightmare you can’t escape, it actually plays more like a lovely dream you enjoy spending time in. At first, on my first playthrough of the game, I often never knew whether I was safe like in prototypical point ‘n’ clicks, or one wrong click away from a grisly death at any time. Luckily for me then, OhNoo Studio wisely focussed on immersive storytelling over implementing punishing trial and error mechanics and the result is a game that relishes and rewards both your company and your curiosity. You’re never punished for exploring; rather, Tormentum encourages the player’s interest, and rewards those who take the time to really poke around in the gorgeously disturbing environments. The level of detail in each disturbingly picturesque scene is incredible, and more often than not you’ll be startled by some small thing you might have missed on your initial observations, or find a helpful detail which might shed some much needed light on your current predicament.

Cube

ITV’s gothic reboot of The Cube certainly had Phillip Schofield a little anxious.

The game’s puzzles aren’t particularly taxing, but neither are they insufficiently challenging, striking a nice equilibrium between intrigue and potential frustration. With the exception of a rather devious musical notation conundrum towards the end, you’ll rarely be held up for long, and you can comfortably complete the game in one sitting. While I can appreciate that this might well be a negative for players who really like to wrestle with a challenging set of fiendish puzzles, I personally I think that OhNoo have managed to get a nice middle ground here that makes sense for the type of game they wanted to make. The emphasis is clearly first and foremost on immersing the player in this strange world and the mysterious characters that inhabit it. Obviously, puzzle difficulty and player immersion aren’t mutually exclusive, but as the game world itself already feels hostile and uninviting, I could see that including some seriously hardcore riddles could easily put players off the game for good. Either that, or I’m probably just an idiot.

If you do happen to get stuck on a troublesome puzzle however, the game does a great job of helping you out without crossing the line into patronising hand-holding. An often overlooked part of any game is the user interface – fortunately, Tormentum has a brilliant one; it’s simple, clear and most importantly, a joy to use – the best part of which is the protagonist’s notebook. Upon discovering any important puzzle clues, your character will jot down the relevant information in its yellowed pages, which can then be later referred to at any time during puzzles etc. This saves you having to tediously traipse back and forth between a puzzle and it’s corresponding solution whilst trying to desperately remember absolutely minute visual detail, or having to write down notes yourself. While I do love that old school DIY aspect of having to keep a pen and paper handy (or perhaps ink, quill and suspiciously-fleshy parchment if you feel inclined to roleplay) when playing a good adventure game, it’s undeniably helpful to have the game provide you with persistent digital equivalents.

Cave Painting

Unfortunately, Tormentum does suffer some pacing issues in the third act, and ultimately the conclusion felt a bit heavy-handed in contrast to the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the rest of the experience. Compared to the nebulous opening, the ending feels more like a contrived deus ex machina; admittedly, although this does sit well with some crucial themes of the game, personally it just felt really at odds with the delightfully indefinite nature of the majority of the experience.

Regardless, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and upon completing your pilgrimage across the wastes, you’ll have experienced quite the (disturbing) adventure you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. This a big month in the gaming calendar for Poland and the Polish dev scene – thanks to a little game called Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but if you’re more of a point ‘n’ clicker than a hack ‘n’ slasher, then I highly recommend Tormentum. Just remember, as Tolkien wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”

Statue