Coma: Mortuary (2014)
For all of the things wrong with this game (the walk speed is ridiculously slow, the flashbacks are silly, a lot of the overt story is dumb, the puzzles are boring and get in the way), I still think about how interesting the spaces in the game are. Cavernous atriums, stone passages that feel both decrepit and powerful, an abandoned library with impossibly tall shelves, a chain composed of huge links that hangs over an abyss, gently swaying. It’s a serious and successful attempt at designing a place for primeval gods, or maybe the remnants of the first great age of their progeny; some hard to imagine group that lives in and makes use of these impossible spaces, but seems to have always just departed ahead of the player’s arrival. Torches still flicker, the chain sways, and the only other things that are still alive seem to be the scum of this world: insects that swirl around the player, ghosts that lurk at the far-ends of the least explored paths, waiting to eat what’s left of the player’s soul.
The game is explicit about where we are–it’s the land of the dead–but it’s a land of the dead that is constructed solely for the dead to do whatever the dead version of living is. Language breaks down when trying to conceptualize what is going on here, because one of the game’s arch-goals is to conceptualize a place that is beyond existence. It isn’t like Dark Souls, which is about a world that is at the tail-end of a slow decline into death, and it isn’t quite like Baroque, which is a post-apocalyptic story about a world where God returned to unify existence and non-existence. It’s an attempt at translating that world of non-existence into something understandable, specifically by using physical space to imply that there is more to the void besides its absence of space, that there are foundational elements that comprise a void.
It’s a hard idea to grasp because it requires a fact of existence (a larger object is constructed out of smaller objects) to describe something that is literally wrong but metaphorically accurate (a large non-existent space is constructed out of smaller non-existences, with each small non-existence being as different and individuated as atoms). In a literal sense, the game is about grief and loss, but there is a sense that those are mere inroads into connecting with whatever lies beyond the veil of material reality, of touching nothing and feeling it as more than just air. It’s the precluding form of the universe before it existed, the infinity of Ein Sof.
At least, it’s these things in memory. It distills well, but if I look at pictures I took of the trip then it isn’t quite so. It draws a lot from the abandoned abattoirs and dungeons of Amnesia, and is much more concerned with extracting the last gasps of life from flesh than it is with the what lies on the other side of sensation. The links on the chain are much smaller than I remember, and I’m no longer sure if it idly swang, or even if the abyss it hung over wasn’t just a pit, a hole with a visible end. The spaces are more familiar, less alien edifices to death, and I remember wondering what to make of it all, and being glad when it was over. It’s a long and slow walk through some amazing scenery, but the string that links the pearls together is rough jute twine, the kind of thing a butcher would bind a package of meat with. There’s malarkey about a car crash and a woman left behind, and constant reminders that the whole thing is the result of some guy suffering massive head trauma, clinging to the cliches out of fear that a player will lose their interest in the humanity of the whole thing.
Which is silly, because that’s exactly what falls away and is rebuilt in memory.
2/2. Worth it in the end, even if you don’t think it will be.