Photos via Google | Words by Me
Dues Ex Machina Lite
Pneuma is what happens when a digital citizen from ‘The Sims’ becomes sentient and realizes that their fate is tied to a digitized puppet master. It’s an interesting thought experiment that scales well with players who have greater and greater empathy. And thankfully, because it only lasts for an afternoon, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Pneuma: Breath of Life comes at an unnoteworthy time in the gaming industry (see remake generation) where gamers are becoming increasingly clever, but at the same time behaviorally more predictable. We seek new experiences, but like feeling comfortable too, and because of this we tend to gravitate towards themes of self-reference, throw-backs, nostalgia, and intertextuality. These themes creep into every facet of media that millennials consume – like how we get teary eyed seeing the Millennium Falcon in the Force Awakens, play Pokemon Go, or when we buy a throwback jersey of our favorite athlete from our childhood. Pneuma leverages this insight into the gaming populace to its advantage and attempts to disguise a puzzle game into an indie feeling, self-referencing, self-aggrandizing, “What-If?” scenario. And in some respects, it succeeds.
If the game lasted say 10 hours? I would say pass. The pretentious narrative is confusing at first, especially in the beginning when you have no idea what the narrator is boasting about. But a few hours in, the plot starts to click, and both the player and narrator get what’s going on. Through the game’s 6 chapters you gain insight into the creation and purpose of the narrator, and just who the puppet master is.
The puzzles feel like a throw-back (there’s that word again) to the ol’ Myst and Riven games of yore. Hints are lacking in this game, but there’s a finite number of combinations to solve the puzzles – so you’ll eventually get through them. There aren’t branching paths to take in Pneuma’s universe, just impeccably rendered corridors and shiny roman architecture funneling you forward. You spend a lot of time looking at cleanly textured marbled walls, green flora, and glowing blue eyeballs. You move around an area to see if your position in combination with what you’re looking at have any cause or effect on a locked door. Sometimes, you solve a puzzle by accident, giving the impression that you share this body with the narrator and when you’re not looking, the alter ego is tinkering with something behind you.
Some of the spatial puzzles are smart, but some of the perspective puzzles are nonsensical and perplexing. I guess it comes with the ‘puzzle’ territory, but they interfere with some of the game mechanics. In order to clear rooms, some of the puzzles rely on specific angling of your first-person perspective to solve them. The controls start to show how unsophisticated they are – making the timing of your movements against a level’s closing gate an exercise in desperate frustration. Especially, when you just figured out what you need to do, just to have the game’s controls get in your way.
Sadly, I felt the only motivation to finish the game was curiosity – fueled by the need to declare that, “Yes! I AM smarter than a video game”. Towards the end, the narrator starts self-referencing the last 4 hours you’ve been playing the game, kind of like Wheatly from Portal 2. Both the player and the floating ego journey to an existential plane in what can only be described as a vaginal birth – bringing the player back to the main title screen. And thus, the cycle starts over again. It’s both parts Kinseyan and 2001: A Space Odyssey. My confused mind was left wondering, why? Why have puzzles at all? How many times has the narrator experienced this cycle? How are any of these puzzles related to his thoughts? Just utter puzzlement if you will.
Overall, Pneuma checks all the boxes on what I was looking for in a game like this. My expectation for it wasn’t huge, so I was pleasantly surprised on what a unique perspective it provided to the video gaming landscape in general. It has its flaws – the writing isn’t as clever as the sentient narrator thinks it is, motivation is hard to justify, the controls are suspect, and the ending is left open to interpretation. But in the end, the developers crafted a simple and overall enjoyable afternoon getaway. It’s overpriced at $20 for what feels like a college thesis paper. It should really be $10. (I can’t really complain. I got the game free with my Xbox Live subscription.) By the end, I was trying to figure out if players would walk away appreciating the perspective of the narrator or resent all his nagging. As for me, all I kept thinking about was how it reminded me of Portal 2. And that’s a compliment.