Indie games have a vital role to play in the contemporary gaming ecosystem. When the big publishers have too much on the line - both financially and in terms of reputation - to take big risks, it’s typically to the independents that we turn for innovation and to push the boundaries of what a videogame can be.
Sometimes, the risks taken are more than vindicated; Bastion and The Walking Dead are regarded by many as two of the best games - indie or otherwise - to come out in recent years. Other times, a great idea is lost amidst poor execution or a lack of funding, like Evoland. Still other times, you have games like Gone Home and Papers, Please that polarise the gaming community.
But perhaps most frequent of all are those indie games that sit somewhere in between, that take a good idea and manage to run with it, creating a great experience but not necessarily one that’s going to be a Game of the Year contender. Nihilumbra, a puzzle-platformer from the Spain-based BeautiFun Games originally developed for iOS and now ported to PC, is one such experience.
Nihilumbra sets out with a bold goal: to capture the complexities of existential nihilism - a philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning - in a videogame. It does this by placing you in the shoes of an unnamed protagonist born of an eternal nothingness known as the Void, who manages to escape said emptiness in an effort to find some meaning for their existence. Naturally, the Void isn’t too happy about this, sending out all manner of nasties to try and reclaim our existentially conflicted hero.
To help you escape the Void, you’ll periodically obtain new powers in the form of colours, which can be drawn onto the world with various outcomes. For example, the blue power lets you create ice, which can be used to move objects that would otherwise be too heavy, gain momentum for long jumps, or send enemies sliding into chasms. Red gives you fire to burn enemies and light dark areas, yellow gives you electricity to power machines, and so on.
This combination of plot and game mechanics adds up to a game experience that perhaps doesn’t quite achieve the depth it sets out to, but comes darn close. The narrative is simple, but heavily laden with symbolism; the hero’s struggles to escape the Void draw an obvious parallel to the efforts of most to find meaning in a life that a nihilistic perspective would say has none. BeautiFun could arguably have injected a bit more intricacy into the plot, to further convey its message and give the narrative itself more depth. However, I think they were right to err on the side of caution and avoid the all-too-common mistake of creating a story that gets bogged down by it’s own complexities and loses impact in the process.
More subtle is the symbolism of the mechanics themselves. The collecting of pigments paints a journey from a simple, blank slate to a more complex, colourful being. The way the game tasks you quite literally with drawing colour into a lifeless world to solve puzzles and escape the Void hints at the notion that a life with no intrinsic meaning is a blank canvas, upon which we can paint meaning for ourselves.
This is better realised in some puzzles than others. Particularly towards the start of the game, the solutions are quite linear, in contrast to the idea of the world being yours to do with as you please. But as you add more colours to your pallette (and by extension, powers), the puzzles start to open up and allow you to get more creative with varied solutions.
As refreshing as it is to see a developer tackling complicated themes like nihilism in a game, it’s perhaps even more refreshing to see a studio building that central idea into every facet of their product. Too many games seem to be easily broken down into distinct “story” and “gameplay” elements, essentially amounting to films with interactive bits linking exposition-filled cutscenes together.
Nihilumbra, on the other hand, perfectly captures the ability for games to tell a story and deliver a message in a unique way, by making you a subjective part of the experience - rather than just a passive observer. Your role as an active part of the game is a fundamental part of the plot, and the meaning that underlies it.
Nihilumbra does have its flaws, of course, primarily around presentation. It’s a port of a mobile game, and while the mechanics have translated perfectly to keyboard and mouse, the user interface - originally designed for touchscreens - looks strange on a standard screen. It also comes with some minor quality-of-life type issues, most glaringly the fact that you can’t exit the game directly from the menu; rather, you have to exit to the map, then to the main menu, and then out of the game (or alternatively, hit the trusty Alt + F4.)
Visuals are rather simplistic, even by indie standards. They fit the tone and atmosphere of the game incredibly well, but at the same time, they don’t quite draw you into the experience as much as they could. This is true of the music and sound effects, too, although the narrator stands in stark contrast to this and is, frankly, excellent.
Some may also find the difficulty quite intimidating, particularly due to a very sudden, drastic spike around the middle of the game. The main storyline of the game effectively serves as a narrative-driven tutorial, with relatively easy puzzles designed to get you used to the mechanics and show you what each colour can do. “Beating” the story, though, unlocks Void Mode, which is where the more traditionally game-y part of the game takes place.
The puzzles in Void Mode are brilliantly designed and fiendishly unforgiving; they’ll stretch the grey matter of even the most accomplished puzzle-platformer fan. While the “story-as-tutorial” idea is a wonderful and creative way to make the game appeal to both the casual and hardcore communities, the leap in difficulty between regular game and Void Mode is perhaps too big and sudden, and could put people off.
Still, these are minor flaws in the grand scheme of things, and are heavily overshadowed by everything the game gets right. Nihilumbra is a fantastic example of what can happen when developers are willing to try new things, and focus on just what it is that makes videogames a unique medium. Life may have no intrinsic meaning, but the team at BeautiFun Games seem to have found meaning in making games, and for that, I am grateful.