This discussion contains spoilers for Sepulchre, a 20 minute long free point-and-click adventure. So, feel free to download and play it at Owl Cave Games web site before reading on.
A train might seem like the worst metaphor possible for a video game. We are often reminded (or at least often hope) that what makes video games different from other artistic mediums, like novels, films, or music, is their ability to tell a different kind of story. We talk a great deal about player choice, divergent paths as a result, and the possibilities of a multilinear experience. Quite the opposite of a train (or most novels, films, and music), the video game affords the opportunity for branching paths and different resulting conclusions. Indeed, if a game is “on rails,” this usually isn’t considered a positive—at least from the perspective of narrative progression.
Thus, Sepulchre and its setting, a train that is, of course, ostensibly moving from point A to point B, would seem to offer the gamer the worst of all possible narrative possibilities within the medium. However, the opening of the game leaves the player in the shoes of a character who seems less than certain about the nature of what should be a simple enough experience— that movement from point A to point B. Dr. Harold Lang is the curator of of a museum seemingly on a linear path that for some reason he can’t quite recall: “Train’s still going. I haven’t slept long. We left… we left… when did we leave? Where did we leave?” Lang’s uncertainty about the direct path of the train seems to extend into his uncertainty about his own goals. He seems to wish to reassure himself of his own identity and what he could possibly be up to, though he has difficulty ultimately filling in the blanks: “Okay, I’m Dr. Harold Land. My destination is Augur Peak Island. I’m on this train to… I’m… I’m going to evaluate some finds. They called me to…”
With these brief bits of incomplete introductory exposition the player is launched into a relatively claustrophobic gaming environment with nearly as little sense of their own goal as Lang seems to be of his. The game, I believe, consists of no more than six environments. Given this limited space to explore (two corridors, three compartments, and a dining car), despite its linear and gated point-and-click adventure game format, the game is a less than straightforward affair as most often what the player is directing Lang to do is speak to one character, visit a location, find his efforts to accomplish minor goals (like getting the conductor a little whiskey) frustrated, which leads him to have to return to the same person or place to find out why he can’t progress. If there is “progression” in the game, it is always in inches, as revisiting and revisiting and revisiting locations for new instructions or clarity about what he is to do seems the central agony of the game. And indeed it is agonizing until one reaches the game’s end and realizes that that is the point.
Sepulchre is described as a horror game, and its horror is a simple one, the idea that one has that there is somewhere to go is an illusion. It is at the game’s end when Lang is finally able to open the shutters on the exterior facing windows of his compartment that he discovers that the train is going nowhere. It is buried in the earth. We discover, of course, what the game’s title means and that it refers to the train itself and Lang’s own state of being. The train itself, while offering the illusion of movement and a goal, is really a sepulchre. Throughout the game, we have been treated to hints of a troubled past for Lang, a lost love, a struggle with alcoholism, and that this “luggage” (which is represented as just that in terms of a series of encounters with large valises that Lang is unwilling to open despite the player’s promptings), much like the train, is something that can’t be escaped or moved on from. Lang’s purgatorial existence is one in which the promise of getting somewhere is both a false promise and a false hope.
Perhaps, then, the best way to describe travel in and the exploration of the game world in Sepulchre is neither linear, nor multilinear. It is nonlinear. It as if the developers at Owl Cave Games wish to defy the possibilities of narrative as progression at all with the game’s constant switchbacks and repetitions of actions, something that might be the point in the game’s thematic context, but also may woefully be true of many other games in which fetch quests and the back and forth between NPCs and supposed goals really cause time to pass within the game but offer little in terms of reaching some kind of truly interesting goal or any real narrative progression. It as if the developers eschew the metaphor of the line at all for video games, seeing them less as narratives that move forward in time, as they often are time wasters that remain fixed in a point (not a line). The spatial boundaries of the game, perhaps, define video game narrative more than time does. We explore what little that can be squeezed into a computer’s or a console’s memory, moving nowhere, simply returning to the same places to do the same things that only seem like they progress towards something.
Instead, though, sometimes we are merely entombed within game worlds, forced to repeat actions, void of meaning and void of goals that will in the end matter at all.