The Platformer as Existential Crisis

[15 August 2014]

By Nick Dinicola

Nihilumbra is an interesting puzzle platformer about a little piece of nothingness that tries to become something more. You’re a piece of The Void that suddenly finds itself born into the living world. As you explore, you gain new abilities and learn what it means to be alive. However, The Void chases you wherever you go, consuming everything in its path in a single-minded quest to become whole again.

It’s an interesting exploration of life that comes across as heavy-handed at times thanks to a narrator that doesn’t quite seem to fit in anywhere. He voices your thoughts, but he’s not your own inner monologue, since he refers to you directly as “you.” He’s not The Void, and he’s not any other living thing. He’s a typical omniscient narrator, but omniscient narrators are rare in games, so it feels rather awkward.

The most interesting parts of the game are the levels in which you’re forced to run from the consuming Void. Each environment ends with one of those typical auto-scrolling platformer levels that force you to use a new ability in various clever ways. From a gameplay perspective, there’s nothing special about these levels (though they are well-designed and often backed by a great soundtrack), but from a meta perspective, I find them fascinating because they seem to reflect on what an “auto-scrolling screen” means for the world. These levels take an abstract concept of level design and consider it literally. What does it mean for part of the world to fall away? what is the in-world equivalent of “off-screen”?

The answer is nothing, or rather Nothing, capitalized and given sentience. To fall off-screen is to cease to exist. Off-screen is death, and an auto-scrolling screen is Death on a mission. It’s an enemy that’s constantly at your back, and it cannot be beaten. You can flee it, but you cannot every truly escape it. All you can do is run and prolong your own life by sacrificing the world.

When “off-screen” becomes death the mere act of movement becomes destructive. Moving forward creates more of the world, or in the case of an auto-scrolling screen, allows more of the world to be created. If we would just stop running, the screen would stop moving and the world would be saved, but we would die and we can never let that happen, of course. So we run from the Void of Death and the edge of the screen, destroying the world with through this chase.

Nihilumbra is the platformer as existential crisis. The story is built around this existentialist chase with you as a little piece of Void that’s gotten a taste of existence and kind of likes it. The more abilities that you acquire, the better you can flee the Void and the more alive you feel.

The story can be heavy-handed at times (I mean, how could it not?), but overall, Nihilumbra is effective in tackling its grand themes. At the very least, it proves that even a genre as old and used as the platformer can still communicate new ideas as long as we change the way we look at it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/184742-the-platformer-as-existential-crisis/