Eversion's most unsettling moments are when it changes its rules and mechanics without telling you.
“I promise this isn't a troll entry. But saying anything about this game borders on spoiling the experience. There is a free version available to try.”
That’s the review of Eversion by the Steam group "Rely on Horror" that intrigued me enough to buy and play the game. It’s an accurate review. You should play Eversion before reading further. It’s available via Steam for $5.00, or you can download it for free from the Zaratustra Productions website. It's only 20 minutes long at most.
Way back in 2012, for the very first post of the very first Indie Horror Month, I wrote about a game called The 4th Wall. I wrote that it felt like an experiment in finding new images of horror beyond the now clichéd house/forest/facility/etc. by placing you in what felt like an unfinished game.
After all, what is a classic haunted house if not an unfinished house? When the setting itself is unreliable, the potential for horror is great. That’s why any place that’s supposedly haunted is usually an old, run down, abandoned, dilapidated place that looks like it should fall apart at any second. The 4th Wall is based on the same idea but changes the scenery into something uniquely techno-nightmarish.
Eversion works in a similar way: Its most unsettling moments are when it changes its rules and mechanics without telling you. The game begins looking like a cliché, which focuses our assumptions and expectations, then the world changes, becoming more and more unreliable and unfair. This kind of change would be frustrating in any other game, but it's acceptable here because it's presented with a horror context: As the rules change, the world becomes a more frightening looking place.
This alone suggests some interesting things about our relationship to horror in games. When we're not meant to have powerful avatars, do we become more forgiving of mechanical or balance flaws? Or maybe horror makes extreme difficulty easier to bear. I now wonder if the gothic-horror aesthetic of Demon's Souls made its extreme difficulty more acceptable and bearable to players, thus contributing to its cult popularity. Would the Souls games be the cult classics they are now if they were set in a slick, sleek sci-fi setting? Or would the change in aesthetics bring with it a change in expectations, and suddenly the "unforgving" combat would become "frustrating" combat.
I'm now going to get into specifics about Eversion, so this is your final spoiler warning. The game initially looks and plays like a cutesy platformer from the SNES era. There's a score counter, a level counter, and a gem counter, which immediately establishes the rules and scope of this supposed platformer: Get to the end of the level and collect as many gems as you can along the way as you can. It's natural to assume that you'll get some bonus for collecting all the gems in a level, as the game makes a point of displaying that stat when you reach the end.
However, soon all those assumptions get twisted as you start encountering what could best be described as “bubbles” in space and time. These areas that are invisible to the eye, but they warp the music and color of the world as you get close. These “eversion points” allow you to change the world by hitting the “evert button”. This eversion is often necessary to progress, but it also changes things for the worse.
The first eversion reveals the falsity of this world. Enemies become depressed, and the clouds in the background are shown to be hanging from strings. But Eversion isn’t a game about gaming, the little flowery hero never turns to the camera and acknowledges the Sisyphean hell that is his life. Eversion always stays in-fiction, so to speak, but each eversion reveals more and more of the truth of that fiction: The cutesy aesthetics hide a nightmare world.
This is also when the mechanics start changing. Clouds that were once background objects become part of the foreground, and you can jump on them, blocks that were once unbreakable become breakable, and harmless weeds become deadly spiked plants. Even the UI starts breaking down: The gems we were once tasked with collecting become skulls, and our level and score counters go crazy. With the genre trappings now gone and the rules changing with every eversion, we’re no longer sure how to play. We still run right, we still jump over pits, we still run from the darkness chasing us, but these are instinctual actions based on survival. We’re no longer really playing the game. We’re just trying to survive it.
If Eversion is a game about gaming, then it’s about revealing the truth of what a gaming world must look like to its characters. Everything in the world is out to kill them and does kill them over and over again. Even if a world like this really did look cute, those cute things would be frightening because of what they represent. The most disturbing thing about Eversion is how it puts a new skin of paint over the traditional cutesy platformer, yet it still feels like a traditional platformer. I recognize this game, I’ve played it before, but now I see what kind of hell it must be for the characters.