There are many ways to reduce a game to its base elements to quickly and efficiently communicate what it is. Pinball with swords is one such way we could describe Creature in the Well. But that would be a gross disservice. Instead, this game exhibits a commitment to a character who is marked by absence.
Creature in the Well is made by Flight School Studio. It takes the core premise of pinball, crosses it with a dash of Breakout and places it in a kind of dungeon crawler format. You awaken as an engineering robot in a world of wind, sand and vibrant colour palettes. Finding their way to a nearby mountain, you discover your purpose in amongst the winding corridors of a facility inside of it.
You discover orbs of energy which bounce off the walls and charge nearby bumpers. There’s a balance between holding one button down to charge the orb to gain more energy and hitting them towards these bumpers. The eventual goal is to bring power back to the whole facility so that something can be done about this unending sandstorm. A spanner in the works is presented, however, in the form of a creature living in the mountain who looks unkindly on your efforts.
The game is then a journey to undo the traps laid by the creature and activate this long-dormant facility. Across several different levels, you must adapt to unfriendly turrets and some lava-floor like situations. There’s a great fluidity to the levels with puzzles gently leading to more puzzles. But there is a tangible feeling that the core game loop is spread a little too thinly. There’s only so far you can go with this pinball redesign. And though the experience is augmented with player upgrades and different weapon effects, these actions can feel a little repetitive.
It is a joy to say that this the only slight blemish on an otherwise engaging experience. Where the game really sings is in the interactions with the creature. Always antagonistic and overlooking your actions from a distance, it is this relationship which everything else in the game expertly supports.
The aforementioned vibrant colour palette really shines in each level of the facility where a different combination of colours is given free rein. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Hyper Light Drifter with its stark neon blocks of colour bringing areas to life. The soundtrack might also draw comparisons with Hyper Light Drifter but there is altogether much less synth. It is similar in its pervasiveness and continuous nature. It is when a loading screen suddenly cuts that mellow, sonic accompaniment that the first tone of absence is struck. And that tone is felt keenly.
It’s not often that camera movement can be analysed or praised in games but Creature in the Well is a curious exception. Player control over the camera is absent as the game slowly weaves and frames proceedings. In addition to removing the sometimes erratic motions of a player wildly flailing to best view the action, the camera elegantly presents environments with its slow pans through the facility and the village of Mirage just outside it.
There are few characters besides the Creature that you will meet. Most inhabitants of Mirage hide from you in fear. Some, like Danielle, will help with upgrades but the rest hide from the storm.
The creature is your only real companion throughout the game, and a reluctant one at that. The interactions would be rote if not for the shroud of mystery surrounding the creature. The constant threats would be pantomime from any other video game villain if they constantly announced their presence and dastardly intent. But its constant vigil and watching of you as you progress might suggest a will to change that it can’t quite express.
Mystery is such an interesting phenomenon to design. It invokes curiosity, fear and the unknown into which we pour all our excesses. The characteristics which may define us as individuals find their way into the absence of detail, the shadows in the corner. Creature in the Well is a game elevated by these absences, by the gap in the fiction which folds a piece of you into it, whether that be your anger, your fear or your capacity to empathise.
Throughout the game, the creature strikes out at you in anger and arrogance. But between those lines, I saw fear and loneliness. The shadows it peers from might create an aura of fear but it is also a position to hide one’s weaknesses, eliciting my pity instead. At the end of the game, whatever your feelings may have been towards the creature will crystallise in a poignant confrontation. One in which I stood still and reflected on my feelings of pity and grief for a creature which had not earned them.
The absence so carefully crafted by Flight School Studios invites us to fill in the narrative gaps of Creature in the Well and creates a unique relationship with the antagonist. But maybe I’m a fool and can’t read the signs before my eyes. Too ready to trust and believe in the good of all. But that’s the power of mystery.
[Reviewed on Switch]
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.