Strangeland 3

Strangeland Review

Heavy-handed and laboured

Before Strangeland, Wormwood Studios had one full-fledged game under its belt: the excellent Primordia. In just over four hours of gameplay, the small, international indie team revealed an uncanny talent for worldbuilding and narrative design that shines through in its smaller projects; Like A Raisin in the Sun is more like interactive microfiction, but it’s still a wonderful experience crafted with exquisite care and purpose. When Strangeland was announced, I was beyond excited to see what the team had created.

Within moments of starting the game, our protagonist—an amnesiac marooned in a carnival-themed hellscape—takes on a rather familiar form: a man who sees a woman in peril and becomes consumed with the urge to save her. In this case, our straitjacketed hero can’t remember who he is or how he got to Strangeland, but the sight of a mysterious blonde in a hospital gown turns him into a man on a singular mission. To be fair, I’d like to think that if I saw someone in danger, I’d try and do something about it, creepy set dressing be damned. But surely this tedious stereotype would unfold into something meatier—surely, the payoff would justify yet another boilerplate tale about a man propelled forth by a nameless woman’s suffering.

It does not.

On the road to Strangeland’s release, its creators posted glimpses of the world and details about its development—a dark, unsettling narrative inspired by the work of Ray Bradbury, Francisco Goya, and Mervyn Peake. There are flashes of grotesque imagery—bulging masses of flesh, inscrutable insectoid creatures, recurring shots of the blonde (whom I’d mentally dubbed “Laura,” thanks a lot Twin Peaks) trapped in an organic meat-nest peppered with bugs. There’s even a moment when the blonde, like Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks: The Return, removes her face to reveal something sinister inside.

Oddly macabre

The build-up to the great rescue is at best patchy—there are moments of wry humor and fierce despair. As expected, the organic linework, potent environments and moody palette are delightfully discomforting, and the voice acting is top-notch stuff. There are some neat, satisfying puzzles that make up the bread and butter of any good point-and-click adventure. But one of Strangeland’s most glaring missteps is borrowing too much from other inspirations instead of weaving together a new and unholy mythos, or at least finding an overlooked or interesting way of doing horror with familiar elements.

There’s a clear touch of Norse mythology—a mysterious tree (ostensibly representing Yggdrasil), a wise old man with no eyes whose name echoes the eve of Ragnarok (Odin had one eye), a fortune-telling head named Murmur, and all-knowing black ravens. Norse mythology, like many other world mythologies, revolves around a cycle of death and rebirth, a theme that constantly occurs as your protagonist inevitably dies in Strangeland—at times you won’t have a choice—and gets plopped back at the beginning of the game, albeit with your inventory and progress intact.

Covered up

One of the main themes of the game is masks, which is hammered home by a literal Greek chorus of mannequins in oversized doll heads who function as… well, a Greek chorus. Here the game just leans hard into awkward self-awareness—“in Strangeland, it suits a man to be estranged,” the dolls tell our protagonist, while emphasizing that there’s only room for one Woman in the story. Honestly, if any narrative project starts off with even the slightest preface about matryoshka dolls and nested structures, it’s not hard to guess what happens next. Then we have a conversation between our protagonist and a cicada about imago—both a psychological term as well as a part of insect metamorphosis, a dash of Lacan’s mirror stage theory—that instantly erodes any sense of mystery and nuance that the game might have earned.

Heavy-handed exposition arrives periodically via a demonic payphone, through which our protagonist speaks to an omniscient version of himself (the phone is also how you get hints). You never figure out how that whole situation works, but by the time I bludgeoned my way through the story, I realized it didn’t matter. The phone quickly became a point of contention—half the time I felt like a hostage in a Saw movie, getting berated by a lunatic on the other end of the line.

There are oblique hints of Peake’s Gormenghast books: not so much the dysfunctional pseudo-medieval politics, but the oppressive, inescapable atmosphere and the glacial illusion of “progress” as you creep through the game. Strangeland is, as the designers have discussed via Steam posts, an exploration of sadness prompted by events in their personal lives; including this Gormenghast quote: “In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”

I would like to play that game. Doing more with less is underrated, and it’s hard to create something vast and unknowable if you build it around recognizable genre tropes that prevent you from doing something truly interesting. One of the neatest parts of Strangeland is, in fact, a tarot-reading sequence that requires a little bit of basic memory, dramatic introspection and imagination. It’s a nice balance of arcane divination, mystery, and a pinch of meta-commentary—after all, tarot was mostly originally used as gaming cards. Seeing how the reading reappeared later in the narrative is a neat touch, and if anyone wants to make a point-and-click tarot adventure around this idea, I’d love to play it.

Strangeland stands as an argument that players should know as little as possible in a horror adventure game to cultivate tension, yet it still manages to circumvent its own potential by trying to do too much. And of course, we come back to the fridged woman—our blonde in distress—whom we finally rescue. Once our protagonist’s purpose has been fulfilled, he finds a very literal release from this Groundhog Day from hell, with the added realisation that it is actually she who has rescued you, and yes, she’s already dead. This was the point of no return where I knew the game couldn’t redeem itself, so it’s probably best that it was the end anyway.