About a week ago I stumbled on the delightfully creepy Pandora’s Box by Terror Bull Games. It was begun as a project for Ludum dare, but I think we can all be glad they took the extra time with it. It is chilling and brilliant, and makes me wonder if the satirical board games by the company are worth a go. This game is an exception to many rules, and I suggest you download it here, and give it a go, because there are some spoilers ahead.
Pandora’s Box is a text-based mystery game. That’s a lie. It’s text based. It is a mystery game. But the fact is it’s something else. If I knew what it was I’d tell you and you’d be all like, “Oh Seth Tipps, the Great Reviewer of Artsy Games!”, and I’d be all like, :”Yes.” Well that’s not how this is going to work. I’m going to talk to you about the most disturbing thing in the whole game; vanishing poos.
I think I got through about ten lines of dialogue in the game, absolutely nothing to give me my bearings any more than the art did when I found myself in a shower. This is the most relaxing moment in the game; no one is having their face go all Chesire cat on you (this happens); there isn’t any crazy, mashed-up music playing in the background (this is almost constant); and no one is talking about stuff you don’t think has happened yet (this becomes less of a problem). For a few seconds it’s just you listening to the sound of a shower. Then you notice the poo. You can either ignore it or “lean down to investigate”.
As I envision myself something of the investigative journalist, this is exactly what I do. Another dialogue box pops up; “Is this MY excrement?”. I nudge the “excrement” with my foot. It vanishes.
You might think my fascination with this episode a bit… infantile. Had I decided to spend this long writing about the toilet bits in just about any other game that’s exactly what it would be. I can’t remember any other game that has used bodily leavings for anything other than a crude joke or a pretense at “realism”. The fact is this is legitimately chilling. You are naked, vulnerable, and relaxed as the water pours over you and washes off all the dirt, grime, and stress. It is one of the great luxuries of modern life. Suddenly there appears a fly in the ointment- a call back to the terrifying unreality of the world you inhabit- the unclean invader on the shower floor.
I asked the guys at Terror Bull games if this was some reference I wasn’t getting. The game’s chock full of them. Certainly this has to be something that can be logicked through? Surely this has a rational explanation? No, “The vanishing poo is just vanishing poo.” Ladies and gentlemen, vanishing poo is never just vanishing poo. It is the most unnatural thing to ever have pop up in a shower.
The game is a puzzle. It means us to try and understand it. You are given three clues as to why you’re trapped in this endless loop, and when you collect them you can finish the game if you want. They are vague, but if you paid attention at university you should be able to piece them together and form a hypothesis about what’s going on. It doesn’t stop there though. This game is scary because you can’t really understand all of it. It mixes the artistic and rational with the earthy, stinking reality of our most mortal of leavings, and then vanishes them into the irrational existential void in which the game is set.
People, play Pandora’s Box. It’s smart. It may not necessarily be a masterpiece for all ages, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s one of the few games out there that uses genre as a storytelling advice. It’s one of the few games that respects your intelligence without stumbling into pretension, and for crying out loud they manage to do that while including piles of excrement in a shower without descending into cheap laughs.
Thank you, Terror Bull, for giving me shit in a game without the bullshit.