Iceberg Interactive Delivers Two Frosty First-Person Experiences

There’s been no shortage of first-person, narrative-driven titles in the past five years. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em — tack ‘em with the dysphemistic “walking simulator” description or otherwise — the art of story-telling has been but one of natural evolution as technology advances and the subject matter for such narratives has only increased alongside. Be it set in the past or flung into the future, settled in reality or coaxing the slightly-less “understood,” while it would be fair to question just how engaged players will truly be in a story-led, gameplay-lenient product, you can’t say the genre is lacking in possibility.

Dutch publisher Iceberg Interactive brought with them not one but two first-person titles for myself to try out at this year’s GDC. Each of which, though bound by a similarly story-focused, narrative-led thread, are miles apart when it comes to the chosen themes and resulting tone and aesthetics such stories both require and deliver. To varying degrees and length. First up was Zoetrope Interactive’s psychological horror-leaning, Lovecraftian-inspired (and referenced in certain parts, though graciously treating the established lore of those acclaimed novels as inspiration and accompaniment rather than merely ripping off its content) adventure Conarium. Taking on the role of one of four scientists during an archeological expedition in the Antarctic, the player-character Frank Gilman, you’re as much trying to rediscover your sense of sanity as you are your three missing crew members.

Conarium Screenshot
Grappling as you do with the influential power of the Conarium itself — an artificial device that allows human minds and consciousness to transcend beyond the physical reaches of our own World — as reality warps, even shifts to a more Eldritch-like realm at points, Conarium though dabbles in the physical presence of horror is a game that focuses more on the psychological leanings and influence on the mind that horror can often invoke. Though the gameplay from early impressions is left relatively devoid of physical confrontation or otherwise other persons (or “things”) to obstruct one’s progression, the main star — intentional or not — is undoubtedly the game’s setting and how even in the more saner of setting that is Earth can invoke a slightly ambient but allthemore anxious vibe with its Unreal Engine-powered toning and subtle shading/lighting to make even the coziest of mansions or identifiable submarine workspaces feel like the last place one wants to be.

Though the game will make nods and indeed references to Lovecraft’s work — treating the game almost like an unofficial sequel in parts — Conarium doesn’t intentionally isolate those completely new to the mythos and lore surrounding such tales. What’s more, the sheer lack of any predictable horror gameplay tropes — acquiring an item at the end of a corridor or room only to find your way back now littered with sentient “obstructions — not to mention the slightly open-ended approach to objectives in parts means that the game, while still following a strict linearity in its tale, will still allow players to soak both World’s palpable and well-struck visuals of human curiosity and monstrous consequence often a result of humanity being just bit too curious in the wrong places. An eye-catching amount of depth in its visuals most certainly and what’s more, built by a developer clearly read up on the natural aesthetic and vibe of such tales, Conarium is looking to treat the grandiose and mind-melting mythos of Lovecraft’s imagination with a significant degree of both respect and enjoyment when it launches in the second quarter of this year on PC.

Conarium Screenshot 2
Secondly, while not as horror-leaning or focused on the tension of its setting, Empathy — created by developer Pixel Night — attempts to a follow a similarly existential route with a game that has you control not so much one strict character or perspective. Rather, Empathy sees you briefly take on the personality and thoughts of those you come across via memories and log-based dialogue. Though these separate entities don’t appear in the game World itself, the narrative aims to present these people through their speech and emotions alone. Set within a strange, dream-like World with contrasting scenery and visual cues, the objective of the game is to traverse this setting while uncovering what may initially appear like random objects but in fact are your only key to figuring out what’s actually going on.

The way in which players “unlock” these objects and acquire the character narrative linked to them is by, what could be described as, “tuning” them into the right frequency so that the items present revert to their proper physical form from out their once transparent state. This is done via a radio-like device acquired from the start and rotating the control stick until the desired frequency — indicated by a prompted sine-wave — is located. While most of these objects will offer merely exposition to the story, others are required to solve puzzles, such as building a bridge to the other side of a platform, in order to progress.

Empathy Screenshot
One of the noticeable features of the player’s own progression is that acquiring certain pieces of narrative and discovering said characters’ thoughts will result in the environment changing in subtle forms within the context of what’s being told in the story. While some areas will require only a cosmetic change, other acquisition will unlock new areas altogether in the more spacious and non-linear of moments meaning players will likely traverse previously visited areas. Though it’s important to note, as a member of the team indicated to me, that this game will only take around six to seven hours to complete, so to what extent players will find themselves in these such open areas — not to mention how much these spaces will expand and alter on a visual level — remains to be seen. Like Conarium, Empathy will also arrive in the second quarter of this year on PC and Mac with a PS4 and Xbox One release to follow.

It’s safe to say that both Conarium and Empathy are aiming to expand both the conceptual and presentational means that first-person narratives can explore with their own iterations here.