One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
The absence of light is so absolute, it’s as if there’s nothing at all around me. I’m not even sure I’m there myself. The only thing I’m sure of is the scanner in my hand. I pull the trigger, I hear the familiar whine, and the blackness around me is gradually sprinkled with dots. Dot by dot, my surroundings come into existence – a psychedelic, pointillist ghost of a cave.
Scanner Sombre is a game that can be boiled down to one interesting gimmick: you are a spelunker lost in a cave without any source of light (just go with it, okay?), relying instead on a LIDAR scanner and a headset. The scanner places dots on the surfaces around you, and depending on how far these surfaces are, the dots’ colours change: things near me are red, while blue signifies that something is further away. The functionality of the scanner grows as you venture further into the cave in the hope of finding a way out, but the basic gameplay remains the same: exploring a system of caves and trying to find a way out, you ‘paint’ your surroundings into existence by scanning them. While playing Scanner Sombre, I found myself wondering: is this how animals that rely on radar or sonar perceive their surroundings?
In a medium that visually more often than not defaults to some variant of realism (though usually of the Hollywood kind), Scanner Sombre is unusual, finding impressionistic beauty in seeing the world differently. This effect is amplified when playing the game in Virtual Reality: as you put on your headset, you’re bathed in utter darkness. You wield your scanner much as you would a gun in a different game, ‘shooting’ the world into being for once. Suddenly you’re not just looking at a screen showing a colour-coded representation of the world around you, you’re surrounded by this world. You see it – and nothing else. This is what I dreamt of when VR was starting to look feasible as more than just a proof of concept: developers and artists using it as a way to immerse us in worlds distinctly different from what we’re used to, through eyes that see differently from our own.
There is also a ghostliness to the cave: dots placed earlier remain visible, even as I move on, so I see chambers and tunnels that, were the game to use a more conventionally realistic depiction of the cave, would be hidden behind rock walls. However much you fill in the world, it remains transparent, a remnant of your journey through it. This, in combination with the sense of isolation that Scanner Sombre evokes, make the cave a perfect space for a ghost story – though the developers Introversion come close to ruining this by inserting actual horror elements into their game, and these jump scares and guttural shrieks are by far the most generic and least interesting aspects of Scanner Sombre. They feel like a desperate attempt to make the game more visceral – when it is actually strongest when it embraces its more spectral side with a light touch.
Scanner Sombre‘s cave is one of gaming’s most subjective spaces. Some players might sparsely paint their surroundings, just enough to make out the path they are on, while others might take their time, painstakingly filling in as much of the blankness as possible. Everyone paints a subtly different version of the cave – but they all try to bring some semblance of reality into being, of a place that only exists as zeroes and ones to begin with. And as I explore more and more of the cave, I cannot shake the feeling that while its reality is tenuous, mine is even more so: I see the coloured dots, I see my hand holding the scanner – but other than that, however much I look around I don’t see myself. I cannot paint myself into existence. If I am exploring the ghost of a cave only yet that ghost is more real than me, what does that make me?