Oddly, this Game Pile needs an additional content warning; the game discusses horror, intrusive thoughts, suicide, and eventually, Nazis. So, come prepared.
You, the player, in this horror game, are presented with an unpleasant duty: the world is doomed. There is an ancient evil stirring into wakefulness, a horrible outerworldly entity, so dangerous and vile that its presence causes people to m̨̪͂͠e̢̼͋͐a͕͕̐͌t̹̟̿̑ ̞̗̆̒w͕̅̀͜r̛̝͈̈́ö̥͈́͊n̦͖̏̿ġ͕̦̚, and you and you alone are in a position to actually act to stop it. There is oversight, some degree of support – a hundred pounds from someone who knows you, who believes you – but you are otherwise alone. You have a first aid kit, a gun, some books, and a stash of eye-watering drugs with which you can stave off the limits of your own collapse, and now it falls to you to trek around the British countryside trying to hunt down the ritual phrase and banish this entity, for now.
There are things that are never truly answered, of course. You’re never going to learn if your intrusive thoughts and strange loss of control, the visions and the horrors are your mind harming you in response to the sheer existential threat, or if the warping presence of these outer things is what rends the world this way. You’ll never understand exactly why the star you were born under gives you a chance, and you’ll probably never understand who your boss is.
But this is your lot. This is your hope.
Try and save the world.
A premise like that isn’t going to fly very far unless it’s executed on very well, and execution for this kind of concept hasn’t exactly been under-explored. As far as play goes, Consuming Shadow is a limited-interface explorer game, where you go into dungeons and wander around until you find the end, then leave in real time, facing enemies and finding stuff, then moving on to the next place, looking for the next dungeon that will solve your problems.
If you want a single example of a good idea that The Consuming Shadow has, there’s the way the game handles intrusive thoughts. Sometimes as you’re rushing around in the interface, a button will change from its default action to KILL YOURSELF, and if you click on it in this state you will immediately go to shoot yourself in the head! That attempt to represent an intrusive thought feels very ‘true’ to me, the way that your brain can insistantly say hey, do this thing. It’s a really good mechanic for building its sense of horror!
Another is the way the game handles random events. There really isn’t a hard strategic choice for what is the right way to approach all the random events that come up. Maybe it’s worth the risk, maybe it’s not – the game doesn’t seem to have such skewed math on its investment and return that you can dismiss all choices or embrace all of them. That means when you’re approached in a random event, it really is a feeling of rolling the die. Do you answer the phone? Do you help out the stranger? Do you just keep going, ignoring them both? These choices are functionally random, but they’re not so variant and they’re not so catastrophic that you can be sure of what to always do.
Aesthetics are a big part of how this kind of game works, and sadly, The Consuming Shadow has a good style, but not a good execution of that style. Monsters and players being ambiguous black silhouettes is honestly pretty cool looking, but the rest of the interface is a bit pants. You’re certainly getting a game that’s the product of one person.
Consuming Shadow is the work of a lone creator, one Yahtzee “Don’t Call Me Ben” Croshaw, a man who emerged ten years ago or so as an interesting and clever voice in the videogame journalism sphere, presenting witty and clever high-standards games journalism that has now, kinda done a bunch to foster the presence of Nazis in game culture, and isn’t that an amazing sentence?
I used to watch Yahtzee’s work on The Escapist, until around 2014, when Gamergate support made that site feel unpleasant to visit. I then watched his personal channel, where I got to watch Consuming Shadow in production and listen to the guy talking with his friend Gabe. It was not a pretty continuity to observe in action.
While I always thought of Yahtzee as a particular character of jerk, I could recognise, I felt, that much of his worst moments came out of snappy defensiveness, from facing critique in a way that he was fundamentally opposed to responding to. Basically, I felt that if Yahtzee could approach these topics with some empathy, like if he had a friend who wasn’t awful, he could wind up shifting his positions and the public persona of Yahtzee wasn’t someone you actually like, addressed or spoke to, because he pointedly had to discard all feedback as meaningless. This, when you consider how scum gamers are, is pretty reasonable as a living solution. And I’d been a fan of the guy since before Zero Punctuation, so I admitted to some degree of forgiveness, some benefit of the doubt.
There were, in their Lets Drown Out series, some nice ideas. I like the idea of them basically doing a podcast over and about a game that had problems. I liked the idea of pre-recorded gameplay so they were free to ramble if they wanted to. And if you go back and listen to that series again, there are still some gems – I think that their discussion of the design of Hugo’s Haunted House 2: The Adventures of Penelope or the playthrough of Future Wars are both really funny and interesting.
But Gabe was that friend I thought Yahtzee needed, and the series, over time, is watching as Yahtzee becomes more, and more, and more directly antagonistic towards the mere idea of respecting Gabe.
I’m not saying they weren’t friends or that I judge the way they were friends; I’m saying that early on, Yahtzee is a little more inclined to listen to Gabe’s positions on things even if he immediately discards them. I remember keenly hearing Gabe describe his experiences with extensive self-harm and his own coping mechanisms, while Yahtzee discarded the entire perspective. I remember Yahtzee mocking the idea of being a teacher, and his petulant complaint about ‘cry-bullies,’ trying to make the idea that people upset by his work were trying to hurt him. I remember the point where I realised that, No, Yahtzee isn’t the kind of guy who needed to approach this with empathy, because the dude has made being right so much a part of his identity he’s not going to learn.
I stopped watching these videos soon after that. They stopped being about hearing two interesting people I kind of liked and became a lurching misery fest of hearing a vaunted intellectual of the form I cared about demonstrating that he was better at sounding right than considering complex ideas even in the same room of someone who he’d already decided not to respect as an intellectual equal. The man mistook deciseveness for intelligence, consideration for ambiguity. And all this time, he was developing and releasing the game The Consuming Shadow, a game which I like quite a lot and have finished more times than I expected I would.
And we arrive at the question of author vs work. I personally don’t believe you can separate author and work – the author informs the work, is part of the paratext. If you know that a creator is, for example, a nazi, it really changes how you see the uniforms they put on the heroes in a story. I don’t think that we should forget the kind of person Mel Gibson is or give Laurence Krauss public speaking engagements or all that stuff. I believe that art that inspires you or thrills you, even if it was made by an awful person, is gold stolen from a dragon, in this miserable world of ours. But that’s my take – I don’t feel that consumers should be made to feel direct ownership of the people they pay money to. You are responsible for your actions, they for theirs.
Yet I appreciate this isn’t everyone’s experience. That it isn’t easy for others to shift that feeling. To them, I merely put this before you, and let you make the choice for yourself.
Get it if:
- You want a cthulhoid horror game that isn’t just squids
- You like roguelikes that are willing to hand you unwinnable states
- You like ambiguated success – did you get lucky or did you play well?
Avoid it if:
- You’re looking for a fair game that you can solve
- You want something that rewards strategy
- You want to avoid supporting someone who is by all accounts a pretty nasty jerk