Intrigued by yesterday’s Rock, Paper, Shotgun writeup of two highly unique mods for Half-Life 2, I scampered over to ModDB to get them for myself. The first, Dear Esther, didn’t work correctly on my computer, so I set it aside until I have time for troubleshooting.
The second, Korsakovia, it worked fine. I kinda wish it hadn’t, because despite the fact that 30 minutes with this mod had me gelatinized with fear, I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting the world of Korsakovia again tonight. Oh, sweet-natured and sunny Scribblenauts, oh, unapologetically silly Majesty 2, why can’t I spend my time with you two instead of this, a game that might go down in the annals as one of the most chilling pieces of interactive horror ever?
Christopher, do You Know why You are Blind?
Korsakovia isn’t a game in the classic sense. It was created by The Chinese Room, a research project by Dan Pinchbeck, professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. Pinchbeck’s focus of study is character and affectors in first person gaming experiences, and he’s taken to developing extremely esoteric Half-Life 2 mods to test his theories. Korsakovia’s goal was to develop a first-person experience with significant ambiguity, and with the player’s normal anthropomorphic cues removed.
The result is a game that – for the first 45 minutes or so, at least – moves relatively slowly, building a sense of terror and dread through the protagonist’s absolute solitude and the disembodied voices of the narrative.
Korsakovia is the story of a man who has gone mad. Specifically, he suffers from Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a rare mental illness that erases memory and prevents the subject from easily forming new ones, while simultaneously producing delusions, confabulation, and psychosis. Unable to relate to this world through memory, a sufferer spends every waking moment trying to determine what is real and what is not, with no way of validating his theories.
Christopher believes the world has ended; that he is alone in an empty and derelict hospital. Strange posters line the walls, incongruous imagery alongside germ-phobic PSAs. Also on the walls are messages to yourself: the eyes are the enemy Christopher wake up Christopher wake up now. You hear voices – a doctor seems to be reciting her notes and playing recordings from therapy sessions with Christopher. From these clues, all of which may or may not be real, you discern the story of Korsakovia. One of the first things you learn is that when they came to collect him, the paramedics were unable to find Christopher’s eyes… and have reason to suspect he may have eaten them. Korsakovia is loaded with disturbing concepts like this (remember the straight-razor-through-the-eye scene in Un Chien Andalou?), and you are constantly reminded that what you see is only what Christopher sees, and Christopher is crazy and has no eyes, which means none of it may be real at all. Or maybe it is. Maybe the world really has ended.
Korsakovia is survival horror with heavy focus on horror; there is combat, against nebulous and terrifying foes, but this game is chiefly about not knowing what is real. Reality becomes more and more difficult to discern the longer you play, but me, I couldn’t play long. Too scary. Next time I visit that creepy hospital, I’m leaving a light on.
You’ll need Half-Life 2: Episode Two to run Korsakovia properly; it takes advantage of various Source Engine updates from the latest episode. Check it out if you dare… Pinchbeck’s pioneering work may never appear on store shelves, but this academic seems committed to developing games that demonstrate the medium’s ability to do more than space operas and Nazi zombie invasions.