IndieZero: Don’t Look Back

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[‘Hoy! I’m afraid to say you’ve stumbled across IndieZero, where we attempt to make you play independently-developed video games for fun and profit. Without the profit.]

We’re going absolutely mental on disclaimers this week. Check it out:

DISCLAIMER #1: This article contains what some of you may consider to be spoilers, but there’s some stuff about the game that will need explaining to most people. If you’re pretty clued-up on your Greek mythology, however, and you know who Orpheus is and what happened to his wife, forget this article and go play the game.

DISCLAIMER #2: This game is really, really, really hard. If you only spend five minutes with it before kicking your keyboard across the room in frustration, that’s fine. But I assure you, it’s not impossible. Stick with it if you can.

When I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old, my primary school did a small theatre production of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a Greek myth where Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, gets killed by a snake bite, so Orpheus marches down to the underworld to ask Hades if he can have his wife back. Hades says that’s fine, and that Eurydice will follow him back to the upper world, so long as Orpheus can make it all the way there without looking back to see if she’s following him. So he gets to the surface, turns out around excitedly, then sees Eurydice vanish forever because, being a few steps behind him, she was still stood in the underworld.

Daft, I know. But when you’re six years old, this is the saddest story in the entire world, and it fascinated me at the time. Somehow I managed to do a load more reading into Greek mythology without ever noticing that, after losing his wife, Orpheus swore off women forever and spent the rest of his life shagging boy-servants. But hey!

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Don’t Look Back, by Terry Cavanagh, is a re-telling of this story (minus the sodomy), wrapped up in a 2D platformer. Which isn’t to say that it’s a game punctuated with expository cut-scenes; it simply tells a similar story through gameplay alone. And it’s a remarkable little piece of work.

You start off at the grave of your loved one, and begin your journey into Hades. Despite the simple visuals, DLB does an incredible job of making you ‘feel’ the environments you’re travelling through, largely due to its excellent sound design. The first few minutes of the game reminded me heavily of Knytt, another indie title that, despite its low budget, conjures more atmosphere than the Genesis device in Star Trek.

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Anyway, that atmosphere fades after a while, and you’re left with a really bloody difficult platformer that seems to delight in killing you again and again and again and again and again and again. But, having spotted the clues that link the game to Orpheus’ story – fighting a massive three-headed dog was the main giveaway for me –  you want to press on and get your dead wife back. And when you do eventually find her, the game stays true to its name and source material – turning to face her will destroy her. So you’ve got to make your way back to the surface whilst facing to the left the whole time, which comes into play in various ways – the game’s challenges aren’t really what you’d call ‘puzzles’, but they do require a bit of mindfulness with regards to your positioning and the way you need to travel across each screen. So the game takes a narrative concept, and twists it into a gameplay mechanic. And that’s a bit bloody clever.

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The game does make a few massive changes to the original myth. Here, Orpheus uses a pistol to shoot his enemies with, for starters. Then there’s the ending which, while decidedly eerie, is very much left open to interpretation. Maybe DLB only resonated with me because of my experiences with the original myth as a child, but I’d still urge anyone else to check it out.

Play Don’t Look Back (Downloadable versions for Windows and Mac here)