February 2, 2016 7:00 AM | Joel Couture
Calendula begins in a moment when the player isn't expecting it - as soon as it boots, you're playing. There's very, very few games that don't have some sort of title screen or splash image where the game has not yet begun. When you choose to start a game on your computer or stick a disk in your console, the game asks you if you would like to play, load, or fiddle with some options. You haven't started yet in most games, but in Calendula, you're already playing and may not know it.
You may never know it, either, as Calendula purposely keeps the player wondering if they've begun, creating this state where the game exists between reality and its own world.
"Horror games are generally too scary for us, so we decided to create the kind of horror game that we would like to play. We decided to explore the idea of 'discomfort' - a horror game that could gravitate towards the uncanny and the feeling of things not working as expected." says Aleix Garrido, one of the designers at Blooming Buds Studio who worked on creating Calendula.
When the player hits New Game in Calendula, nothing will happen. The game will give some sort of error screen, which is something that seems perfectly normal, if annoying. These things happen with games. This steers the player into the menus, where the game can truly begin.
"The game starts with confusion, and that confusion turns into mystery as the game advances." says Garrido. Calendula requires the player to play around with the options and menus in various ways in order to make the game allow you to play it. This can mean changing the resolution, playing around with colors and sound, or altering the brightness. This mimics a perfectly normal action for games - adjusting things in the options to optimize or allow play. Still, it is specifically something the player does before they start. It is something that happens in that position between the game world and the real world.
Should you get this right, you'll be allowed a look into a bizarre realm, but not for very long before you find yourself back at the title screen again. When you try to start again, a new error will meet you. Maybe you realize what the game is about at this point. Maybe you wonder if you did something wrong, or get frustrated at the developer for creating what seems to be a poorly-programmed game. Either way, you press on, trying to figure out the new puzzle that's been set before you, whether you know it's a puzzle or not. Confusion at why the game 'won't work' pulls you back in.
Is it working properly, though? The errors all seem quite possible, which was a deliberate move for Garrido. "We take something familiar and turn it into a mystery, and that is the source of almost every human fear - the doubt of it being somehow real. The mystery of why that (error, glitch) happened, together with the feeling of being prohibited from something (playing), is what drives the player beyond their own aversion and into the game."
The errors all seem real enough that the game does seem that it could really just be crashing. The error messages are all carefully phrased to mimic real errors about visuals, sound, and other potential problems many players have seen before. It's very close to something that exists outside the game world itself. When a game goes into an error state, you are no longer playing it. You must do some outside action in order to get yourself back into the game's world again. In Calendula, you haven't left the game, creating this uncomfortable connection to the world outside of itself.
Games don't just boot you back to the title screen, either. A return to the title screen also means you have left the game world and are in that state where you cannot make progress. You're hovering on the precipice of beginning on a title screen - not in the middle of the game. So, every time the player gets that hint of gameplay and exploration in the game's narrative world when they solve an error puzzle, only to find themselves back at the title screen, they're left feeling like they're no longer in the game. They're still in the game, though, but feel as if they're in that outside world of reality again, tying the two together in the player's mind without them knowing it.
Something is wrong with that connection - something punctuated with small visual glitches and hidden messages that make it all feel sinister. "Glitches take something the player is used to and break it into unknown, eerie stuff." It's not that the glitch, in and of itself, is frightening. Many players use glitches in clever or unusual ways, ignoring visual and audio quirks to complete games quicker or do things the developer never intended (speed running a game, for example). It's that the glitch, recognized through audio, visual, or gameplay changes that don't seem in keeping with the rest of the game experience, are something the developer never intended.
A glitch is not a purposeful creation in a game world. It's something the player sees when they create a moment in a game the developer never planned for or intended. Everything else in the game has been created by the developer's specific intention, but a glitch is not. A glitch is the game, itself, trying to correct something when it was never built to do so. It is the game, itself, speaking for itself. So, when a player views a glitch, it is something strange and unusual. It is the game world enacting the will it was built with - temporarily, a living machine.
The glitches in Calendula are purposeful, but help solidify that sensation that, not only is something wrong with the game, but that the game is telling you something. It is something the developer never intended to show you, either, as glitches are rarely a purposeful thing (although they can be common in horror games or stories about creepy games). It strengthens that sense that the game is doing something its human masters never intended, and increases that worry that maybe the game IS reaching out into the real world. A game world is a construct of code that exists in reality, and a glitch is that game's real-world part reaching out to touch the player. Again, we see that connection between the real world and the game world blur.
The player is prompted into creating these glitches, though. "We wanted to provide the player with many subtle hints instead of a more straightforward approach. Our clues are hidden within the written story, error messages, puns, etc. There's also a bit of visual and audio feedback (almost imperceptible) that may help the player noticing that they are on the right path." says Garrido.
If clues and hints are pushing the player in the direction of creating these glitches, would that override the sense that the player is doing something outside of the developer's intention? If a glitch is purposeful, it's no longer a glitch. Still, a developer arguably seeks clarity in their work. They want the player to see a world and be able to act within it in ways they understand, even if they have to think hard or practice within it to gain that understanding. In Calendula, the appropriate action brings about a lack of clarity, creating more confusion and mystery.
In Calendula, players have to figure out how to play with every screen. The means to play it are always changing, requiring you mess with something different every time it returns you to the title screen. This screen, and the options within, do not change, either, giving very little hint that the player is making any kind of progress. "We decided to keep the menu as real as possible for the full course of the game instead of adding weird options for each level. That was a strong restriction since we had to design something fun, atmospheric and interesting around the most static and boring part of a game, the game menu." says Garrido.
The player is moving forward, but with little indication that they are doing so. A new phrase appears in a message the player can access from the title screen and the player gains access to a new, surreal vision when they get into 'the game', but none of that provides much clarity. There is no fanfare for reaching a new level, no save points (despite the game changing its available Load Game states when you return). Things are changing, to be sure, but the player lacks that clarity in knowing why their actions caused that change.
In most games, you beat an enemy, make a save, solve a puzzle, or do some action that translates to 'success' in the player's mind. The developer tends to put in some indication that these successes are noteworthy, rewarding the player with some fanfare, a message that they have reached or new stage, the presence of a save point, etc. The player is made very aware they have made progress, even if it is something as simple as beating a bunch of enemies and finding a quiet moment afterwards.
The message changing and new vision could do that for some players, and they could recognize that by altering the game's options they are making things move forward. Still, their rewards and indications are distorted. Glitches tell us we are doing something wrong. The strange visions take us through various corridors with no story beyond their bizarre visuals, then crash. Is the player somewhere further along, or somewhere that is simply different? There is progress, but it lacks that clear division that tells the player they are moving forward. They might think they are doing well, but they are never given enough information to be completely sure.
And again, they are also still in the menus. They have never actually entered the game proper, or at least haven't left a place between the game and reality. That play button hasn't really allowed them to mentally perceive themselves as an avatar in a game world. The game hasn't begun, and so, the player is still themselves in the real world, playing around with options to make their game work. Their game that seems to be speaking directly to them, creating a discomforting feeling that it is reaching out, telling them not to play the game. That there is something dark contained within it.
"We like the idea of people not being 100% sure if the game is working properly or if it has really crashed." says Garrido. Calendula seeks to keep the player off-guard and unsure, starting from a moment when the player still hasn't mentally transitioned into being a presence in a game's world. They likely never will make that jump as they're confounded by errors, bludgeoned by disturbing imagery, and hurled back to the title screen. Glitches whisper in your ear that you're progressing, but are you? The game hasn't started yet, has it? The only signs of progress are confusing, and hint at a game that is breaking down, not moving ahead.
Calendula skirts reality and a game world, leaving the player dizzied and unsure which they have entered. Have they come to play the game, or is the game desperate to play them?
Calendula is available for $6.99 on Steam (with a 15% discount for launch week). For more information on the game and Blooming Buds Studio, you can head to the game's site or follow them on YouTube and Twitter.