The best horror draws on the real world for its frights. It capitalizes on our innate fear of clowns. Alien relies on our terror of the unknown. Silent Hill 2 would be nothing without humanity’s widespread phobia of men with pyramids for heads.
Thus it is that Calendula, the debut release from Spanish indie studio Blooming Buds, finds for its focus the inherent fright in PC game configuration menus. I can see you’re shivering uncontrollably already.
Billed as “a game that doesn’t want to be played,” Calendula creates a nifty little puzzle game mechanic out of the process of just trying to get the bloody (literally) thing to run. Every attempt to start a new game is thwarted by some fresh error – from video configuration problems, to full up memory slots, to an occasional stubborn, unexplained refusal to do anything useful at all.
Each error sends me diving through menus in hunt of a solution. A video problem, you say? Well, video settings it is then. Oh, there’s a ‘Mirror Image’ mode? That’s… odd. I wonder what that does. OK, it inverts my image. Should have seen that one coming really. Except now my controls are screwed up. Into the control settings then…
Enough tinkering offers the chance to load up an existing save game file – the reward for my work. A brief, friendly jaunt through a jarring, low-res horror nightmare landscape later and I’m back, staring at a main menu I’m to become all too familiar with, wondering what will go wrong next.
I’m quickly transported to memories of long nights of the soul spent staring at settings, delving into config files, scouring ‘help’ forums for solutions to seemingly intractable bugs. It’s the price of PC gaming, the cost of dumping my savings into a custom-build desktop rather than a nice, safe, predictable console.
Calendula taps right into that wave of panic and uncertainty that accompanies loading any PC game up for the first time, that nagging worry that you won’t be able to just play it – you’ll need a driver update, or you’ll have to fiddle with the anti-aliasing settings (and try to learn what anti-aliasing is all over again), or delve deep into the Windows registry to tweak some file that may or may not have lasting and wide-reaching repercussions across your PC. All the fun stuff, basically.
At first then, Calendula’s trawl through menus and options and checkboxes is more frightening than any of its jarring, choppy cutscenes could ever be. Accompanied by the sort of background music you expect would play in an Umbrella Corp elevator after the latest outbreak, there’s a persistent tone of lurid dread. It’s horror without any sense of danger, or threat, simply playing on an anxiety every PC gamer shares.
Until I start to win.
There’s a rhythm to Calendula’s puzzles, a language I begin to understand. I learn to spot the menu options that don’t quite fit in, I keep track of which I’ve used and which I haven’t. Before long I’m picking out the key words from the game’s regular, unavoidable clues, and using them to guess the solution before I’ve even encountered the problem. I begin to worry that I’m moving through the game too quickly, and by the time I’m done my suspicion is confirmed – it takes me just 35 minutes to complete Calendula, trouncing Blooming Buds’ estimate of an hour to an hour and a half of playtime.
It’s a problem for any game to be too easy, but for Calendula it’s crippling. In drawing on PC troubleshooting for its inspiration, it’s creating a comparison to the sort of puzzles that would leave philosophy faculties tearing their hair out. Logic has no place there, as programs with no possible connection prove to be incompatible, old drivers show themselves to be superior to new, where the solution is usually the first thing you tried, which absolutely, 100%, definitely didn’t work when you tried it last time.
For all of its trussed up delusions of insanity, Calendula just makes too much sense to survive the comparison. At points it begins to feel more like a fantasy than a nightmare, a vision of a beautiful world where there’s one simple fix for every software glitch, where you never have to re-install, reboot or update.
Somehow Calendula takes the horrors of PC gaming and lessens them. It’d be like if Pennywise did nothing more threatening than hand out balloons, or Pyramidhead just wanted to come over and say hi – he’d be less frightening than that creepy prism-topped guy down the street with the ceramic knife collection, when he absolutely needs to be more.
Every horror villain needs to be beaten, to show our subconscious that it’s possible to overcome our fears, conquer our anxieties. The xenomorph is blasted out of the airlock, Pennywise is revealed to be a giant space spider and killed, and I honestly have no idea what happens to Pyramidhead, but I bet he gets it somehow. The point is, winning needn’t lesson our terror, so long as that victory is hard-fought, a struggle that reminds us just how close we came to losing – and maybe even leaves the possibility that we still might yet. That’s how I feel every time I wrangle a game into basic functionality, and it’s a feeling Calendula never quite grasps.