Nihilumbra - A Pleasant Little Depression Factory
Nihilumbra first appears as yet another 2D puzzle platformer in a long line of indie games trying to follow the successes of Braid and Limbo from years back. Once the game begins, it’s quite clear those assumptions are not without reason, but diving deeper reveals a much bolder game with grander ambitions than the typical modern sidescroller.
The player controls a creature named “Born” as it escapes an empty void into the physical world. As Born progresses, a narrator will explain the futility of the whole affair. The narrator insists the void will relentlessly chase Born down as the “the void must be one.” The narrator argues the world is harsh and doesn’t care what the fate of Born will be. The narrator repeats Born is not a part of the physical world and cannot live there. Born is nothing. It’s all pointless. Born will die. Nihilumbra, as its name suggests, is a game about Nihilism – a philosophy asserting the meaninglessness of life.
The message is presented in a brutally heavy handed way. It has the subtlety of a hammer slamming on a nail. Perhaps some will find this off-putting, but the decision to forgo nuance results in a gut wrenching emotional conflict between Born and the narrator. As Born moves through the world in spite of the harsh rhetoric, the narrator can be seen as Born’s internal doubt. Progressing through the world feels like an accomplishment, not only for overcoming obstacles, but for overcoming the narrator’s negativity. Eventually, the narrator will admit Born is putting up a good fight. One of the best scenes is early on, when a set of obstacles tests Born’s physical abilities. Born is not strong enough, nor quick enough, but maybe - maybe Born is smart enough.
The Nihilistic philosophy of the narrator is constantly undermined throughout the adventure. The narrator will present a point in their favor, and quickly offer a counterpoint, countering that point, and then countering it again. The narrator argues with itself, and can be seen as a debate inside Born’s head. While the always in pursuit void is a threat, doubt and anxiety within Born are the central conflicts.
The narrator, while maintaining the end is nigh, provides tons of encouragement to push Born and the player onwards. It offers assurances just as much as it offers doubt. It’s never an unlikable presence and more often than not feels like a good friend and ally. As Born comes across and absorbs elemental powers, the narrator will instruct on how to use them. The elements themselves are typical of this type of game. There is slippery ice, bouncy grass, and destructive lava. Sand and Electricity are the stand outs. With Electricity, the player can create currents sending power to contraptions like elevators and turrets. Sand is the most versatile of them all, allowing the player to slow enemies, withstand fierce winds, stick to walls, and silence footsteps. The narrator will also take the time to explain various enemies around the world. Some chase, some shoot, some will erase elemental powers, and other just suck … quite literally.
The game is masterfully paced, presenting these abilities one at a time, but not spending very much time with a single element on its own. The game follows a formula where it teaches an element in a safe tutorial, then asks the player to use the element by itself, and finally tasks the player with using the element in conjunction with previously learned abilities. There is always a feeling of progress and of learning something new with every scenario. Again, there is nothing completely unique about the gameplay, but it is well executed.
The only blemishes to the game are tedious chase sequences in which the Void has found Born and attempts to reabsorb them. These moments are used as an equivalent of boss battles, happening at the end of an act and requiring mastery of that acts new mechanics. Nihilumbra’s puzzles are clever, but are never a challenge. As such, the problem with these battles is twofold. Often the puzzles are too easy to solve, leaving Born to wait on the camera to move forward. Alternatively, the full breadth of a puzzle isn’t unveiled quick enough and can’t be completed in a timely fashion resulting in a frustrating death. These sequences are only a small portion of the game, but are definitely its weakest points.
The games real strengths rarely come from the gameplay by itself, but rather how the powers, enemies, and puzzles blend beautifully with the story being told. As Born gains new abilities, it becomes clear they are becoming more attached to the world around them than they are to the void giving chase. The narrator notes, Born was nothing when it left the void, but through these learned abilities has definitely become something. With this revelation, the game shifts from being a dramatic depression factory into a somewhat uplifting criticism of Nihilism.
What Nihilumbra does is nothing extraordinary, but it wraps itself in a protective blanket of rich atmosphere and tastefully direct writing perfect for the moody teenager in all of us. Its story and gameplay meld seamlessly with excellent music and art to create a completely cohesive vison throughout its entirety. Nihilumbra knows what it is, isn’t ashamed of it, and performs with a high grade of quality.