There’s been a lot of navel gazing going on in video games lately. Many recent titles have explored the role of the player, their relationship with developers, and subverted the conventions we’ve come to expect from games. The term meta is often used as a way of describing this type of self aware experience. Calendula, the new game from Blooming Bud Studios, ticks all the necessary boxes for the term to be applicable – intentionally deceptive menus, constant crashes and reboots, and breaking of the fourth wall. But it overlooks an important element. A game about games should reveal a truth about the medium and enable us to view that aspect from a new perspective. If this is the defining trait of a meta experience, Calendula doesn’t qualify, because for the most part I had no idea what the game was trying to say.

There are two distinct parts of Calendula. Most of our time is spent investigating a glitchy menu system, manipulating the options in unconventional ways. Doing so correctly is the key to unlocking “Calendula”, the experimental first person horror game that we’re trying to play. But “Calendula” apparently holds such a dark secret that it doesn’t want to be played.

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We’re presented with the main menu screen, and Calendula immediately screws with expectations – clicking on the new game option brings up an error window. “Calendula” can only be played by loading previous save files which require passwords to be accessed. Standard video game settings like screen resolution and audio sliders become the means of finding the game’s secret codes.

The task never becomes particularly challenging, not only because there are limited places to look for a solution, but because hints can be found in plain sight on the main menu screen. Under an effigial all-seeing eye (a required symbol to achieve Illuminati status) is a line of text which reads not only as a poetic musing, but a hint directing the player to the next solution. One clue expresses the importance of patience, for example, and it’s down to the player to discover how that concept can be demonstrated in-game. These hints make the process closer to solving logic riddles than complex puzzles. Each menu option can be exploited just once, so the process of elimination only makes it easier as the game progresses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as I find that games that rely heavily on mood and atmosphere are burdened by overly complex puzzles. While they may not be as satisfying as a result, they’re often inventive, clever and varied.

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By finding a password and accessing an existing save file, a sliver of “Calendula” can be played. In first person, the player moves languidly through dank, fleshy corridors before witnessing brief, disturbing vignettes straight out of an experimental arthouse film. These scenes supposedly hold the mysterious story of Calendula, but they’re so obfuscated that they serve only to disturb, not enlighten. Those looking for a coherent narrative will find very little, and attempting to draw meaning from the abstract images will likely yield something entirely of the player’s own creation. There’s also a lack of nuance. When Calendula stops being deliberately vague at the game’s finale, it becomes too obvious in its Freudian allegory. I was left wondering whether I’d managed to string together some semblance of a story based on the conclusion alone, and I strained to fit all the previous nonsense into that interpretation. If Calendula is trying to make a statement about video games, the best reading I can come up with is a satirical comment on narratives that are so deeply buried they become inaccessible. I doubt this was the intention.

Unfortunately there’s another factor working against Calendula, one that isn’t even a fault of the game. Earlier this year Pony Island was released, and the similarities between the two are impossible to ignore. Both are fourth-wall-breaking, interface-manipulating puzzle games with demonic aesthetics. As much as I tried to forget my experience with Pony Island and experience Calendula with fresh eyes, it was futile because so much of the same sleight of hand is used. The problem is that those tricks only work once. Perhaps if I’d played Calendula first I would feel differently about it, and certainly someone who hasn’t experienced Pony Island would find an enthusiasm for Calendula that I’m not able to.

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So we’re left with puzzles that are inventive but not terribly rewarding, a narrative that feels empty and pretentious, and ideas that have been better realised elsewhere. All of this would suggest that Calendula isn’t worth playing, but if you’re particularly invested in this kind of esoteric mind-fuck, it still probably is. It’s black and red visual style is classy and sharp, and the sound design is terrific; the haunting ambient noise and pulsating heartbeats go a long way in creating a sense of dread, and there’s no forced jump scares undermining the game’s well paced tension.

Calendula is a smart horror experience with some interesting puzzles, but it’s ultimately let down by a hollow narrative. I’m not sure why you’d really want to play the in-game “Calendula” when it gives so little. While it is quite original, it suffers from the misfortune of being the second self-referential meta game I’ve played this year. I would still recommend giving Calendula your time if you haven’t had enough of this type of subversive experience, and if you haven’t played Pony Island your experience may be far richer than mine. And if nothing else, Calendula will certainly feel fresher that the next game that draws from this same bag of tricks.

 

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • Again, this is why you cannot create art atop gimmicks. The gimmicks overshadow the art. And when a gimmick is successful it eventually runs out of steam. On the other hand it behooves us to look past the gimmicks, to be impartial, but maybe that is impossible, and maybe gimmickry is undeserving of our consideration in the first place.

    • Simon Rankin

      While I still disagree that the previous game we discussed relied too heavily on gimmickry, I’m willing to concede that in this case the word feels a little more appropriate.

      So we have two games that have done the the same thing. How is one successful and one not as much? As you said, it’s partially due to being exposed to that particular device, and it’s lost its impact. But I also think it’s because Pony Island’s metanarrative connects to the game’s mechanics. There’s a reason we are manipulating menus etc. that makes sense within the world, and it effects that world dynamically. In Calendula, it’s merely a mechanic for the sake of itself. It’s no different from pressing X to jump. It affects nothing within the narrative so it feels more like a gimmick.

      • You wrote more clearly about what the gimmick was in Pony Island. In this review what’s clear is that the order you played the games raises questions for you. I think this is useful for users who may find themself in the same boat. On the other hand if the product/work is being critiqued, then timing should not be a consideration … even under circumstances where a work may reference contemporary events, where timing might seem crucial, in theory, it shouldn’t matter.

        Video games are definitely beasts of gimmicks. They are advertised almost exclusively in terms of how their gimmicks measure up against every other game’s gimmicks. There are almost no examples of video games that are not first and foremost gimmick driven. I think if you looked at point-and-click adventure, that’s a genre that is largely free of gimmickry. It’s control scheme and interface is hardened. Its objectives and style of presentation are more or less what you expect, although in our highly self-referential “meme” driven culture, often gimmicks come in the form of outrageous content. In television and movies gimmicks are broadly situational, and its hard to divorce them from the plot itself. In books and music gimmicks are almost non-existent except in some cases aimed at younger readers/listeners.

        As we come to expect higher quality works from artists working within a particular medium, the gimmicks get pushed to the margins, and are considered the province of amateurs. Right now in video games is almost a post-classics era. In the days before the PlayStation 3 generation, there were recognizable classic titles, that largely drew upon narrative structure and the strength of their fictional worlds. The modes of play were nearly standardized. You could move from one title to the next fluidly, play more than one at the same time, without having your muscle memory thrown for a loop. The idea of a “classic” game has virtually disappeared from the landscape. But these older titles are still called classics. It’s not as if the meaning of the word has disappeared. Somehow beyond all this gimmickry there is a path back to the classics, and we’ll get there sooner or later, after a lot of growth, boredom, and courage. Minecraft feels like the only new classic game in 10yrs, and its not narrative driven at all. Not all classics were/are mind you. But a good narrative driven classic really fosters strong memories and feelings that are more akin to how we understand traditional media, versus purely active/esthetic activities and experiences.

        (IMO a real barrier to getting back there, is you need tools and resources that in this medium I believe will require collective activism. There is no real organization of this kind happening or developing. There needs to be games in volume, and to have volume the parts of the games have to be prefabricated, the character models and everything has to preexist, there has to be a common pool of resources, and the tools have to be of a certain standard as well. Right now there is still revulsion at the idea of seeing the same character models or props or anything from one video game in another video game, so there’s a cultural bulwark in the way of any change, never mind the technological challenges, Making video games is seen as a short term, corner cutting activity. No one really takes it seriously. So we cannot do what those big companies were able to do, given modest hardware to work with, in the form of realistic limitations that constrained them to producing recognizable classics in their day. We require volume because most of it will be chaff. People don’t like to think about that either. If you don’t have a robust and diverse medium, it will never amount to anything, and only a small percentage of the medium will be interesting, worth saving. If you just have a small number of artist making a small amount of product, of course it won’t be any good, no matter how much we try to butter it up. Ed Smith is good at writing about this I believe. It’s like those monkeys banging away at keyboards writing the collective works of Shakespeare, except it’s just a handful of monkeys working for a very short time, with slightly better implements than keyboards. This medium, or what it really is–information as representation–is exciting because it can make the materials of arts available to literally every human being on the planet. It’s a great equalizer. It’s pure digital media. But not if we do not take it very seriously, and act like we really want it.)

        I don’t want to be dismissive. But gimmicks should be recognized as a mark against a work of art. They’re not something to be exalted. My pet game is King’s Field. Its something almost no one knows about, but I think it’s probably the best 3D game yet. From Software dismissed it to develop Demon’s Souls. Its interesting because the Souls games are a good example of building a product off of a gimmick. How many other properties can actually include perpetual reincarnation as part of their feature set? Really there’s only room for one such game. And From Software has reskinned it for all its life many times over. But this isn’t the same company as From’s halcyon days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the company didn’t trust itself to tamper with its venerable King’s Field. It’s a property without gimmicks, that could be so much more than the Souls series. Its where the company’s mascot (the Moonlight Sword) comes from. But it doesn’t even trust itself to mess around with that anymore. And IMO its probably for hte best, because they really put their foot in on the PlayStation 2 King’s Field title, but they did alright with their other main series, Armored Core on the PS2, and it survived onto the PS3, until they tried to make it just like Dark Souls in AC:V and probably succeeded in burying it forever. But King’s Field and Armored Core I think will be the first public domain properties (the company made a product for Windows called Sword of Moonlight: King’s Field Making Tool in 1999/2000) so all is probably for the best.

        Sorry for the long comment.