In the mid 1980s, a strange fear took root in American culture. Popular culture of each new generation is always met with some scepticism from older folks, but this was different: People were legitimately scared that Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and heavy metal music were turning their children into Satanists. Spurred on by some highly suspect scientific studies and the unfortunate (unrelated) death of a D&D player, the fear of children being abused or corrupted by the media morphed into an outright panic. This volatile situation had a strong effect on video games of the time, with anything depicting religious imagery either altered for the Western release or never brought over at all. Dungeons & Dragons wiped all references to demons, and any music with a hint of questionable themes was plastered with an explicit content warning.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, however, the movement was losing steam. While a few holdouts still believed in a secret network of all powerful Satanists, most understood that the tastes of the youth were simply changing, as every generation’s does. With restrictions loosened, an era of gory, disturbing games began, looking to push every boundary. Doom decorated every wall with viscera, and Phantasmagoria had an extremely off-putting end for those unable to solve its puzzles. Estigma feels like an echo of that boundary-pushing era, a dedication to gore that goes further than a splatter of blood. Each level of this free puzzler is a strange, nightmarish world that invites you to venture ever further into an abyss.
The basics for progressing through Estigma are straightforward: move over every square on the screen before time runs out. Running through the fleshy maze does not stay simple for long, however. If the protagonist steps on a square twice it becomes blocked off, and a variety of enemies make it harder again to step on every tile unharmed. Giant hypodermic needles descend from the sky, damaging one square and obscuring the vision of others. Exploding fetuses send projectiles in four directions, and an enormous spider with human teeth chases the player across the map. Metallic panels erupt upon being touched, so the player must choose their step very carefully.
Playing Estigma is an assault on the senses, but the game is so much more than a vehicle for bizarre imagery. The game’s difficulty curve is steep — I was stuck on the toothy spider level for a good half hour — but each mechanic is used cleverly. Certain maps have a brain power-up that gives the player an extra point of health, but on occasion that health must be used on the puzzle itself, a method to cross an exploding trap. One area might require the player to constantly run the whole time, but the next could switch to smaller, precise movements. The game is Pac-Man pushed to the extreme, the most monstrous of maze crawlers.
While the tough gameplay eventually clicked with me, I do think the game could use an easier difficulty mode. Two are included, affecting how much time you have for each puzzle, but a mode without a timer at all would still be sufficiently challenging. Scores are determined by how fast a level is finished, so talented players would still get recognition for their achievement and newcomers would have incentive to improve. Also, given the initial high difficulty curve, adding the ability to remap keys could help new players get the hang of things. The game uses the arrow keys for movement, but like many players I find WASD more comfortable.
The main campaign of Estigma is 10 levels long, but upon completion further mysteries await. A series of codes unlocks more gameplay within the game’s files. I found this section interesting but felt it clashed with the main game. The mechanic of finding passwords for ZIP files is a good idea, but when I entered the wrong code into WinRAR I got a checksum error, which made me think something was wrong with the installation rather than not having the right code. I figured it out eventually, but a good deal of time was wasted re-downloading both the game and other compression tools.
The tone of the extra content is quite different too: still creepy, but all about deciphering codes rather than reflexes and spatial awareness. I believe the end section is unrelated to the story of the main game, which is a bit of a disappointment. I have theories about what was going on in Estigma — a vision of hell or purgatory, the creation of life, some kind of horrific experiment — but the secret content seems to be about another game entirely. A bit more information about what I achieved in the adventure, if anything, would have been good.
Estigma‘s unusual visual style is what first drew me to the game, and the effect is even more intense in play. The whole world is red and throbbing, a pixelated filter softening the edges of the grotesque. In later levels the effect is overwhelming, with needles flying back and forth and gun-toting Jesus balloons floating across the screen. Each screen has a lot to take in but never feels unfair; each enemy has a specific pattern and the blobby protagonist moves consistently. The feeling of descent is amplified by the soundtrack, a twisted thumping tone that fits perfectly.
Estigma is a most unusual combination of feverish, frightening visuals and snappy puzzle gameplay. The journey through the hellscape is most satisfying, and an entire side-game is included for those who enjoy decrypting codes. For more mind-bending experiences, developer Vikintor has a range of horror-themed delights on their itch.io page.
Next week we will be playing Press Any Button, an arcade game about an AI trying to build a video game. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.