When I was a little girl back in the ‘90s, my dad would often take me along with him on his weekly visits to his favorite computer store. As he perused the shelves and pondered upon various parts to tinker with later, I spent all my time on the store’s trial computer featuring the latest and greatest video games. Featuring a video game is a great way to showcase a computer’s graphics, sound, and speed capabilities, and no title was able to perform this task quite like Myst – released in 1993, this feat of technological advancement had stunningly immersive environments and fairly complex puzzles – at least, complex to a 6 year old. Although I never could figure out how to progress in Myst, it was just so beautiful and engaging that I still remember it as the first game that “blew me away”. Even though I haven’t played it for a few decades, I still think about how hauntingly mesmerizing Myst was and how it captured my curiosity at such a young age. Perhaps this was why I was so drawn to POLLEN, a sci-fi mystery thriller initially designed for Occulus Rift, as it seems to have taken inspiration from this classic, enchanting title.
POLLEN starts out in an alternate universe that deviates from our own begining in 1963.
In our universe, President Kennedy was assassinated, but in this universe, he survives unscathed. His survival appears to have set off a chain of events that differ wildly from our universe, such as the US and the USSR combining their efforts into space exploration and achieving the first joint voyage to the moon in 1969. The countries then band together over the next few decades and focus completely on space exploration, leaving computers in the hands of scientists, not fit for personal consumption. By 1993, humanity has established bases on various celestial bodies throughout the solar system, conquering the moons of the great gas giants Saturn and Jupiter.
We begin in 1995 – after answering a series of questions designed to be a job application of sorts, we’re assigned a new job to begin immediately: it appears we’re to head to one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, to begin our new assignment as a technical engineer. All goes seemingly well until an unnatural storm hits, glitching across the sky and sending debris crashing into our helmet. We must act quickly before we suffocate from the breach (yes, you can die in this game) – following the red lights that illuminate the way to the base will ensure safety from the storm.
The base should be inhabited by a 5 person crew, but no one seems to be answering attempts to communicate.
Strangely, there’s a uniform on the floor with other equipment strewn about the place – as if a body had collapsed, deflated, and then mysteriously vanished. Upon walking closer to it, the helmet lying next to it shakes violently and the glitches appear again. Picking it up and manipulating it transports us to another alternate universe; only this time, the setting is the same, but the base has gone dark. Electricity has been cut, everything is haphazardly cluttered throughout the base, and no one is in sight. The only signs of life ever existing at the base are a series of recorded tapes: messages intended for the rescuers to give details as to what happened to the missing crew.
The mission now becomes clear – figure out where the team has disappeared to and what’s caused their sudden absence through a series of puzzles. Clues are hidden throughout the two realms through audio tapes, photos, and notes left by team members. The hints are not easy – there’s no hand-holding here – and progression is only available through detailed exploration of the environments.
While not much is explained about the setting, information can be gleaned from the clues. Most of the initial tidbits come from a scientist named Karen, who has left several audio tapes to give a better insight to what’s happened to the base. Essentially, there is an “Entity” that the team had been studying, and it appears to have been dangerous. Karen talks about how she’s afraid of it, yet can’t seem to avoid it forever. The other team members also voice their concerns – notes on tabletops indicate that there were three separate plans to destroy this “Entity”, but all of them were crossed out, meaning they either didn’t work or the team decided against them. Pressing onwards reveals that Karen, one of the apparent last survivors, was slowly being driven insane as she continued her boss’s research alone into eternity; part of her to-do list included breathing, sleeping, and, finally, dying. All of this somehow ties into the bees that circle the ceiling, leaving a trail of teal dust in their wake. Perhaps the bees, the team’s disappearance, and this “Entity” are somehow related; only progressing further and further into the base will reveal whether or not such a connection exists.
As I played, I couldn’t help but get sucked into this atmosphere.
The environment is eerie – you notice that people are supposed to be there and you feel their absence tremendously. The music and environment sounds are flawless – the music only appears at key moments and is used as a tool to indicate that you are on the right track. The graphics are perfect and feature a simple yet pleasing aesthetic that makes the most out of current technology, really adding to the immersion factor. One of the best parts is that pretty much every object can be interacted with in some way – every piece of paper can be picked up, you can take selfies with the polaroid camera…you can even play darts or shoot some hoops in the base gym. In fact, taking the time to discover all the things you can do in the game is probably the most fun thing about it – my personal favorites were the computer game (where you can enter your name if you beat the high score) and the perfectly-timed photo of a cat knocking over a mug found lying on the floor.
The mood is perhaps the selling point to POLLEN – the strange, depressing, and somehow mesmerizing environment paired with Karen’s dark descent into madness made me want to know everything about this poor woman and her situation. I truly hoped I would run into her at some point and save her from her own mind; simultaneously, I constantly felt as if I was intruding – as if I was a stranger in a home that was not my own, a place I did not belong. I literally had to keep telling myself that this was a game and that the point of all this was to thoroughly explore other people’s personal and private belongings. It was truly an exercise in the bizarre that was so incredibly enjoyable, piquing my curiosity from start to finish.
Playing POLLEN took me back to my childhood days of attempting Myst and its seemingly unsolvable puzzles. I felt so happy to be able to take a stab at this genre with a more developed brain and better critical thinking skills than I had 20 years ago. POLLEN builds upon the timeless classic in a deep and stimulating way that had me hooked for hours on end. There is no replay value whatsoever, but that is the nature of the design of this genre and not the game itself. One consolation is that this is not a game that can be easily breezed through (so long as you don’t watch what other people do or say online), so the play value the first time around is extremely high, negating the non-existent replay value aspect. This is a flawless masterpiece that is a warmly welcomed addition to the mystery genre that will be sure to easily capture your interest as it did mine.