As I’ve pointed in the past, I’ve never seen the expression “walking simulator” as a fully negative. It’s one of the designations that started out as an insult, and eventually grew to describe a whole new genre pretty well. Whether or not “walking simulator” is a mean thing to call a game really comes down to your tone of voice when you say it.
Some of these walking sims are pretty spare when it comes to game mechanics, allowing the story to speak for itself. Others, however, allow the gamer a little more interactivity. How much this interactivity actually affects the world around you, however, is usually up for debate with these kinds of games. And Scanner Sombre is definitely one of the latter games.
Scanner Sombre was released this year by Introversion Software, the same folks who brought us Prison Architect. This experience, however, could not be less like Prison Architect if it was a twenty foot tall cow that you plugged your Gameboy into.
No, Scanner Sombre is an exploration experience, with an interesting gimmick. Early on you equip a headset that looks suspiciously like a VR headset, and arm yourself with the titular scanner. You’re exploring what appears to be a series of caves and mines deep beneath the earth, and you use your scanner to fire multicolored pinpoints of light and coat the world around you, allowing you to figure out where you are and how to get around. As you explore, you learn more about your protagonist, and what this impromptu spelunking session is all about.
Scanner Sombre’s best and worst moments both come from the same source: your scanner.
On the positives, the aesthetic of the game is genuinely striking. It can be really gorgeous: spraying the cave walls with rainbow colored light like a reverse car wash, revealing the path in front of you piece by piece. It sets up a terrific atmosphere that can be awe-inspiring, frightening, and even a little claustrophobic.
On the other hand, that same mechanic makes for some frustrating moments. It’s easy enough to get turned around in an exploration game when you can make out your surroundings perfectly well. But having that problem when you’re constantly scanning the room around you makes for some baffling, motion-sickness inducing moments. There are upgrades for your scanner that you can find as you go which eliminates some of that hassle, but I’m not sure why we need to upgrade anything in a game that takes an hour and half to beat.
But my least favorite thing about Scanner Sombre had to be the storyline. Walking simulators like this one tend to have story at the very top of their to-do list. But Scanner Sombre story is threadbare and confusing. And not because it’s overly complex. It’s not. The story starts eluding to the idea that you’re some sort of explorer. You investigate the sites of some sort of ancient race that used to dwell in long forgotten temples. It’s promising, to begin with. At times, it feels like a straight up horror game. But in the end, you get an incredibly overused twist ending tacked onto a conclusion that doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with the earlier plot.
If there’s more to the storyline than meets the eye, by the end of Scanner Sombre I didn’t really care to piece it together. Scanner Sombre has some charm to it. At times, it’s gorgeous and atmospheric. But it isn’t enough to make me want to go through it again, even if it was blessedly short.
In a year that brought us What Remains Of Edith Finch, we don’t really need games that put their toe in their genre’s water any more. We need stronger decisions. Scanner Sombre is not a bad game: not really. But it feels weak in comparison to other options that are out there.