In my review of Pneuma, I briefly mention my discomfort with the “juxtaposition between the writing in Pneuma and the gameplay.” Although I do not go into great detail concerning this concept, I feel as though it’s important to discuss it further as it may also be applied to other games.
To briefly get you up to speed, Pneuma features the birth of a narrator that goes on to question the meaning of existence while solving puzzles that hinder physical progression. Throughout the game, the focal points of the narration are philosophical questions surrounding the narrator’s embodiment, meaning, motivation, isolation, solipsism, control, and other queries.
Before discussing the writing further, I would like to say that I actually enjoy a large portion of it. Much of the narration can be relatable to the player in that the philosophical questions are similar to those we may ask ourselves. I find the writing stimulating, palatable, and thought provoking. For me, it endorses consideration such as existence beyond perception, control beyond the tangible, and meaning beyond a definitively limited perspective.
In saying that, I will admit that the writing could come across as pompous to some (as this often happens when philosophy is broached without a direct association with humor). I say this to highlight the complexity of the concepts explored. The feeling of pretention heightens as concepts such as quantum physics are referenced in passing. Some will find it obscure and dismiss those references, while it will possibly inspire others to delve deeper. Personally, I don’t mind this aspect. I don’t find pretention to be a bad thing when done well.
Where I find fault with the writing is within its near complete contradiction with the gameplay regarding cognitive exertion. Although the fundamental theory that contributes to the design of the puzzles correlates with the overarching narrative within the game, the primary inconsistency between the two facets regards their complexity. Some of the narration, as indicated above, inspires meaningful, philosophical introspection. It stirs up emotions that are tightly interwoven with an individual’s ethical and moral center. It poses questions surrounding the meaning of existence, varying perceptions of the same reality, and illusory control and superiority. The subject-matter is fascinating and cognitively stimulating.
The problem is that the majority of the puzzles are not. They, in my opinion, not only venture far away from complexity, but are severely simplistic. I believe the primary contributor to this flaw is that many of them are one-dimensional. This is evident by the fact that solving each puzzle consists of figuring out its initial “gimmick.” Once the player discovers the one facet to solve the puzzle, executing this task is often incredibly easy/simple (and sometimes trivial). As a result, there is very little challenge.
In an attempt to further explain, let’s look at specific examples. The following two examples contain one of my favorite instances of the game followed by one I loathed; both take place in Chapter 4. The first puzzle (shown below) consists of using the onscreen perspective to activate switches that open and close three gates located in a room. The goal of the puzzle is to open all three gates in order for a beam of light to strike a focal point allowing the player to proceed to the next puzzle.
The reason I enjoy the puzzle is because the solution is less obvious than for others. Aspects that have to be considered included multiple lines of sight, multiple switches, player movement, reaching certain perspectives, opening/closing multiple gates at once, etc. I wouldn’t consider it especially difficult, but it demands some thought and consideration. Personally, I felt satisfaction upon completing the puzzle that was aided by the mild suspense of wondering if my strategy would work or not.
The accompanying narration in this scene is also thought provoking as it questions the “limited amount of states in this world.” The narrator is discussing binary quantization regarding physical limitations presented in the world of which the narrator exists. It’s also an observation concerning the limitations within the puzzles of which the player must complete to progress in the game. It’s writing that requires either specific knowledge of the subject matter or extensive research relating to the concepts discussed to fully understand.
If we look at both the task asked of the player and the associated narration, we begin to see parallels regarding a means of understanding. To comprehend both the commentary and the puzzle, requirements asked of the player include analysis/research, contemplation, adjustment of perspective, then execution for the puzzle and comprehension for the narration. This allows the two aspects to complement one another. Unfortunately, this is a rarity for Pneuma.
To look at how the majority of the puzzles typically do not align with the writing in this fashion, we need to look no further than the very next puzzle (shown above). As the narrator continues to debate quantum physics, even referencing Planck’s constant, the player is required to turn five pieces of a tower to face the same direction and look at all five pieces to progress. That’s it. The puzzle barely aligns with the commentary provided for this specific section but the bigger fault comes from the fact that the puzzle resembles a benign task or afterthought, especially when compared to the commentary.
Not only does this demonstrate poor pacing regarding gameplay, as there is clear difficulty regression, but it nearly completely voids the creativity of the previous puzzle. During my playthrough, I was astounded at the time. It hit me so hard I entered the next room and analyzed what I had experienced before proceeding. There was no effort required, no cognitive exertion, and certainly no revelation. This was only compounded as the next few puzzles mimicked this simplicity. To see what the game was capable of only to have the rug pulled out from under me was frustrating and disappointing.
This ongoing feeling of dissonance is magnified by the fact that, while most of the puzzles contain astute references to the overarching message(s), I find occasional fault in consistency within this concept. I do not believe every puzzle needs to align with the writing entirely, but the problem arises when there appears to be no link between the two. I understand that a particular puzzle deals with perspective to accompany the narration concerning solipsism, but why then is the player asked to erect a staircase for a puzzle while the narrator discusses isolation and companionship? It’s during these types of tasks in which I believe the occasional dissonance between storytelling and gameplay becomes increasingly apparent. It isn’t something that happens frequently, but it certainly stands out.
Another problem I have with the link between the writing and the gameplay is that some of the references included within puzzles are somewhat trivial. Discussion of lightness and darkness sometimes results in the use of light and dark panels; a comment of “trudging” through the subconscious leads to following a set path. It is great that the design relates directly to the commentary but it’s no more meaningful for the connection or experience, particularly when it feels forced.
There are things about Pneuma that make me really want to cheer for it and inspire a desire to feel better about my experience. I love the concept of games that push the typical boundaries set in place by many shoot-em-ups and tackle more complicated subject matter. There are a lot of great subjects that are touched by the game without providing definitive commentary. It’s as though the game wishes to pose questions but isn’t designed to answer them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a part of me that wants these deeper questions/issues to be the face of video games rather than writing that could be considered primitive.
Unfortunately, Pneuma does this at the expense of its own experience due to the oversimplification of gameplay and puzzle design. It feels as though the writing is intended for a professor, while the required tasks are intended for his/her students. Although this may not be damning for some, it certainly hindered my time spent with the game.
In regard to this feeling of a fractured experience, I believe Pneuma is a great example of how dissonance between various aspects of a game can be a detriment to the final product. Although Pneuma does a satisfactory job with marrying narration and puzzle design on a fundamental level, the game would have served as a more cohesive experience if the cognitive and physical demands associated with the two concepts would have paralleled one another.