Search the internet for “what if JFK was never assassinated” and you’ll find a plethora of theories – elaborate imaginings of alternate history. Many of them have to do with The Warren Commission, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam, but the two most popular theories involve The Cold War and the space program. One of those theories goes like this: after working with Nikita Khrushchev to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons arsenal, a long-lasting friendship forms between Kennedy and Khrushchev, leading to a joint space program and colonizing Mars by 1986. Enter P.O.L.L.E.N.
In P.O.L.L.E.N’s alternate history, Kennedy survived his assassination attempt unharmed. The USA and USSR combine their efforts in space exploration in 1967. They publicize their findings, release their patents, and make the first joint voyage to the moon. By 1970, four large companies that built themselves up from those original patents combine to form the space exploration conglomerate RAMA Industries. By 1985, Earth has anti-gravity technology, and we’ve colonized other planets. There’s a huge explosion on Jupiter’s moon Europa that kills everyone except for one person in 1992, and the following year we put people on a new base on Saturn’s moon, Titan, because of some awesome discovery.
An interesting twist on this alternate history is that computers do not become a part of daily life. Imagine Bill Gates creating computer technology for space craft – there could still be a Cortana, but maybe she would function more like the computer on the Enterprise D, not like a virtual personal assistant. No personal computer technology by the mid-80s could also mean – gasp – no video games! No P.O.L.L.E.N!
Now that I have created a time paradox of sorts (Great Scott!), I should just press-on to all the wonderful details in this alternate world Mindfield Games has created.
SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read if you have not finished the game.
Some fun facts about Titan: it’s Saturn’s largest moon, and scientists believe that conditions on Titan are similar to Earth’s early years. Methane cycles as a solid, a liquid, and a gas, just as water does here on Earth. Its mass is composed mainly of water in the form of ice and rocky material, but something about its atmosphere remains a mystery. Because methane is broken down by sunlight, scientists believe there is another source that replenishes what is lost. One potential source of methane is volcanic activity, but this has yet to be confirmed.
As if signing a multiple-year contract with RAMA to work thousands of light years away from your family wasn’t isolating enough, the theme of isolation runs through the lives of characters Karen, Vasili, and you, the player.
For Karen, there is the pain of her husband’s death combined with being too far away from her children. Her work, her daily tasks of repairing or building things, is all that can bring her any real measurable amount of joy simply because it takes her mind off the loss she feels. She’s emotionally isolated. There’s a bit of support from Vasili, but he can only give so much because he is working through his own stuff, too.
To make matters worse, Karen becomes literally isolated by reasons that are never fully explained, just alluded to. She’s stuck in time – the worst kind of groundhog day. Her circadian rhythm is thrown off, so she can only estimate how much time has passed. The research base has lost all power. The search for basic entertainment like a book becomes a daunting task, as she ends up manually rewiring the door to the library. The only thing keeping Karen going is recording her ordeal on cassette tape and finding entertainment wherever she can get it. And hope – hope that someone will come to her rescue.
Vasili was the only survivor from the Europa explosion. While he was lauded as a hero for bringing back crucial data from their mission, he questions why he had to survive. He was only briefly isolated in Europa, left to find a way to survive and wait for help, but a few years later his survivor’s guilt is still emotionally isolating him. He is the only one at the research base that has no family to speak of, no deep connection to another person. He tries with Karen, but it appears to be out of an empathetic desire to help rather than emotionally connect.
You become isolated too after a storm knocks out the communications that you just helped restore. After shutting yourself inside the base’s airlock, your only option is to unravel the mystery of the Entity and the chaos it’s caused to the researchers. As you move between alternate timelines, your isolation mirrors Karen’s. As you get closer to finding the Entity yourself, you realize there is only one way out of this place: death. Do we all die alone?
Excluding Vasili, all the other characters have on-going familial matters. Karen has lost her husband and now must somehow raise her two children while stationed on Titan. (Thank goodness for grandparents!) Amy and Philip want to start a family of their own but are finding it difficult to conceive. And Ion’s relationship with his father seems to be somewhat dysfunctional. Their families are a source of joy and a burden at times.
One question that I kept asking myself throughout the game was “is Karen’s timeline a representation of the afterlife?” In one of her recordings, she says “I think this must be hell. I envy those in hell who end up with other people.” Again, the isolation theme is playing out here, but what about the afterlife itself? We don’t really know why Karen is in limbo, but maybe she really did die in the normal timeline, and her limbo is some kind of purgatory where she needs to let go of her life in order to pass on. It’s up to the player to interpret.
Karen Kowalski is a Lead Technician and a mother of two (Jessica and Ethan) who is still trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. He passed away two years earlier from an incurable illness. A book, “How to Handle Loss,” is among her personal possessions. Her medical records indicate that she has been suffering from stress and family issues. Letters to her children back at their home on Earth show how much she misses them, and that they are a major driving force for her will to survive in the alternate timeline.
We’re introduced to Karen when she’s at her worst. It’s been about a year, as she estimates, since she was plunged into whatever-the-heck realm she’s in, holding out hope for a rescue and for something to eat and drink other than RAMA bars and RAMA beer. She’s broken out of the air lock, but it doesn’t provide her with any answers she’s looking for. She blames the “Entity” in the cave for her predicament, for the year of solitude and loneliness.
Throughout the base, you’ll find messages to herself and others scratched in blank ink on various surfaces. On a task sheet, she’s written reminders herself to do simple things – eat, drink, breathe…die. On a wall on the second floor of the lab, she’s scrawled RAMA over and over again into a tight cluster. In her recordings, she details how she pops sleeping pills to numb the pain. At some point, she took an astronaut suit and placed in a sitting positing on a bench. You’ll find a photograph of her husband wedged between the rim and the glass of the helmet and a recording of herself talking to her deceased husband, promising that she’ll take the elevator down to the bottom of the cave to confront the Entity. She realizes she needs to die to save herself from the psychological burden of losing everything dearest to her.
Amy Pohl is the Operation Director of the base, an Astrobiologist, and wife of Philip Pohl. In her recordings about her plant and bee experiment, she notices that the Entity is affecting the flowers’ growth; their reproductive rate increased by 115 percent. If the Entity has that kind of effect on flowers, maybe it can have the same effect on vertebra creatures. Along with a negative pregnancy test result and that notation in her recording, it seems that her and Philip have fertility issues. Amy hypothesizes that maybe the Entity could increase their chances of conception if it is affecting the flowers in a similar manner.
In another tape, she hints that Karen possibly committed suicide; she had been missing for two weeks, and the only evidence of her disappearance were her clothes laying on a platform in the cave. Other documents penned by Amy reveal that no one on the base believed her to be self-destructive. However, according to a post-it note, Vasili completed Karen’s post-mortem, so I assume they found her body at some point. Amy doesn’t understand nor really believe Karen would commit suicide; she has children, and as a woman longing to be a mother herself, seems to believe that children should be a reason – if not the only reason – to want to stay alive. It all comes down to the Entity. She wises up to Vasili’s pleas to end the research and sees the Entity for what it is.
Philip Pohl is an Astrophysicist who decorates his room with research notes and diplomas that shout his academic achievements. His personality is a bit more closed off than his wife – more logical, more cautious – but like the others, he doesn’t underestimate the eerie power of the Entity. He discovers that the Entity itself is older than the bedrock, and then it becomes something that can’t be explained away by science.
Vasili Romancheck is the Chief Medical Officer and sole survivor of the Europa explosion. He is able to offer Karen some guidance in self-conducted therapy, as he is still trying figure out how to deal with survivor’s guilt himself. His therapies include recording his personal thoughts and drawing, but it’s the drawings that are most telling: people drowning in the ocean while one man watches from the safety of his own ship as theirs burns in the distance; a small sketch of Europa with a pill in the lower left-hand corner of the paper reading, “Europa, you took so much away from me, but I still find myself missing you;” two dead bodies, one a skeleton, each inside their own coffin labeled Europa; darkness circles around a man who appears to be hugging a child; Dr. Romancheck being attacked by serpent-like monsters.
He’s also a smoker. His notes in the medical bay have cigarette burns on them, and there’s a no smoking sign on the wall – what a rebel.
Vasili believes that the Entity is elevating hormone levels in everyone to cause extreme cases of homesickness and extreme mood swings. The Entity’s influence could explain Karen’s sudden disappearance and apparent suicide. He urges the others to stop all research on the Entity and abandon the base. While the Pohls mull that over, he takes matters into his own hands – going over Amy’s head – and writes to RAMA HQ directly, requesting that the mission be terminated.
Unfortunately, Vasili doesn’t make it off Titan alive, leaving Amy, Philip, and Ion to clean up the mess and get far away from the base as fast as possible.
Ion Lem is Assistant Physicist to Philip and a huge fan of Vasili Romancheck. He is Ion’s idol. You’ll find a Time magazine in Ion’s closet with Vasili on the cover and a letter from Ion’s father, owner of Lem Company. His father references Ion’s childhood fascination with Vasili, and his hopes that Ion’s decision to join the research team on Titan was a carefully thought-out one. He closes out the letter by reminding Ion that he is always welcome to work for him. This subtly characterizes a potentially overbearing father who wants his son to be a mini-him, but yet is still able to let his son do his own thing. Whether this is genuine compassion or a sly manipulation tactic, we don’t know, but once shit hits the fan, Ion is ready to bounce back to Earth and go work for his father.
There is also a photograph of Karen in a towel beside Ion’s bed. She’s covering her face in an attempt to stop the photograph from being taken, but a note on the back reads, “what happens in space, stays in space – K,” suggesting a love affair between Ion and Karen.
I’m sort of stumped about this one. We hear Karen’s voice as we make our way to the Entity in the cave, and she seems thankful that we have come to keep her company. But, then we get pulled into the Entity, and our world becomes a kaleidoscope. Is this meant to represent death? Are we going to join Karen where ever she is? Does the Entity eat souls? But maybe that’s just it – maybe the unexplained is not meant to be explained.
And such is the risk we take when exploring strange new places. We put the adventure and the research first, risking isolation from humanity itself, and the love and happiness it brings us.