P.O.L.L.E.N sets itself up with an alternate history premise: the USA and the USSR collaborate on the first trip to the moon; RAMA Industries forms to explore and mine the resources of other planets; and RAMA makes a groundbreaking discovery on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and establishes Research Base M. There is a little more to it, of course, but these important clips of information that are shown before you reach the main menu set the entire context for the story and for the world of P.O.L.L.E.N.
As a new RAMA technician, you are sent to Titan to restore communication to Research Base M. Even though you are just following orders, this is against the wishes of the employees already there – with good reason. They are trying to evacuate. As you approach the base, a wave of thick, glowing particles roars through the sky. A heavy storm sets in after, kicking a rock forcefully into your helmet and decompressing your suit’s pressure. You must seek shelter inside the base.
Once inside the airlock, you’ll find a uniform splayed out on the floor, clumps of black dust gathered at each ankle and wrist, and at the neck. This was a person – Ion Lem, Assistant Physicist, as his ID card says. A glowing helmet rocks back and forth in the corner. Pick it up, rotate it, and you are transported to an alternate timeline.
The various mechanics in which the story is told is quite remarkable. As you progress through the station, you’ll encounter various spots in which time slows down. Illuminated dust fills the space around you as objects drift in and out of your reach. Grabbing a specific object and rotating it to a certain position will trigger you to move forward and backward through time, experiencing the station in your version of 1995 – orderly, pristine – and Karen Kowalski’s version of 1995 – dark, desolate, and in disarray. Somehow, Karen is stuck in a moment of time. Each polaroid you’ll find of her in the station is dated January 18, 1995, at 4:02 PM. If you take a picture in her time period, it will say the same thing. However, if you take a picture during the normal time period, it will be dated February 2, 1995. The time on each one will progress forward as you continue with the game.
Much of the story is also told via cassette tapes that you will find throughout the station as you move back and forth between the two versions of 1995. Among first you’ll find are Karen’s personal logs, detailing her isolation in the base while searching for ways to keep herself entertained and spirits high. She is dealing with the death of her husband and terribly misses her children. She believes that something catastrophic has happened, trapping her inside without any of her colleagues in site. The research project the station had been conducting took an interesting turn, and she believes it is because of the “entity” lurking in the caves below the base. Karen is afraid of it. Her colleagues are afraid of it.
P.O.L.L.E.N makes use of its subtle, narrative details masterfully, seamlessly integrating them into the alternate, sci-fi world. It’s not enough to find a couple of cassette tapes and charge through to the end. From post-it notes on white boards, to TIME Magazines, to personal drawings tucked away in a character’s closet, every detail is carefully selected to bring depth to the characters and do some world-building in the process. The greatest parts were seeing things written on white boards and clip boards one way in the normal timeline, and then seeing how Karen altered them in her stationary timeline. It told so much about the story and the characters at the same time, and also serves as a catalyst into a deeper discussion into death, reality, and the afterlife. The philosophical layering is amazing.
The only downside to this game were the icon directions that appeared each time I picked up a clip board or a book. The icon would obscure some of the text at the top, making it difficult to read, especially while zoomed-in – sometimes not enough to cover important bits of information, but enough to where it would take me longer than usual to read. I could not figure out how to make the icon go away, either. But that was it – it was clear that the inventory layout was designed for VR, as it appears on your screen all at once with one sweeping motion of the mouse. It was easy and convenient to see everything laid out all at once. There are also icons that will appear next to the tapes you have collected, but not listened to yet. That’s such a small detail, but one I greatly appreciated.
Other than the story, I was impressed by the use of color. The game (during the normal time line) doesn’t have that stereotypical cold and sterile sci-fi look to it. It’s warm and inviting, especially the living quarters; they feel downright homey. You can turn the gym into a dance floor and the study has a projection screen where you can view different landscapes on Earth, with mood lighting to match.
I am sad that I was not able to play P.O.L.L.E.N in VR. However, at some points during the game I could still fell that immersion, even while playing on PC. As Mindfield Games discussed in a recent interview with us, they decided the game needed to work without the VR headset, as they wanted to make a proper game, not just a VR prototype that would be fun for five minutes. Mindfield Games took their ambition and ran head-first into an absolutely stunning first project, one that fulfills their every intention. I would love the opportunity to play P.O.L.L.E.N again in VR. The game plays like a book, and I can see the text form in my head with each room I enter. For me, that’s the greatest mark of a solid narrative-driven game. Mindfield Games could make a sequel, and it would be just as amazing.
P.O.L.L.E.N was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer/Publisher: Mindfield Games | Genre: Sci-Fi/Exploration/Atmospheric | Platform: Oculus Rift, PC | PEGI/ESRB: NR | Release Date: April 19, 2016