The business side of publishing a game can be a difficult thing to navigate. As reported by Damien Lawardorn last year, work on promising indie horror title Tether was put on indefinite hold when the developer Freesphere Entertainment was unable to secure funding for the project. After a year of radio silence on the game, Freesphere Entertainment suddenly released an early alpha demo to the public on Itch.io, with any proceeds going directly to continuing development on the game. An atmospheric walking simulator set on a dilapidated space station, Tether is definitely worth a look if you have a spare hour to wander some creepy corridors.
Lesleigh awakens to the voice of her son calling out to her. She sits up, confused, images flickering in the corner of her eye. She is on a long-haul flight to Mars, and her son Peter definitely should not be on the ship. The Tether, a system that helps people survive the long journey, has the side effect of jumbling and rewriting people’s memories. Out of medication to control the side effects, Lesleigh must make her way through the winding metallic corridors of the ship to the medical bay, fighting darkness and her own mind along the way.
Tether plays as a walking simulator, with Lesleigh’s journey comprised of exploring the world and checking journals and audio logs for clues. She can pick up and throw items, but mostly this skill is unused, with accumulating information the primary method of progression.
This limited interactivity is made up for with a rich and detailed world: the bedrooms have clothes strewn around, drawings from Lesleigh’s children are pinned up, pictures of loved ones hang on the walls. I was reminded of exploring an abandoned vault in one of the Fallout games, arguably the best part of the series. The station creaks and moans as Lesleigh explores, adding to the foreboding atmosphere.
Tether features full voice acting, and performance is strong across the board, with Lesleigh’s voice work a particular highlight. She sounds genuinely terrified by the things that she sees, a difficult performance to pull off. I would have liked an option for subtitles, especially for the audio logs which have a fuzzy ham-radio effect on the recording.
The metallic corridors of Tether are extremely dark, and some in-game brightness settings would be beneficial. This darkness was compounded by the partial controller support, which caused issues on my playthrough when the flashlight button failed to work. This darkness impacted what should be a simple puzzle later on—I had to put a new fuse into the fuse box, but the replacement fuses all just look like big white polygons in the dark. That room also contains a prominently placed screwdriver, so I spent far too long trying to unscrew things before finding the solution. Movement is also slow and sluggish on gamepad, with mouse and keyboard clearly being the intended experience.
Despite these minor gripes, I found Tether to be an interesting experience. The game is beautiful and atmospheric, but I felt the story could have been more fully developed. Here’s hoping this public demo will provide an opportunity to revitalise the project.
Discord user Dismount that Dinosaur enjoyed their time with Tether. Response has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dismount That Dinosaur
I played it; it’s similar to Alien Isolation. The atmosphere and graphics are pretty good for a free 2017 experimental game. There is good potential for the game to evolve into a full-fledged single player game.
Damien Lawardorn, fellow OnlySP writer and editor extraordinaire, also played through the Tether demo, and had some mixed feelings about the experience.
Full disclosure: I’ve had my eye on Tether for a long while. When it was put on ice, I was put off, but I understood the reasons after talking to lead developer Mark Gregory. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a message from Mark letting me know that the prototype was finally available to play, so I knew I had to give it a go. All that is to say I may be a little biased.
At the same time, after playing this vertical slice, I think I can kind of understand why investors were uneasy about buying into the project. It feels conflicted. It’s a horror game, a walking simulator, and an immersive sim all wrapped up into a brief package. As good as the demo is—and believe me, it’s good—it lacks a clear identity.
Maybe a part of the problem is that the protagonist, Lesleigh, feels nondescript. She is a wife and mother separated from her family by the vast distance of space. That family connection and the distance is an essential part of the story told in this demo, but it is overshadowed by the horror theme, which permeates every room and hallway in the claustrophobic Nostromo-like spaceship. The atmosphere is dense and tense, and the family only matters because you are told it does. These two themes do coalesce at points, but they are rare, with Freesphere relying more on jump scares than a psychological treatment of Lesleigh’s fears.
The horror and narrative elements therefore sit a little uncomfortably beside each other, and the immersive sim elements only heighten that confusion. Early on, almost every item not bolted down can be picked up and thrown around or interacted with in some other, less destructive way. However, that agency does not last long. Soon enough, the environments become almost purely set dressing, which further complicates any identity Tether seeks to convey. Although this decision choice is likely a necessary concession to the developmental struggles of the game and to the pacing, it feels restrictive after the freedom of the opening.
This brief demo showcases a lot of potential, particularly in the nerve-inducing locales and genuinely unpredictable jumpscares, but Tether could certainly benefit by bulking out either the narrative or the gameplay (or, ideally, making both work together more effectively). Mark and his team have had about a year to think about how to improve their design and process, but this prototype is promising, and I’m hopeful that this time the team is able to realise the project.
Thank you for your thoughts everyone! Next week, we’ll be taking a break from horror games and checking out be you, a short choose-your-own-adventure game available on Steam. Discussions are happening on our Discord server, or you can email me here.