[Originally published December 8, 2016]
There is a game – a game that I like, that I like so very, very much – called Catacombs of Solaris. It is by Ian MacLarty. It is as strange as it is small, and it is a displacement simulator.
Most games don’t toy with displacement. Or disorientation. They want to blend the capital-Y You with the ‘you’ – the player. Avatar and ‘gamer.’ They want to make them inseparable. Games have struggled with this very, very limiting problem for a very, very long time. We’ve seen attempts at structural solutions – Half-Life, with its notable exclusion of cutscenes; we’ve seen cultural holdovers – the ubiquitous Straight/White/Male, the narrative product of a perceived market.
Solaris isn’t particularly interested in any of this. No story, no goal, no fail state. You simply exist. But! You exist in a 3D maze space (say “maze space” five times fast). What do we do in mazes? We attempt to navigate them. You move around, navigating the 90 degree angles in an attempt to discover something about the boundaries of this space. This is what humans do – attempt to map out their surroundings, and thereby understand them.
But Solaris isn’t interested in making this easy, or palatable. Again, I have to stress: this is a game about displacement. Solaris communicates the boundaries and pathways of its space through overwhelming, ever-altering colors. It’s quite fractal, which – interestingly – lends to its abrasive disorientation. There’s something horrific about perfect, natural geometric pattern used to confuse and confound.
Are these descriptors too abstract? Hm. Well, this is a very abstract game. Simple, ordered, but in a way that unfurls into visual perplexity. Not wholly unlike fractal geometry.
Make no mistake – there are rules to Solaris. This is ‘game,’ after all; code and numbers and rules. There exists a method by which the player can overcome Solaris and its confundity. But even in surpassing its extreme displacement, I found great enjoyment in…
What would you call this? Endgame?
Once you understand Solaris, you will find that it has an almost painterly aspect. A means of exploiting its visuals. You can create infinitesimal intricacies in the shapes and colors of the walls. Of the floors. Of the ceilings. Or, if you’re daring, you can hide yourself inside of a single color, and completely lose yourself in a space without frames, boundaries, or measurements. It feels like being outside of time. Like accepting the sense of displacement that Solaris tries so very hard to imbue.
It may look hard to believe, but all of these visuals were intentionally crafted by me, your author, who loves you very much and wants you to play this game
I’ve only played maybe forty minutes of Catacombs of Solaris, and it’s easily one of my most memorable experiences from 2016. No GOTY, but a top ten-er, for sure. If you find yourself interested, you can watch a minute or two of Philippa Warr (Queen of Wholesome Content) play it here.
If you are interested in playing it for yourself, you can find it free here, on itch.io.
 I have a bananas awesome pitch for a House of Leaves game that’s inspired by Catacombs of Solaris that I might write about one day, cos it fucking rules. Trust me.