(Korsakovia concept art by Ben Andrews)
Korsakovia is the new mod for Half-Life 2 from games research group thechineseroom. Like their previous work, Korsakovia is intended as an experiment in games design, this time specifically in 'madness, reality and the end of the world' and 'in seeing just how far you can push things'.
You play Christopher, the patient of a mental hospital who we are told has plucked out his eyes and done his best to destroy his hands as he journeys through his own psychosis - a contorted mixed up world partially composed from the world he will no longer directly experience. As you progress through these imaginings, you hear the questions, comments and notes of the psychiatrist attempting to treat Christopher as well as his explanations as to why he did these things to himself.
The voice acting is, as we are quickly coming to expect from thechineseroom, spot on. It is enthralling and strangely natural. You could imagine the voices being recordings from real psychiatric treatment sessions and doctor's audio notes. This is not only a compliment to the actors themselves but of course the quality of the writing which is paced wonderfully and masterfully weaves subtleties of meaning around one other.
The gameplay itself was a concious decision by the developers to include more traditional gameplay elements - combat, survival, puzzles and platforming elements can be found. Naturally even these are fairly limited; I didn't even realise I could fight the antagonistic beings until half way through. At most you will have the trusty crowbar and even that requires exposing yourself to attacks which leave your senses as a player overwhelmed.
Such attacks are just one of the ways that Korsakovia will mess your head around. A chilling, unearthly piano and electronica soundtrack twists your psyche and leaves you receptive to the off-kilter and intentionally punishing bursts of static or whining tones. Migraine-like white-outs and thrumming visuals increase towards the climax, attempting to replicate the disorientation and mental trauma of the protagonist. For some this will tie them to the perspective of the patient Christopher, but other players will soon become frustrated with these effects being artificially inflicted upon them. (It has also been noted that the flashes of white and other elements of Korsakovia can be extremely hazardous to epileptics.)
What is not nearly so polished as the narration or sound work is the level design itself. The inherent concepts of the world are brilliant - the locations and their appearance reflecting the protagonist's state of mind and reflecting his perceptions of reality is splendidly realised - but the next step in the game is often difficult to find or realise and navigation can be very difficult with the player going around in circles. On one particular occasion, I spent quite some time searching for a way through a locked door only to find the solution was a ladder across the room that blended in to the background. The last level itself becomes an exercise in anger management as platform-navigation reaches impossible levels and I had to resort to using 'noclip' (fly mode) in order to progress.
Korsakovia's obvious (at least for those with keen eyes) and repeated use of Half-Life 2 specific models and textures can be particularly jarring to the experience. Creeping down the abandoned corridors of a strange mental health clinic, pursued by black smoke, is very atmospheric until you enter a room to see a vending machine offering cans of Dr. Breen's Private Reserve. You have to wonder that no capable texture artist was available to produce a suitable replacement. The visual experience is also fairly rough, with empty rooms and improbable warehouses were more believable locations would have made the insanity all the more compelling. I would say the Source engine is showing its age but Robert Briscoe's work on the Dear Esther remake disproves that excuse.
As an experiment in games design, as to what games can be and to what limits of simulated mental injury players will accept, Korsakovia succeeds regardless of how 'good' or 'bad' it is. People have and will comment on this game and give their reactions to the developers; so long as this happens, something will be learned. As a game it has many flaws in regards of gameplay and visual polish but almost makes up for that in atmosphere, voice and sound elements. It is well worth the 0 pennies you have to spend assuming you already own Half-Life 2 (I would recommend Episode Two to be sure it works fully) and, while it may not gain the recognition of Dear Esther or Psychonauts which plays on several similar ideas, Korsakovia is an important step outside of gamers' familiar comfort zones worth exploring for where it might take you. With a few more such games we might just find a brave new world somewhere inside our own heads.
It can be downloaded from here.
On an entirely personal note, the coincidental use of the name Christopher had a strong personal effect on me - being addressed so often by my name, given the circumstances, significantly added to how unsettling and outright disturbing Korsakovia was for me.