Survival is a common theme in video games. Struggling to exist in a hostile environment, often in face of insurmountable odds, is a natural setting for challenging the players skills. Survival is a potent counterpoint to the usual themes of domination and triumph. It is about shifting your perspective from “How am I going to kill these guys?” to “How am I going to make through this alive?”. Survival also has a natural companion, horror. Fear of death is a very primal instinct, and tapping into feelings of dread is what horror entertainment is built upon. Survival horror is a genre upon itself, defined and re-defined over the years by such great games as Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Roguelikes, a genre defined by the steep penalties imposed by character death, have always embraced survival as a core element of their design. If dying means starting all over again, not dying tends to become a central goal. Combining survival with horror, on the other hand, is a rarely seen mix in roguelikes. Teleglitch, a game developed by the Estonian company Test3 Projects, is a moody top-down shooter that manages to blend the deliberate pacing and foreboding atmosphere of survival horror games with the unpredictability and replayability of procedural generation. It’s a dark and difficult plunge into the unknown, a plunge you should definitely take.
Teleglitch is not a complicated game. The setup is a liberal mix of Half Life and Doom: you are the lone survivor of a science experiment gone terribly wrong, stranded in a research base located on an alien planet Medusa-1C. You view the action from a stark top-down view, scavenging for supplies and fighting through throngs of hideous mutants and undead abominations. The goal is to pass through ten increasingly difficult randomized levels and escape the base. If all this sounds extremely basic, I can’t blame you. At first glance, Teleglitch seems like a very generic shooter with few novel features or gimmicks. The devil is in the details however, and the game is filled with subtle nuances that transform it from a yet another roguelike shooter to a truly unnerving survival horror experience.
Let’s start with the action. Teleglitch is a combat-focused game, and the primary challenge of the game is shooting monsters before they eat you. Unlike in many other top-down monster slaughtering games, fighting is not a joyously carefree run-and-gun affair here. Enemies are very tough and deadly. You have a melee attack at your disposal, but in most situations you’ll want to keep your distance, since even a basic zombie will chew down your health very quickly. Weapons are sufficiently powerful and satisfying to use, but ammo is a very scarce, as are healing items. In order to shoot your weapon, you must first use the right mouse button to aim, which brings your movement speed down to crawl. Gameplay in Teleglitch consists of lengthy stretches of slowly advancing through corridors and nervously peering around corners, only to be abruptly interrupted by the screams of the mutants followed by few seconds of frantic gunplay. For a few moments you dodge and weave through the charging enemies, juggling between weapons in an effort to dispatch the enemies as efficiently as possible. Wasting ammo is one of the worst mistakes you can do, so choosing the right weapon for the job is essential. You’ll also want to take your time with aiming, time you won’t have as monsters are always a bit faster than you’d expect. Managing your dwindling resources is a huge part of surviving, and weighing the value of potentially finding new items against sacrificing vital health packs and ammunition in order to get to them constantly creates small risk-versus-reward choices for you to sweat over.
The game’s level generation algorithm consistently keeps you on your toes from one playthrough to an another. Each level features a predefined set of rooms, but the placement, ordering and contents of these rooms are randomized, so you can never be quite sure what you will find behind the next door. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the levels are procedurally generated, so good is the pacing between action and quiet time, so masterfully are the jumpscares and respites delivered. Fear of the unknown is the engine that drives horror, and the starkly limited field of view combined with constant uncertainty over what is going to happen next make sure things won’t become familiar too fast. The camera is also excellent in creating atmosphere, zooming in uncomfortably close in tight corridors and pulling back out to reveal foreboding shadows in larger arenas. Pylons and industrial equipment obscure your vision, slicing the levels into alternating swathes of darkness and light, creating perfect hiding spots for monsters lie in waiting. It’s a strange sensation to swing from claustrophobia to agoraphobia and back in so quick succession, as Teleglitch makes you suspicious of every new area you enter, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.
A slightly surprising aspect of Teleglitch is how wordy it can be. Littered around the levels are computer terminals, each containing a few paragraphs of backstory to be discovered. There is a lot of text for those interested, and the picture these fragments form is a bleak and disturbing one. The world of Teleglitch is a dystopian vision of a future where mankind spans across the galaxy, not in triumphant unity, but as a collection of squabbling factions depressingly reminiscent of our own world. This is a world where the profit margins of the military industrial complex openly control the direction of human development, a world where only values are monetary. Scientific advances have made it possible to resurrect the dead to use as workforce, and renting out your dead parents to fight in wars halfway across the galaxy is seen as an excellent economic opportunity. The rich outsource all aspects of war to contractors, spending their lives in unimaginable luxury, while the poor are forced to fight for their survival against endless hordes of undead automatons and genetically modified military organisms.
The base that serves as the game’s setting contributes greatly to the depressing atmosphere. It is a research and development centre belonging to Militech, a military technology company, and the largest economic entity in known universe. Examples of brutalist industrial architecture are everywhere in the levels, enormous concrete breeding vats, rusty mazes of ventilation pipes, bizarre science equipment. There is something deeply sinister about the setting. It’s a place where horrible atrocities and crimes against nature were simply business as usual before the accident preceding the start of the game, and the goods to be sold are now turning against their creators. The zombies, robots and monstrous freaks the player encounters are not some hidden experiments gone wrong, they are the products of Militech, straight out of their weapons catalogue. Then there is the Void, a mysterious dark anomaly chewing through reality, a symptom of the Teleglitch Incident which sparked the events of the game. It’s not enough that the Medusa-1C base was a foreboding place of immoral scientific discovery, now it’s also being devoured by this completely alien otherness. No wonder even the dead want to leave this hellhole.
Teleglitch is a perfect example of the kind of weirdness and boldness only indie games seem to be able to exhibit. It is a tense and unsettling game, a game that makes you incredibly uncomfortable with no discernible effort by its part. The presentation is absolutely barebones, crude pixel graphics combined with minimalistic soundscape of footsteps, gunshots and growls of monsters. It’s a game where the individual elements of design are familiar and traditional, but the way these elements fit together is suddenly unknown and terrifying. Teleglitch is a rare and strange jewel, and I urge you to give it a shot. Even if playing the game is a harrowing task, experiences as powerful as this are worth the price.