Games industry should be 'less cautious,' says maker of experimental game about exploring a swimming pool dimension

Upcoming game Pools looks similar to other games based on "The Backrooms," the creepypasta notion that you can noclip out of normal reality and into mazes of "liminal spaces" that resemble '90s office buildings or unused meeting rooms at a Marriott. In this case, though, we're trapped in a pocket dimension of pools.

"Poolrooms" aren't an original addition to internet paranormal lore, and it bears mentioning that another, similar-looking game called Dreamcore is in development (which was pointed out to me after this article was originally published). Antti Järvinen, head of Pools developer Tensori, credits artists Jared Pike, Mortain Colors, and Matt Studios as inspiration for Pools, among others, as well as a game called Anemoiapolis by Andrew Quist.

Pools perhaps sets itself apart from some other creepypasta games by leaving out puzzle-solving and hostile entities in favor of an experience that's solely about feeling a bit weird and isolated. It started as a "hobby/free time project," will feature six 10-30 minute long chapters, and Tensori describes it as an "experimental" game that's "like an art gallery where you walk around and feel the atmosphere."

"The main thing about the game is to look around and listen to the sounds," says the studio. Experimental art that promotes what it isn't always risks having its claim of avant-gardeness judged as an excuse to take credit for abstract concepts—see John Cage's infamous 4'33", a musical composition performed by not playing musical instruments for its duration, for instance. Pools isn't that sparse, but the developer says "there are very few things to solve," and it contains no music, just the echoing sounds of the environment. 

If Pools does attract some side-eye for its minimalism, it won't be nearly as much as it would've a decade ago. It's funny to think back to all the "but they're not real videogames!" hysteria that accompanied trendsetters like Dear Esther and Gone Home in the early 2010s. The walking simulators clearly won.

Järvinen says he wants to see more risk-taking from today's game developers and publishers.

"I hope for a gaming industry that's less cautious and embraces boldness," said Järvinen in a statement provided by the studio. "As an enthusiast, it seems to me that a number of modern games are 'lost potential'—they lack distinctiveness and genuine passion. I also don't like sneaky ways of making money or broken, unfinished games."

Given how similar it looks to Dreamcore and other games inspired by "liminal spaces," it's fair to question the distinctness of Pools itself. In a follow-up conversation, Järvinen told me he was mainly referring to the execution of triple-A games: "Many AAA games have cool and sometimes unique ideas, but they execute them overly cautiously and without passion," he said. He also pointed out that, in later chapters, Pools' environments diverge from the tiled walls it starts with—he shared clips showing a sauna and other locations.

However Pools turns out, I sympathize with Järvinen's point of view on the triple-A business. It's easy for us to demand that big companies take more risks when we're not the ones who have to answer for the millions of dollars they spend on any given game, but with so much to play, I don't really have time for anything that doesn't take a big swing. The motto of the studio behind the current game of the moment, unforgiving co-op shooter Helldivers 2, sums up the sentiment well: "A game for everyone is a game for no one." 

Pools will be out in April, and there's a demo on Steam if you want to find out whether or not it's a game for you. There's also a demo available for Dreamcore. Personally, I'm not convinced disembodied wandering through poolrooms will captivate me, but they'll definitely look pleasant in the background of a random TikTok video I wind up watching later this year. 

This article was updated after publishing with additional context and comments from the developer.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.