Passing by XRA’s table at the Seattle Indie Expo last weekend, you can’t help but have an immediate reaction to the frightening look of the game streaming on his clamshell ‘80s Toshiba PC. One of the IGF finalists for Excellence in the Visual Arts, Memory of a Broken Dimension looks like a black-and-white storm of pixelation and screen-tearing, a kind of bleeding, noisy distortion I’d never really seen before. It’s arresting, and discomforting, and it’s the whole mission statement of the game.
Ezra, the slight, quiet, greyscale-dressed creator of Memory, explained that as a level designer for larger companies he had grown frustrated at the simplicity and linearity of the hallways he made during the day, and had retreated into a nightly world of anarchic, crackling fuzz with no objectives and no glowing breadcrumbs to follow. The bulk of the game is simply learning how to see, in a way—figuring out how objects tessellate together, how walls work, where you’re at in a sea of confusion. There are times where I felt like I needed to stop and let a sort of storm pass. He frames this experience with the idea that this is a sort of found-footage video game, that the areas you’re exploring are maps from a cyberpunk version of the Mars Curiosity Rover. Starting the game puts you in a Windows 3.1-like desktop, RELICS, with a trail of files and an executable that then takes you into the swirling madness.
RELICS functions like the tape in The Ring—Ezra describes it as a cursed artifact, a sort of urban legend emulation passed around on a fictional internet. Ezra had a slew of unusual inspirations for the brusque visual language Broken Dimension: noise music, sumi-e, black-and-white horror movies. And there’s a tangible horror vibe, not just in the etchings you’re caught in on-screen, but in its grinding music, distorted voices, and the tricks the visuals start to play on your eye.
The more you focus in on Memory to find walls and floors the more you’ll start to see things that may or may not be there. In the demos Ezra has run, he’s had players see faces, ghosts, floating eyes, and things in their peripheral vision that genuinely frightened them, and I admit that later in the evening even hours after I’d walked away from the game, what I’d played stuck with me. It was also frequently beautiful, like a chiaroscuro painting brought to weird, datastream life.
Though it’s still in a sort of alpha phase, Memory of a Broken Dimension can be found in a playable demo on itch.io, and on Steam Greenlight. Its creator has stated there’s still some fundamental add-ons he’s working on that could change some natures of the game: an inventory system and save/load features especially.
Memory is an arresting game that seems almost adversarial. It attracted a lot of curious onlookers purely from seeing its flowing compression artifacts and rivers of pixelation from across a busy exhibit room, challenging people to see walls where there weren’t, and to see digital ghosts in its glitched-out aesthetic. It seems to want to take an idea (the corridors of a Doom-like first-person game) and stretch it to its furthest possible point before it tears and rips apart, like the way guitar sounds are thrashed into something else through a noise pedal. The game frequently feels like the place where one noise starts, and where something else entirely is created out of it. In noise music there is a learning curve where you have to stop waiting for a chorus or a verse or a melody and train your ear into not seeking out what isn’t there, and much of Memory is based in seeing the same way.