With one of the most aggressive trip sequences that games have ever seen, P.O.L.L.E.N. has left many players nonplussed.
However, you wouldn’t know this at first. For the majority of play time, the game is exactly what it appears to be: a walking simulator set aboard a space station that looks a lot like the one in Solaris (2002). But then, right at the finish, when things are about to wrap up, instead of tying up the narrative loose ends, as one might expect, the game goes completely nuts. For eight-and-a-half minutes, strange, nonrepresentational imagery is blasted straight into the player’s retinas—an “LSD ending,” as one of the devs put it.
The sudden burst of cyber-psychedelia was a huge turn off for a lot of players, many of who were vocal about it. On the internet, people called the ending “unprofessional.” “Weird and confused.” “A pointless, random, eyeball-ruining display of colors.” One particularly germane user review begins thusly: “I really liked this game up until the last 15 minutes….” Apparently, the departure was just too much for them to parse.
As the large amount of negativity directed at P.O.L.L.E.N.’s closing moments indicate, VR is capable of creating inconceivable realities, or realities that should require a giant pile of drugs to conceive, in any case. But while films (see: Enter the Void’s (2010) lucid trips over Tokyo), literature (hello, magical realism), and even non-VR games—El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (2011) was a decent enough mind-fuck—can easily pull off strange shifts in tone, it seems the general public is hostile to the idea of being physically present in a distorted virtual realm.
Of course, it was Mindfield Games’ intention to push the limits of people’s tolerance all along. “One of the things we knew beforehand was that the ending would divide players,” said Ville Kivisto, the company’s CEO and coder. “We wanted to break the rules. Having access to VR headsets, [we wanted to know] how that kind of ending feels, in contrast to the traditional early part of the game.”
The controversial scene comes at a junction in the plot where, well, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on. Up until that point, the player’s time has been divided between listening to audio logs, reading clipboards, and playing with old space equipment. But then your character takes an elevator to the core of the planet, sniffs a flower (which disintegrates into triangles), and floats off into some sort of trippy alien rave cave.
“We wanted to leave room for the player’s imagination to interpret what was happening there,” said Kivisto, claiming that the team has a firm grip on the storyline, but that the author’s intent is unimportant. As for the players’ intent, time travel, hallucinogenic pollen, and fourth-dimensional abduction are some of the theories that fans have come up with.
“It’s not fully an artistic vision, but also a vision of mathematics”
But whatever the case may be, there are miles and epochs of trip effects ahead of them. “There are scenes in the ending where you fly through a transforming cube—transforming spaces that are made completely with mathematical algorithms,” said Jaakko Kemppainen, a game designer and narrative designer on the project.
“It’s all mathematics,” Kemppainen continued, explaining how the shapes and images were born of simple formulas that grow and bloom into huge spaces. It’s a technique he and his colleagues learned from 20-plus years of experimental programming in the demoscene—the computer cracking, digital art-creating subculture dominant throughout Europe.
“You just put in the formula and it creates a kind of impossible architecture. Impossible scenes. Things you cannot see in the real world,” he said.
Both Kivisto and Kemppainen believe that using geometric patterns with endless, recursive detail has its benefits. For one, it gives outer space a feeling of vastness, which probably wouldn’t occur if the player was simply exploring rooms in a vacuum. And secondly, the patterns lend the title a distinctively sci-fi flair. “It’s not fully an artistic vision, but also a vision of mathematics,” said Kivisto.
While P.O.L.L.E.N.’s final eight-and-a-half minutes can prove a challenge to sit through, they only represent a small fraction of VR’s full-blown hallucinatory potential. “It could have been much, much more psychedelic, but we had to draw the line somewhere,” said Kivisto. To his point, some of the scenes proved too demanding when the team first conceptualized them. So then they had to dial back the fireworks in order not to be outright hostile to the player. That said, “overwhelming” was a concept they were going for. Becoming disoriented by infinite polygons was not a bad thing, it was even desirable.
If only they could convince more players to love the abyss too. While the game has more than its share of supporters who take heart in the clean break from sucky, overly-literal endings to games, some people have a hard time figuring out the appeal. They want to kill the four-dimensional creature at the end. They want the last 15 minutes of their life back. But most of all, they don’t want this ending, which, to quote one Steam reviewer, “doesn’t answer jack shit.”