At their core, survival games are all about having to make a series of grim, ethically dubious decisions. It's calculated pragmatism taken to the extreme. Should I throw Mabel the arthritic pensioner down a well because she's too frail for manual labour and eats all the baked beans? Or should I indulge her interminable anecdotes and let her knit me a cardigan out of toilet paper in the hope she'll boost morale by dispensing sage advice? (Verdict: She's a worthless drain on resources and farts all day long. RIP Mabel.) Sleepless Clinic's Symmetry is awash in these sorts of conundrums, and despite moments of spirit-crushing hopelessness, white-knuckle frustration and a few pacing issues, it all comes together rather nicely. And when I say nicely, I mean under a suffocating pall of suicidal despair.
Due to circumstances that aren't made clear (at least, not during the five hours I spent with the game), your research vessel has crashed on an abandoned planet. Worse, the planet is a desolate, snow-covered wasteland seemingly devoid of all life. You begin the game with three crew members (more survivors will arrive as the game progresses) and a modular base, around which is scattered the wreckage of your ship. Each crew member has a different skill-set (though additional skills can be acquired via study at the base computer). Jacob, the manly-man, harvests lumber, which is required to keep the stove burning and thus provide warmth. Anna is a dab hand in the kitchen (entire armies of women are all rolling their eyes in unison right now), and Desmond is the resident tech-head who specialises in salvaging electrowaste. This is used to repair everything from the refrigerator to the power plant. Many of the appliances throughout the base are upgradable, though this will cost you a small fortune in electrowaste. The goal of the game is to keep everyone alive and sane long enough to facilitate repair of the ship and thereby escape the planet. Sounds fairly simple, doesn't it? Trust me when I tell you... it's not.
From the first moment you dispatch your crew members to carry out their assigned tasks, you're fighting an uphill battle. There are three primary foes in Symmetry -- the cold, hunger and the gradual deterioration of your equipment. Every time Jacob, Anna and Desmond don their voluminous environment suits and venture beyond the cosy confines of the base, they risk death. Resources are infinite and you'll never completely run out of wood or salvage. However, once you've exhausted the trees and piles of scrap close to the base, you'll have to travel further afield. This means you'll spend longer exposed to the freezing temperatures, and thus the risk of dying on the return journey becomes an ever-present danger. Fortunately, your base is equipped with a pair of health regeneration capsules, and a minute or so inside one of these technological marvels will see you fully healed and back in business.
Inevitably, something's going to break down. It might be the stove. Or the weather station. Or one of the radiators that distribute heat throughout the base. Whatever it is, you need to fix it, and for that you need electrowaste. What follows usually goes a bit like this...
Desmond trundles off to salvage more scrap. He makes it back, repairs the faulty appliance and retires to a health regeneration capsule for some well-earned kip. Upon waking, he's famished... but the fridge has broken down and all the food has spoiled. Curses! Off Desmond goes again to scavenge more electrowaste. Meanwhile, Anna is busy at the food replication station attempting to replenish the stores. Or she would be, if it hadn't just blown a fuse. Jacob arrives back at base with more wood for the stove... just in time for the stove to pack up. Awesome! Now we've got no food, no heat, and what the hell has happened to Desmond? Seems that in the brief time he's been gone, the temperature outside has plummeted to a crisp -80 degrees. Desmond, the lazy git, is lying face-down in the snow. Because he's dead. Crikey! Things are going from bad to worse. Anna braves the blizzard to salvage what scrap she can find and drags Desmond's rigid carcass back to base. After gorging themselves on his dismembered corpse, the pair use the last of the scrap to repair the fridge where they safely deposit Desmond's half-chewed remains. Now suffering from mild hypothermia, they make for the health regeneration capsules. Oh, will you look at that! The power plant has failed, and the battery is dead because no one recharged it the last time it failed. Now nothing works. Silence blankets the base, broken only by the ragged sobbing of Jacob and Anna as they slowly freeze to death in a pool of their own bodily fluids. Game over.
It's safe to say, if you're a perpetual optimist who skips merrily through life with a stupid grin on your face, this game will sort you out good and proper. As time passes, Symmetry gets progressively more difficult. It takes longer to harvest lumber and salvage electrowaste because of the distance travelled and the fact that everyone walks at roughly the same speed as a one-legged man with a broken pelvis. Equipment starts to fail with disturbing regularity, and after a month in this frozen purgatory, you'll feel like you're trapped in some horrific infinite loop. As soon as you repair one thing, something else breaks down. Crew members begin suffering visual and auditory hallucinations (everything from a car parked on a suburban street, to a man slumped against the wall with his skull caved in), and the whole base is plagued by strange, inexplicable glitches. It's almost as though some malevolent force is actively sabotaging any attempt to escape...
And this is Symmetry in a nutshell. It's a concentrated misery simulator where seemingly trivial misfortunes swiftly cascade into full-blown catastrophes, and before you know it people are hearing voices and eating each other. The game employs minimalist vector graphics which really enhance the feeling of lifeless desolation. Despite the relatively small play area, the environment looks and feels like a vast arctic wasteland, frigid and inhospitable. Sound effects consist of the sullen drone of machinery, the howling of the wind outside the base, the occasional electrical malfunction as yet another critical equipment failure occurs, and a smattering of random noises that serve as an aural chronicle of the crew's downward spiral into hopelessness, insanity and cannibalism. The music most reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith's Alien score. Or perhaps Ennio Morricone's work on John Carpenter's The Thing. For the most part, it's incredibly subdued, bubbling just below the surface and saturating the game in an atmosphere of ever-present menace.
Is there any sort of coherent narrative? There's a narrative, but I wouldn't call it coherent, and that's largely by design. The somewhat disjointed story is doled out via the half-mad rantings of various crew members, and you spend a lot of time scratching your head and wondering which flavour of psychological dysfunction afflicts which individuals. Is Jacob a paranoid schizophrenic? Does Anna have a persecution complex? While it's occasionally hard to follow, it's undeniably entertaining.
It should be apparent by now that Symmetry is not a light-hearted romp through a galaxy far, far away. It's an excruciatingly slow evisceration of the human psyche in game form, and as such, you're going to have to be a certain kind of player to appreciate all it offers. As a career pessimist who routinely derives pleasure from the misfortunes of others (I'm a terrible human being, I know), I enjoyed myself immensely. If you're a more empathetic soul, you may well find yourself clutching your pearls in abject horror. There's really only one way to find out. Try it. Go on. You know you want to.
SYMMETRY (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
A relatively slow start soon becomes a frantic effort to combat sub-zero temperatures, starvation and insanity. If your constitution can withstand murder, cannibalism, paranoid delusions and a choking miasma of nihilistic despair, Symmetry will effortlessly contribute to your existing psychopathy. Recommended!