Calendula is a game that doesn’t want to be played but demands to be reviewed.
This game was developed by Spanish development team Blooming Buds Studio, who claim to be “a bunch of bodies possessed by obscure forces”. This description alone is an intriguing introduction to the indie video game studio, and serves to draw eager players to their new and experimental single-player experience known as Calendula.
Unconventional in a myriad of ways and, frankly unsettling, Calendula appears very simple on the surface but develops into a puzzler that is difficult to tear yourself away from. The first thing the game requests is some simple information from the player; the player’s name and date of birth. This input seems hollow at first but the purpose of this action becomes strikingly symbolic before the game concludes.
The game establishes itself in the form of an options menu decorated by obscure graphics that look strangely redolent of the Rorschach Inkblot test. The presentation of an options menu first and foremost is a fairly standard procedure as far as video games go, but Calendula is far from standard. Attempting to start a new game from this menu in Calendula is devilishly deceiving as the game starts well before the player takes any action. After selecting ‘new game’ the player is informed of a ‘FATAL ERROR’ via a pop-up message on screen, Calendula audaciously reminds you that it is not a game and that it does not want to be played. You will then rifle through the various options in the menu; audio settings, video settings, language settings etc. in order to find a way to progress and it soon becomes clear that the sole objective of the game is to simply play it.
The puzzles presented by Calendula vary in difficulty; some seem glaringly obvious, while others are remarkably cryptic and require the player to consider the sub-text to understand the game’s intentions. Ultimately, this means that the instructions are clear but only if the player is listening carefully to what Calendula is truly trying to say. Progression often follows you discovering a password, but discovering this password requires you to use higher order thinking skills and it is rarely a simple one-step process.
Between the puzzles within the options menu are a series of short, first-person ventures set in an ominous environment made up of corridors, stairwells and strange figures. No context is given for these brief encounters and you are left to blindly navigate the spooky setting, using WASD keys, until the scene is sharply interrupted as soon as the character reaches their destination. In these instances the mechanics that facilitate the player’s movement feel unnatural. A single press of a key does not feel equal to a single step as it would in most first-person games, and the character therefore feels as if they are floating or perhaps being pulled along by a greater force.
The first person game-play is followed by eerie cut-scenes that bombard the player with abrasive imagery, reminiscent of the videotape in “The Ring”. Often these images are difficult to comprehend. Distorted in nature, the rapid cut-scenes unnerve the player as they attempt to make sense of the stimulating visuals which fill the screen, making for an unusual but enthralling experience.
The game itself becomes a character in its own narrative and, despite the lack of spoken dialogue the poetic instructions delivered to you throughout the duration of the game are written in a way that appoints a very charismatic tone to it. This ambiguous character, though it appears to be little more than an options menu, challenges the player, building tension between game and gamer that makes Calendula difficult to quit without feeling defeated.
By nature, many gamers thrive on playing through and, perhaps more specifically, beating video games. Calendula takes advantage of this, as the game becomes more and more difficult to play the player is encouraged to continue, to oppose the game’s resistance and regain control of the experience. The idea of ‘control’ is a fascinating element that is explored in depth throughout the game, making Calendula a very provocative experience for those willing to entertain the sophisticated message it is attempting to communicate.
The game is constantly finding subliminal ways to remind the player that in fact they have little to no control over their experience. From the creepy cut-scenes to wandering through dark rooms, the player is subject to Calendula’s ultimate control, and this fascinating phenomenon is evident in a number of ways that are best left within the confines of the game itself and not spoiled by this review.
Ultimately, Calendula is a vessel for the illustration of a deeply profound metaphor and should be experienced first-hand. Calendula is an intense experience that may not appeal to gamers who prefer action and adventure over problem solving and personal reflection, however it should not be approached without fervour. For those eager to indulge their psyche and exercise an inquisitive mind, Calendula is absolutely worth playing from start to finish.