If you’d told me I’d have a good time playing a game that consists mainly of an unrelentingly blank black screen, I’d have pulled a confused Father Dougal expression.
Yet the promise of bold, experimental projects is one of the things that drew me to indie games in the first place, so when I realised what In the Pit is all about, I couldn’t resist giving it a try.
Like the more recent Walketh, In the Pit takes the brave approach of operating entirely on sound. Unlike Walketh, it’s done in a way that makes sense. This isn’t a matter of playing a minimalist top-down dungeon crawl but with ‘challenge’ introduced through the gimmick of lacking visuals. On the contrary, In the Pit goes all-out to be a game that wouldn’t work in any other form.
Many evil overlords favour some form of diabolical pit for the execution of their captive enemies and incompetent minions. In the Pit puts you on the neglected third side of that situation for once – you are not the victim or the tyrannical king, but the beast that dwells in the pitch blackness beneath the castle.
Everything you learn about yourself and the setting of the game comes from short sections of dialogue, usually between the king and his second in command. Being the traditional sort evil overlord, the king tosses people into his pit all the time, and it’s your job to put an end to each victim. In the impenetrable darkness, the only way to locate your prey is by sound. Terrified by their plight and winded by the fall, the victim’s breathing is heavy and hoarse. The first couple of test executions are unconscious, but half the fun of executing an upstart foe is to know they’re afraid, so soon you’re given prey that is awake and mobile. You must close in on these hapless victims, navigating by their breath and their splashing footsteps in the shallow water of the pit. Many are armed, though, and can defend themselves if they find you. Move carefully, beast, lest you give yourself away.
It’s a simple premise at heart, and the game consists of just a few repetitions of it. Each level is slightly different though, becoming progressively more challenging. One of the main things that held my interest was the dialogue. It can be a little cheesy at times but that seems to be intentional, and the game certainly has a sense of humour. Is it a grand, epic adventure? No. But it is a short, interesting experiment in a different way of playing games, and it works. You won’t find yourself glued to it for six-hour sessions, but for its short duration I found I had no urge to stop playing. After a couple of minutes I didn’t even notice the lack of visuals anymore – I was too busy listening the sound of laboured breath moving around in the darkness.
That brings me to the one qualifier I need to add. If you have neither surround sound nor headphones (my choice), the game becomes an exercise in random chance. If you can’t tell whether that panicked murmur is to your right or left, you can’t find your target. That’s an unavoidable feature of an audio-centric game though, and pointing this out as a fault is almost like noting that you can’t play Battlefield 3 unless you have thumbs.
In short, at the lowest possible price of 80 Microsoft points, I think In the Pit deserves a purchase just for the experience of playing something so wildly different from the norm. It’s unlike anything else I’ve played, and even though it’s unlikely to be the vanguard of a new trend in gaming, it manages to be fun and at the same time highlight just how lazy mainstream game design has become.
In the Pit isn’t the best indie game I’ve played, or even close, but it is perhaps the most innovative. And to me at least, that’s just as valuable.