Experimental games are always a bit of a crapshoot, particularly when they’re coded using the Unity engine. There are enough “find the pages” Slenderman clones to drown in, and even when games attempt a bit more ambition (see our previous review of Kholat), the constraints of the genre recur — find pages, reveal a story bit by bit, and escape a monster. Even worse, experimental indie games often are rife with malfunctions and game breaking bugs. Unfinished, unpolished, and unplayable, many an ambitious game has ended up wearing the unenviable “ambitious, but” tag.
And so, when you introduce your experimental horror game made with Unity, most people are going to think “Ah, a spooky mystery game revealed bit-by-bit that I probably can’t even play all the way through.” What’s interesting about Calendula, an ambitious and experimental horror game coded using the Unity engine, is that it responds to these critiques in the affirmative, loudly proclaiming that, yeah, it’s broken and unplayable and mysterious, and that that is the point of the whole experience. Calendula, in short, is framed as an explicit self-critique from its first moment as a game: the title screen.
This is a bit misleading because the title screen in Calendula is the entire game, a sort of impossible recursion that mocks and frustrates the player who is unable to progress past the early menu prompts into the “game.” Calendula also makes a game out of the entire menu, making the menus that tweak the control schemes, video, audio, author credits, etc. all part of the experience, in which they are unresponsive portals into a game that ultimately doesn’t even exist as such.
So, briefly, Calendula opens onto a fairly typical title screen and menu, with all of the expected choices you might have when tweaking a PC game before playing. The thing about Calendula is that, whenever you attempt to start a new game, you get an error message. These vary throughout the game, but for the most part they’re plausible enough: video card not compatible; out of memory; corrupted process, et al. These messages are native to the game, though, part of the puzzle process of Calendula. Each error is surmountable by triggering another game-breaking glitch in the start menu or by loading a “saved” game file, and the clues for these moves in the puzzle are provided by a small image of an eye that gives you a progressively complete poem as you continue through the game. Aside from a few glimpses of a typical Unity engine designed horror game — 3D pillars, blood red walls, spheres, eerie signifiers, and all broken up by strange and troubling film clips — the menu and its glitches are the game.
So, the glitch is the thing that drives Calendula. The glitches that the game throws at its player essentially reverse the control scheme we’re used to in videogames, in which the player has total autonomy over her movement through the interface and epiphenomenal game world itself. You might not be able to beat a particular boss in Dark Souls, for instance, but you can always choose when to save, quit, or go back to the main screen. That’s a contract that Calendula rejects in favor of a short, frustrated quest to even open a game. Adjust the resolution to get a new glitch, or go “online” for a brief chat, fine, but don’t expect to actually get to the promised game. You won’t get the chance to succeed or fail; your whole goal is to somehow even get the game to agree to give you access.
And as the eye-poem asks you at one point “Who controls who?” In most games, it’s understood that the player controls the game, but Calendula isn’t really a game-as-such, since it wrests control from you figuratively in the first moment, and literally in the minutes before the game’s denouement. The purpose here seems to be a claim about the illusions we have when it comes to our technology, namely that we have any sort of interactive power over videogames at all. What Calendula does is remove all of the filigree from the videogame form and replace it with the fact that, ultimately, videogames are just directed interactive films, false choices sometimes more and sometime less veiled. From the second or third glitch, Calendula tells its player that there are no illusions here: the only option is to let the game tell you what direction you’ll be taking.
This of course is an odd thing when it comes to actual glitches in the game itself. There is one room in Calendula that was never properly patched by its developers. There is a way through, but it’s a jury-rigged solution, not the designed solution the game gives you to fix its many glitches. The revelation of an unplanned glitch undercuts Calendula in a really productive way though — what the game itself wants to express is the lack of player agency, but what the glitch shows is that “game agency” is just as much a fiction. If the game itself is meant to suggest that we as people are controlled by our technology, then this becomes even more troubling when we realize the game itself is its own well-wrought urn without autonomy.
And this difficult formulation — what exactly do we make of a formally closed object that insists that we ourselves are without autonomy — remains unanswered in Calendula. The game ends in a puzzling way, with a birth metaphor and the naming of a child: Calendula. Calendula is a type of marigold, which could symbolize light and rebirth or cruelty or grief. And the game itself melds these visions of birth — the reddish corridors and the journey to the light we see in the brief “in-game” scenes suddenly make more sense — with dark implications and a horror aesthetic. On one hand this could be representative of artistic birth, or of the difficulty of creation in and of itself. On the other, it could also be a confused attempt to tie together the confounding knots Calendula has given us.
This is perhaps the most satisfying answer, after all. Calendula takes the autonomy of its player away and then finds itself out of control as well, truly autonomous except for the control and intention of its designer. This is also a bit pat as explanations go, and I think the more honest account of Calendula is that it is ambitious and flawed. But unlike a lot of experimental horror, Calendula also has something its trying to say about games, it is immanently self-reflexive. And that sets it apart and makes it worth playing, even if ultimately it must provide the narrative and the closure it promises it will not.