A sinister coming together of body and technology.
Calendula is a bite-sized puzzle-horror game developed by Blooming Buds Studio. The narrative and mechanics both involve trying to get the game to run, the idea being that you can’t get past the buggy, glitchy main menu. The player must solve a number of ‘think outside the box’ puzzles to try and get this broken game to start, or are you already playing?
Calendula isn’t a jump scare kind of game, nor does it have any elements of shock, the horror aspect of this game lies completely within its dark atmosphere. It creates a unique feeling of being slightly uncomfortable through its visuals and excellent sound design. It conjures up an unnerving feeling that something isn’t quite right. Alongside the glitch effects and error messages, Calendula taps into an unusual set of visuals: vivid bodily imagery. There are images of eyes, human tissue, and veins – not to mention that everything is blood red in colour. It’s not gory; it’s more abstract and definitely creepy.
The sound design drives the chilling and uneasy atmosphere by coupling the visuals with bodily sounds. Sometimes you can hear a heart beating and breathing under the minimalist music. The sound effects are subtly weird and hard to work out exactly what you are listening to. An example of this being that every time you click an option, there is a crinkly, peeling noise, like someone is picking away at something. The sound design is very articulated and makes your hair stand on end. Think along the lines of the ASMR videos.
Calendula has been compared to the game Pony Island that was released earlier this year (here is our BitCultures review). Both games involve the player messing with the in-game options to solve puzzles, and both games come under the genre of ‘meta’: games that are self-aware. But in terms of the overall experience, they are vastly different. If Pony Island’s broken game was concerned with a possessed arcade machine, Calendula’s broken game is a concerned with a half-machine, half-human hybrid. It makes it seem that beyond that main menu is a living breathing organism. It’s a Cronenberg nightmare, a brilliant idea, and totally disturbing.
The puzzles are pretty straightforward so there’s not much challenge, but the nature of the puzzles adds to the narrative of the game. There are also cinematic dream-like sequences in-between the games ‘levels’ where the player is walking down a corridor or up a flight of stairs. The walls bulge, and the muffled sound makes it feel like you’re submerged somewhere. These sequences are unnerving but take you out of the gameplay slightly, breaking the tension. But they add another layer to the abstract story. The title ‘Calendula’ refers to a flower with medicinal properties, a reference to a healing process, maybe? The cut-scenes, title, and other little hints indicate that the story isn’t as straightforward as a broken game you have to solve.
Calendula is a short, experimental game that has found a unique kind of horror that can be completed in under an hour. Its focus on the intertwining of technology and the human body is unique and placed within a ‘broken game’ narrative makes an interesting experience. The story, at times, can be rather vague, but this is to leave room for interpretation. Whether the balance is right between the two is down to player preferences. Calendula is available on Steam (Windows and Mac) for £4.99/$7.