[TW: This review contains some discussion of trauma, gore, drug use and abuse.]
[Contains heavy spoilers.]
I don’t think I’ve finished Loren Schmidt’s Strawberry Cubes. I’m not sure if that’s something I can even do.
I could not plainly describe a narrative for you. I can say that Strawberry Cubes is beautiful and melancholy and eerie. I can say it’s a game of dissonances that invokes the horror tradition of subverting childlike innocence. I play a little girl—or rather, a bright white gestalt of a little girl. A mostly featureless, paperlike sprite. I can say that this game is 2D, an ostensible platformer, and sprinkled here and there with opaque puzzles. Normally, I find puzzle platformers to be kind of trite and on-the-nose—at worst, the puzzles feel incoherent, alienating and tacked-on—but in Strawberry Cubes, they’re deeply entangled in the viscera of the game. Disentangling them isn’t surgical. I don’t know my own tools. I have very little idea what anything does and when I look for help, the description on the game’s itch.io page is just as cryptic as the game. Strange symbols mock me while explaining very little:
Fossil moth slideshow
alt=3D”Highlights From The Past Decade”
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Come up her eyes open. Next to winter air and now that.
Using my arrow keys to move, coarsely inferring how objects in the environment react to my collisions with them takes the familiar and garbles it. Everything is fuzzy. I feel rather like Bev at the end of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), high on prescription medication and ghoulishly eviscerating his brother, Elliott, with grotesque silver tools of his own dark design. It is a kind of ritual, automatic and imperative and full of meaning, but what meaning? I feel almost that to know this game at all is to hack my way through it brutishly, going over parts, breaking things, and doing so in an almost ambient haze. I collect the seeds and the seeds turn into flowers, but planting them in advantageous spots is a matter of trial and error. I ascend to the room with the pointing bird-of-prey glyph, stoic and red, and jump down to grab the seed. I ascend to the room with the pointing bird of prey glyph, and down for the seed. I break the plates in the room with the hippopotami. I leave and come back and there they are, simple white disks set on platforms. I break them again. What are the seeds? What are the plates?
I leave a room and come back to it and suddenly it has changed. Walls have moved, or harmless set pieces have become spikes. I collect all sorts of glyphs. What do they mean?
A great deal of the writing on Strawberry Cubes makes two observations: it’s difficult to parse, and it looks glitchy. Neither of these things are implicit problems—I’m no stranger to the glitchy, obscure and opaque. But I don’t think the conversation stops at “This thing looks cool and weird and it makes no sense.” I don’t think Strawberry Cubes is only worth talking about because it’s charmingly strange and elusive. I don’t have to know exactly what it all means for it all to provoke. There is this little girl and she is trapped in a shifting, unreliable hellworld. This hellworld is perhaps of her own making: what are the seeds? They seem to help her. What are the plates? They seem to acquiesce only to her. Everything is hot neon outlines of white or red—but sometimes green or fuchsia or aquamarine or yellow—on a stark black backdrop. The textures twist and bend on the world’s architecture like a kaleidoscope, with the push of a button adjusting fuzzily into view, or becoming invisible again. Sometimes I press a button and the screen twists and fades and, filling with scan lines, takes me back to my previous, I suppose, checkpoint. A room with a blood-red door, perhaps. A room all lined with pearly-white skulls.
There are bones and flowers and eyes and animals. There are the seeds of flowers that I command, and even the ability with the right power up to duplicate myself. There are rituals of becoming and unbecoming. There is the slow and brutal rifling through the guts of Strawberry Cubes, to know it and to become one with something which has been separated and forgotten. The vines shoot up between the skeletons, the bodies, and bloom. I cannot jump but I can climb. It seems like it hurts.
Taking her =
chair to get more.
(And) leaned down the center of someone.</span>
There’s another game I wrote about a long time ago called Oiche Mhaith (2011), by Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle. In that game, a girl suffers unconscionable abuse at the hands of her parents. She experiences maladaptive coping, lashing out some of that same abuse on her stuffed doll. A stylized RPGMaker game, Oiche Mhaith tasks the player with working through disturbingly subverted RPG conventions, such as (cruel and fickle) dialogue trees. It’s a cryptic and obscure game, often dipping into the surreal, but still quite consciously at work questioning and breaking the expected mechanisms of games as a means of showing us a different kind of brokenness. Something more spiritual, perhaps.
Strawberry Cubes has more in common aesthetically with low-res gothic creepshows like L’Abbaye des Morts (Locamolito, 2010) or The Midnight Station (Studio Anjin, 2014). A journey through Hell is at once grotesque and carnivalesque, where brightly coloured fragments of demons from some horrible memory roam, flat and artifacted. The rooms change. The real and unreal blend and become inextricable, a writhing mass. There is a sense of anxious discombobulation and uncertainty of the environment, of the self. But Strawberry Cubes is not quite as explicitly infernal as these predecessors. It’s something more insidious than that. Perhaps something more spiritual.
The sounds in Strawberry Cubes are sparse, often low and hollow. There are clinks. There is roiling like a sputtering engine. There are the dissonances of vibrant colour contrasted with darkness, of the cute title giving way to such a macabre experience, of the outlandish visuals indicating something much more subtle and personal. There is the constant not knowing what to do next, or where to go, or what things will look like when I return. There is a room and in that room there is a prompt to press a key. The key changes just about every time I visit, but what it tells me is that the room is called “Formless.” What is it that has no form, if it isn’t the room? Malleable, yes, but they are formed. In another room there is a massive wash of pink and a banner which reads “walkin’ after midnight”, bracketed by two quaver notes. What has happened here? What are the plates? Why do I climb? Do I hope to escape? I believe that something has happened, that something has broken, and I am here to put it back together.
It came to my attention, thanks to this little Kill Screen blurb, that Strawberry Cubes takes place in the home of the protagonist’s grandmother. Or, at least, some hellacious “living maze” version of it. If that is to be believed then I can follow my own suspicions: this is not a place but the memory of a place. Strawberry Cubes is somewhere between The Midnight Station and Oiche Mhaith. Otherworldly, ghoulish—but an otherworld that plays out within an injured psyche, filtered through the eyes of a child. That explains the fuzziness, the shifting environment, the juxtaposition of the innocent and the terrible. That explains the cryptic fucking text everywhere. That, maybe, explains the broken plates. The seeds, growing up. Growing up.
There is a room I’ve found. Sometimes it’s bounded by a white, lacy frame and is bordered on the left by a straight, vertical drop. I must duplicate myself to enter it. The self that enters it is perhaps not the actual self, or the version of the self I began the game with. It’s a paper-white copy. It enters the room and in that room there’s a woman. Sometimes there are other set pieces but this time there are two platforms and two plates. My own picture fades in and out. It adjusts like a television signal, or a memory fragment from a long time ago which requires focus. Her hair is like mine but she’s taller. She is red like the doors. She just stares in my direction. I can’t reach the plates. I have no seeds. I try to leave but as soon as I fall through the floor I wrap around and come careening through the ceiling. I fall and fall and she stares. She is red like the doors. There is still more to see.