Notes on Hell: Hello Dad, I’m in Jail. I Like it Here. It’s Nice.

Hell  by ahintoflime is a point-and-click adventure about being dead. I know there are a healthy handful of underworld simulators—from the obvious Diablo to the lesser-known The Midnight Station—but Hell is worth a mention for its gameplay and visual style as well as for many of the themes running through it. 

Hell is depicted as a game application, a software that runs post-mortem as a sort of bridge between life and death. The afterlife is depicted not as a final place for detached souls, but as a kind of collapse of consciousness as the self decomposes entirely and disperses entirely into the void. Upon loading Hell, the player is shown a log-in screen for Hell OS version 6.6.7. Directly below, they are informed that they have died, and are provided a field in which to enter their name. The game is presented as a windowed console, reminiscent of old adventure games like Tass Times in Tonetown, with the screen in the center of the window providing a visual portal into the underworld. To the left of the screen is a simple white box reading “inventory” in the Commodore-64 font. To the right, a smaller box provides “player info” in the same lowercase retro-gaming font. This box will always read something like,

“name: kissinger

status: dead

HP: 0/100

mood: mopey”

Beneath these three fields, a wide text box provides some context for where you are and what you are seeing. This can vary based on certain choices the player may make as they progress through the game, though it’s often unclear how one choice will ultimately affect another. In the beginning, however, the player is caught staring down a long hall. Halfway down the hall, there is a balloon hugging the ceiling. Using the comically large hand cursor, the player may choose to pop the balloon. Later, other seemingly inconsequential choices appear: to pet or not pet a lizard in a green room; to pick up or not pick up a pair of sunglasses; to take the dirty old book in the dingy tunnel, or to leave it. There are many of these little decisions, and how one makes them will have an effect on interactions that take place later in the game. Items in the player’s inventory have no apparent practical use, they simply belong to different characters you happen to meet in Hell: a pig demon, a pale specter, the clown twins, and so on. How you treat these characters’ stuff will affect their opinion of you.

That said, it’s not like it really matters. All playthroughs of Hell, even with their slight differences, end pretty much the same way: you encounter a framed image of an egg. You click on the egg, and it cracks, ultimately revealing the words “The End.” Everything up to this point has been ephemera, flashes of things that are both alien and familiar to the player-character. In the elevator that can take the player either up or down, a jazz band plays. All the figures in the band are dark except the pianist, who appears all in white. This woman, the text tells you, seems familiar, but you can’t place her. 

Hell is entirely in greyscale, making everything in the world seem stark and cold, murky and hazy. The imagery reminds me of nightmares I had when I was very young, which were always black-and-white and grainy, and involved me in a familiar place (my home) doing an unfamiliar thing (jumping off the top of a flight of stairs and flying through the air). These dreams were rarely scary in the horror-movie sense that one usually thinks of for nightmares, but they were always very unsettling in the way they felt proximate to something real, but off in very conspicuous ways. That is how it feels to play Hell.

The more one plays Hell, the easier it becomes to construct a mental map of the place, and develop some understanding of how the rooms connect to one another in terms of level design. Even so, there appears to be no scrutable reason why one room connects to the next (why is there a long hall leading to a green room, for example, or how does the factory at the top of the elevator lead to the same room with the egg as the power plant that follows from taking the elevator down?) There is no explicit, intelligible connection between any of these things, except that they may derive from the last errant neurons of a dead mind, mixed with the metaphoric glimpses of some spiritual truth from the afterlife. The demonic cat that whispers to you to take the elevator may be a symbolic projection of a companion or a guide, a literal demonic cat, or a long lost pet. Perhaps it is all three.   

Hell is highly stylized, and it tells a story in which the pieces all fit together but they have to be assembled by the player, and even then may be pure signifier with no particular signified. The story follows a trajectory but the sights seen on the journey leave one wondering what it was all about. The monochrome and the slow plod of the single-frame animations makes everything feel long, dark and winding. Hell lends itself to a psychoanalytic reading as much as it does a theological one or an expressionist one. The cracked egg at the end of the game is a really obvious example of this: it can at once be read as a symbol of fertility that signifies rebirth, or it could be an ironic tease on the finality of death, or it could refer to a kind of final understanding followed sternly by the words, “The End.”

Hell combines the surrealist horror imagery found in the likes of Jacob’s Ladder or Inland Empire with a very endearing, classic point-and-click adventure design. That said, it stands apart from other games in the genre in that it’s very easy to play. There’s no real way to fail, and finding interactive objects is fairly straightforward. There’s no need for an exhaustive walkthrough. The difficult part comes in deciding on an interpretation for what those objects suggest to the player. Hell enigmatically drops hints about what sent this person to the underworld, but what I appreciate most is its conception of literal hell not as a place of fire and brimstone, but as a kind of Dante-esque mental torture that ultimately ends in a void. It feels like a highly specific punishment that both is poetic and resists clear understanding.

Hell is a surreal, enchanting, disturbing and charming game that can be played in a matter of minutes, but benefits from multiple replays. It uses conventions of old point-and-click games as a vehicle for a story rich in powerful, evocative imagery and dark humour, with strong overarching themes about the unforeseeability of consequences for one’s actions and the ultimate meaninglessness of those actions in the grand, cosmic scheme of things. That is part of the torture: to no longer be able to truly affect things around you, yet remain haunted by specters of those things, incapable of ever getting close enough to determine what—or who—they were.