Flathead – Headscratcher

It could still be a good night if you play your cards right

Light on mechanics and heavy on atmosphere, Flathead is as much an experiment as it is a game.

Flathead is odd. I’ve been trying to find a way to sum this game up and it’s not been very easy as it involves very little actual game. This is as much an experience as it is a game, with it fitting into that now quite popular subgenre of terror known as analogue horror. Bizarre creatures, a near indecipherable plot, and a soundscape that will make you feel uncomfortable at pretty much every moment are wrapped up in a future-60s style that leaves you wanting to learn more about the Silkbulb universe that developer Tim Oxten is creating.

The story is hard to work out to say the least. Initially you are placed in a chamber and forced to take part in a life or death gambling game — more on that shortly — where success will give you more information about the universe you’re occupying, and failure results in you being killed in a confusing fashion. The parts of the plot are given to you in tape form, which you can read or listen to between games and tell of a research group studying some sort of otherworldly creatures that seem to communicate in strange and potentially fatal ways. 

Get used to this view, you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Still, 19 is a good number to have.

Honestly, by the end I didn’t feel like I understood what had happened, but I’m sure some internet lore sleuths would be into this sort of thing and get a kick out of figuring all this out. As mentioned earlier, this is part of Tim Oxten’s Silkbulb universe that is being built over the course of a number of games, including the forthcoming Silkbulb Test, and possibly previously released Future Racer 2000. I approve of the ambition, but feel I’d have liked a bit more in the way of explanation in the game I was currently playing.

The mechanics of the game are very simple. You play the higher or lower game until you win enough times. That’s pretty much it. If that sounds a bit dull, Flathead does get that way towards the end of a playthrough, by which time I’d had enough of the very simplistic gameplay. However, this is spiced up in a few ways. Each round you’ll have a target score, and if you guess correctly consecutively you’ll earn points faster, with a multiplier of sorts. First guesses are worth one point each, but your next one will be worth two, then three, then four. An incorrect guess will cost you all your points though, which is a bit of a problem, but between guesses you can bank all your current points at the expense of resetting your multiplier.

This on its own is fine enough, but you’re also against an undefined time limit. There’s a creature sneaking up behind you as you play, and should you fail to reach your target before it reaches you, then you’ll likely die. I say likely as you’re given one last higher or lower guess to save your skin, which is a nice touch. This threat means it behoves you to gamble on those multipliers to build your score faster. You have a light that you can use a few times to see how close the creature is, but other than that you’re rather in the dark. Pun very much intended.

Looks like I could have used a little more luck.

Due to the random nature of the game, you are given a few benefits in the form of the “wheel of fate” and “make your own luck”. The former is a random chance to get more uses of your light or a higher multiplier, but also includes point losses and multiplier resets, so it’s also a bit of a gamble. The latter will eliminate possible numbers when you guess higher or lower, and this is the thing that somewhat broke the game for me. When I worked out how “make your own luck” worked, I could complete pretty much any round with next to no threat, even on the hard setting. Yes, there’s the argument that I could just not use it, but it’s a core mechanic to the game so it’s there to be used. Once I reached that point I was quite keen to just get through the game which very much killed the atmosphere.

This is a shame as that atmosphere really is quite strong. The space between runs, called the Incubator, feels like an unsettling liminal space being simply a white room with a single locked door behind out, a screen that never changes, and a photo of a strange woman. This area alone feels creepy, but the area you play the real game in is genuinely bizarre. A slightly organic feeling computer screen presents your numbers as a clockwork man periodically stares at you to one side. Odd faces appear in monitors and peering through the darkness, all whilst creaks and groans play out just beyond your vision. There’s the odd jump scare here, but most of the time you’ll feel alone and uncomfortable. This, I feel, is Tim Oxten’s strongest suit, as that feeling of isolation in a place that can only be described as “wrong” is excellently conveyed, and I’m very keen to see what he can do once he makes more of a game of this world.

Playing the tapes between sessions reveals some sort of story. I struggled to decipher it though.

And that’s kind of the issue here. If you’re after a game, Flathead probably won’t do it for you. There’s little mechanically going on, and you’ll likely tire of the gameplay loop after a few rounds. Those who want a bizarre experience with a little game included will have an interesting time though, with a world that’s being built and an atmosphere that you won’t find in many other games. At a cost of less than £2 too, this is something that you could easily try out without worrying too much about breaking your wallet. Just come back and tell me what the hell was going on once you’re done.

Flathead is available now on PC.

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