Ginger Nuts of Horror
By now, you may be noticing a certain pattern to the video games that appeal to me; alongside the more standard “survival horror” pieces (that are typically works of external horror; characters being thrown into some strange or horrific situation, having to survive and fight their ways to safety) are those that serve as threshings of the sub-conscious; internal worlds and dream-scapes somehow becoming manifest or imposing themselves on waking reality.
This is a favoured trope of mine in all forms of fiction; one that I often explore through my own work; an obsession that arguably began with this video game; the first of such I ever played, back in the days of my very first system, the much beloved Commodore Amiga:
Harlequin is one of those peculiar titles whose vision and ambition far exceeds the technological limitation of its era. Were it made today, it would likely take a very similar form to American McGee's Alice series of games, which are, in many respects, its spiritual successors.
Not necessarily a horror game in and of itself (hailing from an era when horror titles were as rare as hen's teeth on the video game market), Harlequin is the peculiar tale of a Peter Pan like figure, who lives in a world of his own fantasies throughout his childhood (the beautifully named clock-tower, Chimerica). However, as Harlequin ages, as his interests become less those of a boy and those of a man, he sets out from his childhood home to wander the “real” world, finally growing into a man.
However, in his absence, Chimerica's heart is broken. Corruption and decay seep into his dreaming world, and the reality he has almost forgotten calls out to him in dreams, begging him to return and heal it once again.
Upon returning to Chimerica, the eponymous Harlequin finds its gates and doorways barred, its lands dust-strewn and decaying, and evidence of a strange darkness spreading throughout; his childhood haunts and playgrounds now infested with strange and threatening creatures, places where he used to laugh and play now dangerous and crumbling, Chimerica dying around him, until he can find and mend the pieces of its broken heart.
Like many games of its era, the story set out in the rule book has little impact on gameplay as such; the game itself is a fairly inventive, interesting platformer, strangely structured for its era; not the standard, left-to-right, level-to-level endurance trial many manifest, but an almost free roaming adventure, with many routes and pathways through Chimerica's twisting environments, depending on how you choose to progress. The basic purpose of the game is to find various switches scattered throughout the levels which open doorways or activate phenomena that allow passage to other stages (switching a particular lever in the “Dream Mile” segment, for example, opens up a previously absent doorway in a previous stage that leads deeper into Chimerica's bowels; a particularly fraught transitional area known as “The Throat of the Machine”).
What sets the game apart, barring its unusual structure, is its incredibly surreal and unique design, each and every stage designed to capture some element of Harlequin's childhood psyche, but subtly altered and twisted, rendering it simultaneously cute and disturbing.
For example, the aforementioned “Dream Mile” is an immense desert of sand-strewn plains, blowing winds and pyramidal temples, great hour-glasses measuring out the sands of time, whilst stinging scorpions, venomous plants and dart-blowing tribesmen attempt to halt Harlequin in his quest. Elsewhere, a kite that appears at the very height of Chimerica's clock tower, but can only be reached by swinging on its hands, provides passage to a cloud-realm that changes every time Harlequin passes through, whose design is that of a jig-saw puzzle, and whose enemies are some of the most surreal in the game. Within the darkness of Chimerica's inner workings, Harlequin encounters living nuts and bolts, strange machines, great worms infesting the cogs and gears of the clock. Deeper in Chimerica's labyrinth, he discovers a realm of shattered and flickering TVs, each one providing access to different realms that represent TV programmes he used to enjoy as a child. Deeper still, he traverses realms redolent of Heaven and Hell, sewer systems and a transit system comprised of a labyrinth of drinking straws in an ocean of pink soda.
It's weird. Bizarrely, beautifully weird; a step up from similar games of the era for its presentation alone, not to mention the psychological factors at play in its aesthetics.
It's also extremely, extremely hard; a fantastically long game, without the benefit of a save function, that could take hours on end to beat (which I never did, by the by). Hardly unusual for games of the era, but certainly something that might put present day gamers off.
In terms of flaws, the game also suffers from simple technological limitation not being the equal of its ambition: it is clear from the box art and the blurb in the rule book that this game was intended to be something highly artistic and far, far darker than it ultimately became: very little in the game matches the strangeness and surreal imagery rendered in the box art or promised by the game's title screen, which is a shame, but fairly standard for most titles of the era; in order to get the most out of them, gamers were obliged to fill in the gaps between sprites and pixels with their own imaginations; a factor that arguably resulted in a greater degree of immersion and atmosphere than if everything is presented in photo-realistic detail and sharpness.
Like many titles on the Amiga, the game can be occasionally frustrating in terms of its controls and the sheer amount of things happening on the screen at any one time (one particular area known as “The Bomb Run” is insane); Harlequin himself is fairly sluggish and difficult to control, and the placement of enemies, pitfalls, traps etc can be confounding. Also, as is the case with the vast majority of games from this era, it ends on something of a damp squib; there is no grand restoration of Chimerica, no purging of the darkness in its bowels; just a fairly odd ending sequence and the obligatory congratulations screen.
That said, it was a title I returned to again and again as a child, drawn by its sheer strangeness; the surrealism of its aesthetics, its absurdity and the promise of deeper symbolism in its shattered heart.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.