Lorelei and the Laser Eyes Is a Postmodern Maze Worth Getting Lost In

Games Reviews Lorelei and the Laser Eyes
Lorelei and the Laser Eyes Is a Postmodern Maze Worth Getting Lost In

During my undergrad, I took an introductory game design course that ended with me and two other starry-eyed freshmen making a game together. In theory, it wasn’t supposed to be anything too elaborate, an hour-ish-long experience that we’d make using the relatively straightforward visual novel engine Ren’Py. But of course, even the smallest videogame is often a nightmare to put together, and I vividly remember how much I struggled with what was initially envisioned as the climax, a maze.

Try as we might, we couldn’t figure out how to make this sequence anything besides a tedious slog that made the player feel more like the Minotaur than Theseus with his string. In the end, we scrapped most of it. It’s a problem that I imagine many designers face when trying to create something similar because the theoretical wonder and mystery of exploring a labyrinth often come up short next to the frustrating reality of bumping into identical walls as you fumble toward an exit.

I bring all this up because unlike us struggling college students, Lorelei and the Laser Eyes, the latest from Simogo (Sayonara Wild Hearts, Year Walk, Device 6), fundamentally understands how to present enrapturing mazes, whether they be literal or metaphorical. Its uncompromisingly Byzantine gameplay is structured like one, creating a twisting path of tough but fair puzzles that almost always offer just enough guidance to create enticing challenges. Meanwhile, its storytelling dovetails with this approach and delivers mystifying narrative threads that only become tangible as you journey further into these depths. Using both these avenues, it eventually digs into why those like King Minos created a labyrinth in the first place: to hide truths they’d rather forget.

But before going deeper, I’ll explain the basics. Things pick up as an unnamed, chicly dressed woman arrives for a business trip at a Central European estate, the Hotel Letztes Jahr. She’s supposed to meet with a famous Italian filmmaker (think Fellini but with trashier films) to collaborate on an unspecified art project. Unfortunately for her, things quickly go off the rails. To fully understand what’s going on and why she came to this place, she must explore this elaborate locale that would fit in nicely alongside the convoluted architecture of a Resident Evil game (and if this building didn’t remind you of Spencer Mansion, the fixed camera angles certainly will).

As for what you do as the player, there are three main actions. You move around, interact with what’s in front of you, or open the document menu. Using these tools, you solve puzzles. Lots and lots and lots of puzzles. Puzzles that almost always lead to, you guessed it, more puzzles.

While I went into Lorelei and the Laser Eyes expecting a shortish tone piece with some light puzzles, such as some of Simogo’s previous titles like Year Walk or Device 6, their latest is a twenty-to-thirty-hour long beast full of brain-twisting challenges that require keeping a pencil and notebook on hand. This hotel is littered with riddles and enigmas, and especially early on, the experience is more defined by staring in confusion at mysterious clocks, shut doors, and combination locks rather than solving much of anything. While some of these can be figured out with information found on-site, many require hints that can only be found in far-flung corners of the hotel.

This large-scale, interconnected string of challenges is undeniably daunting up front, but this approach has quite a few strengths. The first is that it’s simply engaging to explore this space and poke at its many funky doohickies as you try to make heads or tails of what’s going on. Much of this is part and parcel with Metroid-styled games, and it works just as well in this house-shaped presentation. Another boon that extends from this non-linear design is that you almost always have plenty of different puzzles to poke at, and when you hit a dead-end somewhere, there are usually other avenues to explore until you find an essential piece of intel or things click into place upstairs. And when you finally wrap back around and figure out some odd clue you first saw hours ago, the complexity of this sprawling setting only adds to the self-satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

While mechanically, the game largely only exists in this riddle-solving mode, the variety and ingenuity of these trials ensure that they don’t grow boring. As my many pages of hand-written notes filled with wildly scrawled numbers, patterns, directions, codes, and shapes can attest, there is quite a bit of novelty to be found here. Looking through these jottings now, I can still feel the thrill of finally cracking a recurring pattern that stumped me for the longest time or a particularly devious one-off challenge. Sometimes, these puzzles even go as far as breaking the regular flow of the experience, as the fixed camera detaches itself to frame things from a new perspective, and its mechanics transform with it.

Hanging over this puzzle-solving is the evocative presentation of this surreal space. Simogo utilizes a high-contrast art style that stylishly delivers a world of monochrome greys and blacks that are only occasionally broken up by bright red splotches, which will constantly have you wondering if what you’re witnessing is paint or blood. Fixed camera angles further amplify the filmic energy, both setting up aesthetically appealing shots and subtly guiding the player towards objects of interest.

At first glance, this hotel seems “normal,” but soon you’ll notice that textures writhe as if they want to break free, backdrops inexplicably fade into oblivion as if rendered incorrectly, and there’s a general digital buzz found in blurry screen transitions and impossible phenomenon. I’m sure the heavy shadows and specific cell-shaded look will draw comparisons to Suda51 and Grasshopper’s output like Killer7, but in reality, it feels like the experience has a deeper kinship with something like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Much like that novel, Lorelei and the Laser Eyes is shot through with postmodern delirium, as it metatextually draws attention to its own nature as a story and, more specifically, as a videogame. Part detective story and part ghost tale, it reflects on a Rolodex of topics: why people tell stories, eyes as a motif for enlightenment and madness, the nature of creating art, and more. And beyond this, it delivers its narrative in a way that only a videogame could, combining elements of literature, film, and, of course, games, as it provides puzzles that reinforce its ambiance and themes. Math problems and riddles aren’t the only conundrums here, and eventually, you have to piece together the very nature of this story itself.

In more ways than one, this game is undeniably a “not for everyone” type of experience. Its narrative and challenges are knotted, confusing, and require a lot of work on the player’s part. For me, these are boons, but I imagine some folks’ eyes will glaze over as dozens of locked boxes taunt them in unison. Haters of bespoke puzzles, you’ve been warned.

But even as someone who is very much okay with the previous stipulations, I still had a few gripes. While the complex flow of its puzzles worked for me the vast majority of the time, at one point, I became hopelessly stuck. Confused as to whether I missed a document in some random room or simply misunderstood what was in front of me, I found myself wandering aimlessly, and it would have been nice if there was an in-game figure who could have nudged me in the right direction (while there is someone you can talk to for advice, in a truly devilish move, they only give you garbled nonsense answers). My other main issue was that while I very much enjoyed what the ending accomplished thematically, it somewhat brushes aside its delightful web of avant-garde weirdness in an effort to tidily explain what the story is about. Things aren’t entirely clear-cut, and I get that mazes often have a definitive solution, but it would be nice if they let me stay a little bit more lost in the details.

Altogether though, Lorelei and the Laser Eyes is a game with vision. It wraps intriguing puzzles in a digital gothic framic. It makes the most of its chosen medium as it forces us to navigate the tenuous details of this backdrop. Just about every layer of the experience is creatively risky, from its fragmented narrative to its uncompromising barrage of challenges, but these gambles largely pay off to deliver something with purpose and direction. Crafting this kind of maze isn’t easy; it takes a combination of subtle guidance and faith in your audience. But despite these challenges, Simogo never loses sight of how to stoke curiosity about what’s lurking around the next corner, whether it’s a treasure you’ve been seeking or, conversely, something horrible lurking in the dark.

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes was developed by Simogo and published by Annapurna Interactive. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the Switch.

Elijah Gonzalez is the assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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