The people who made Pneuma: Breath of Life are trying to convince players that their game is talking to them. Not, like, in terms of art direction, puzzle design or anything like that. It's more in the vein of an actual conversation. Part of it is worth listening to, while the other part feels like background noise you can't quite tune out.
The titular character in the perspective-based puzzle game thinks he's a god—a rather chatty, self-absorbed one. You're never going to see the face of the entity you're controlling in Pneuma. The only relatable aspect of Pneuma is his voice, which rambles in nervous, ponderous or smug tones. Most of the time he shuts up altogether, giving the player's brain space to puzzle its way out of the game's various arcanely ordered spaces.
The conceit in Pneuma is that the main character thinks he's a god but is stymied by limited access to the reality he thinks that he's created. Deco Digital's creation is trying to be metatextual in a way most games don't aspire to. Musings about the nature of creativity, godhood and awareness make up all of the spoken portions of the game.
Pneuma is much like other puzzle games that privilege mechanical gimmicks. You're supposed to go from point A to point B, using whatever special ability the developers have cooked up to make inexplicably inaccessible areas reachable. In this case, looking at specific parts of the environment will trigger effects. So, turning your virtual gaze onto a weird, glowing eye might cause a door to open for as long as you're looking at it, while simultaneously closing another further down the path. Or standing on a set of stairs and tilting the camera up will raise the elevation of the ramp you're standing on.
Later on, players will encounter some puzzles where moving something in the foreground will affect something in the background. In some areas, you won't be able to tell at first because you won't be able to see the entire apparatus. Other instances will require you to look at one special thing through another one. When you become acclimated to this way of looking at the gameworld, it'll be all you can think about. All along, I was asking myself "Do I look at this thing? Or do I not? What effect does looking/not looking have?"
Pneuma teases the player with shimmery water effects, dazzling sparks of light and odd textural details but shifting your gaze can backfire and erase progress you've made in solving a particular puzzle. The same goes for looking for clues in the environment. Pan the camera around to see what changes when you look at or away from something and the very thing you've been observing will change. Sometimes your only hints as to the triggers for a puzzle will be subtle sound cues. It's a slippery, counterintuitive element that challenges players to re-imagine how to look at a game.
Puzzle difficulty slopes upward gently for the most part, but there were sequences where I got stuck scanning for the crucial interaction between puzzle pieces for far longer than I wanted. That's all owed to how my brain works so I can't knock Pneuma's design for that. I will say that I'm grateful that the developers didn't slather easily-read signposts along the way. Victory over particularly knotty areas feels especially sweet when it feels like you're not getting led by the hand.
Brash with his supposed omnipotence at first, little fissures of doubt and logic failure start to worm through Pneuma's monologues. The slow change in tone sparked some curiosity on my part as to where his emotional arc might wind up and that wanting-to-know kept me pushing through the occasional frustrations of the game's puzzle designs. But, ultimately, the voicings given to Pneuma's monologues are problematic.
Part of the issue with Pneuma overall is that it's asking you to engage with its philosophical questions while also making use of a play experience that asks you to re-think how you interface with a gameworld. The former winds up undercutting the latter.
The character Pneuma nervously yammers exposition at you throughout the game, most of which I only wound up paying half-attention to because the observation-as-interaction mechanic felt far more interesting. I understood how to play Pneuma far more than I understood what it wanted to say about itself. After I finished, I found myself wanting to play Pneuma again just so I could really consider the monologues. This may sound like a good thing but, considering that Pneuma feels like it was meant to be a three-way dialogue—between its design, words and player—the fact that things felt so disparate isn't exactly a strength.
Some of Pneuma's dialogue seems to be a snarky meditation on the not-a-game/walking simulator non-debate that's surrounded games like Proteus or Gone Home. Games mean something because people make them and that meaning multiplies exponentially when people play them. Pneuma goes at that tension by trying to make the relationship between the creator and the creation—as well the relationship between what you observe and how that observation affects things—a playable experience. But it asks more questions in its running monologues than it answers. And the final answer it does deliver goes for a shock that it hasn't quite earned. The sardonic, self-mocking tone shifts abruptly to darker emotional states, which left me feeling a bit of narrative whiplash.
For a game that is basically a walking (floating) simulator, Pneuma finds a new kind of challenge. It requires players to become one with both the gameworld and the lens through which they view it. You have to listen to the game natter on about itself along the way but Pneuma mostly feels like a muddle of over-ambitious design intentions redeemed by a strongly implemented mechanic. Pneuma insists a little too hard that it's a special snowflake but there is in fact enough uniqueness to the first-person game to recommend playing it.
Contact the author at email@example.com.