It’s 2:30am and I just completed Below, and I feel like a different person. It’s a slight change, but it’s there. It happens anytime you experience some kind of art that transcends its own medium. The world around you is different. You feel more resilient. There was something you were missing before, and now it’s more complete.
Part of me wants to forget it as quickly as possible. Part of me wants to crawl up into a ball and rock back and forth, gently moaning. Part of me wishes I never bought this game, never knew this game existed, or even wishes that the game never existed in the first place. But most of all, I want to scream out to the world what an incredible experience I’ve just had with a game called Below.
Over the course of my thirty-two hour play through, I’ve rage quit countless times. I’ve uninstalled it. I’ve even tried to delete it from my Steam library, but could only figure out how to hide it. Not even five minutes later, I’d unhidden it and reinstalled it. I’ve cursed the people involved in creating this thing. I’ve proposed locking it away in a vault somewhere, burying it under kilometres of sand, and killing everyone involved in knowing its location. I’ve hung my head in my hands, closing out the world, before proclaiming monotonously to my wife for the nth time, this is fucked.
On the surface, Below is an aesthetically beautiful game about delving deeper into a labyrinth of caves. You need to stay nourished, avoid traps, and fight your way through enemies. I’d heard it was difficult and unforgiving, but that doesn’t even come close. It is cruel, nasty, sadistic, uncaring, psychopathic, rewarding, maddening, frustrating, gorgeous, fun, tedious, surprising, awe-inspiring, and completely riveting. It punishes you over and over again, and it doesn’t care what success you’ve had in the past. If you neglect to take care in your every step, there is no mercy shown.
Metaphors arise during gameplay. Take only what you need. Find the most efficient way possible. Always be cautious and diligent, no matter how confident you are in your abilities. Only you are to blame for your mistakes, or rather, only you can take the responsibility needed to fix them. Life isn’t fair, but then again, why should it be? The rules are set. Oh, it’s unfair that when your torch runs out, it staggers your character, leaving them vulnerable to that twin sword enemy on level 6 that kills you in 2 hits? So, don’t use your torch there anymore. Now you can’t see properly? Well, maybe there are other ways to see. Maybe what you thought you needed, you didn’t need at all. Maybe the answer has been staring you in the face your whole life but you were too blind to see it.
You’re tired of farming for basic food items over and over again? Tired of trying to get your lantern back, but dying to a stupid trap on the way, and losing all that gathering you just did? Well, you better get used to it, because that’s what Below is. It doesn’t shift or morph for you. You either accept it, or you keep struggling and making it worse.
Even the beautiful music starts to sound patronising after a while. At first, it encourages you to keep trying: a fresh start, new possibilities, don’t give up, we’re going to do this! Then, after a certain level of deep repetitious failure, it becomes satire, as if to say haha, memba this music from before? Memba keep trying over and over until you win? We’ve passed that point. Oh what poor, naive fools we were…
The thing is, all this hostility is for a purpose. It elevates Below to more than just a video game. It’s a real experience that you can have. You exist in this world. It is a real place. It produces real emotions, no matter the cost. As far as we know, this is the only life we’re ever going to have, so wouldn’t you want to fill it with meaningful, original experiences like Below? I will never play this game again, but it is a brave and courageous masterpiece that deserves to be experienced.
A game like this cannot be reduced to a score. It doesn’t fit into good or bad. It just is. You play it, and if you’re someone who can’t back down from a fight with themselves, you’ll keep going until you win, no matter the cost. You will wonder why you keep putting yourself through this. No one is holding a gun to your head, making you keep playing. Except you. Because the world in which you give up on this game, is worse than the one in which you endlessly suffer trying to beat it.
There were several times I thought I’d finished it, only to have to struggle for countless more attempts. Losing the same resources over and over again. But eventually, you break through, and are hypnotised by what is on the screen. You don’t quite understand what it means in words, but you feel it in your soul. I don’t usually like declaring what is and what isn’t art, but Below is most certainly art. If you’re looking for something deeply challenging, moving, rewarding and beautiful, please give Below a shot.
But be warned, it might change you, and you might not like who you become…