The moment I tried to start the demo for the upcoming horror game Calendula, it broke. "FATAL ERROR," read the pop-up message when I tried to start a new game. "Current video configuration not supported."
"Christ," I muttered to myself, typing up an email to game developer Aleix Garridom that politely explained the problem and asked how to fix it. The response from the Garridom was unexpected: "You're doing great… Remember that [this] is a game that doesn't want to be played." Indeed, it will do just about anything to stop you.
The "NEW GAME" button in Calendula isn't where the game begins; it's the end point, the objective you're trying to reach, the one always moving just out of your grasp. There's a ghost in the machine that clearly doesn't want to let you in, but the only spells it can cast to ward you off are technical glitches: video problems, memory issues, controls that suddenly invert. Anything that can go wrong will; in this sense it's a lot like playing a game on a PC, though that doesn't seem to stop most people.
Calendula is a horror story about gaming, or at least about the obstacles that technology often places between a game and the person who wants to play it. It takes the frustrations of dealing with an obstinate piece of machinery—and the feeling of adversarial friction that often arises—and bends them into something sinister. Trying to make a computer do your bidding often feels like negotiating with an evil spirit, and for anyone who has ever wept over a keyboard at the sheer imaginative cruelty of their computer, the leap to a horror story should feel pretty natural.
Like a haunted house where the doors and hallways shift around you, Calendula is a slippery thing to inhabit, one that eludes and disorients in a way that becomes increasingly malevolent. Often, if you hack your way past a technical issue, you may earn yourself a brief, vaseline-smeared glimpse into a ominous room full of strange sounds and images before you're booted back to the menu.
I imagine the full version of the game will offer more answers to these mysteries when it is released in early 2016, but for now I remain thwarted by Calendula, which no doubt pleases it. The shadowy basement that calls to you in this horror experience is the game itself, and its error messages are the scraping sounds that both repel and lure you down the stairs. When it tells you that something is suddenly taking up space in the memory slots, do you really want to go look and see what it is? Of course you do.