It started with a casual stroll through a basement. Like any strange point-and-click game on the internet in the mid 00s (I’ll punch anyone who says the word “aughties” in the throat), Submachine included a series of thematically aligned puzzles and several unusual bits that made no sense. Why would there be a random music box controlling a drawer? Who would use a spoon to overload an old generator? Why is the music so DAMN unnerving? But back in those days, puzzle saps like me used to foam at the mouth for so called “room escape” style games, which were basically point and click adventures where one had to collect items and solve logic puzzles. The genre had a pretty solid fanbase eager to wade through wave after wave of free content, even if it meant downloading buggy-ass flash games made by half-wit stoners. And usually, those games involved puzzles that made absolutely no damn sense. But Submachine was one of several high-quality exceptions, in that a simple basement adventure unfolded into something nobody expected: a journey into isolation in an infinite and unimaginably chaotic world.
Mateusz Skutnik, the creator, has been making comics and flash games for much of his professional career. Amidst a decade of eager fans begging for the next Sub game, he’s released lots of other games. Daymare Town, a pencil-drawn puzzle exploration, will send tingles down your spine with hardly a touch of darkness; 10 Gnomes, a series based on photo exploration, is cute and a little jarring when you let your mind get into the fact that you’re exploring isolated areas. The sense of being a stranger in a strange place pervades Skutnik’s games, and with that comes the delectable sensation of fear and, in a way, imprisonment.
I’m not really into horror, but I find Submachine horrific. I’m the kind of person who looks into the stars and loses her balance (physically) when trying to really grasp the infinity of the universe. So for me, the horror is in the realization that the Submachine is unfathomably large and unwieldy, and that you aren’t much more than an insect within its cogs and gears. And unlike most insects, who have a hive and a community to rely on, you are alone, isolated, and left to decode this sprawling expanse on your own. One of the best touches is the music, provided by the ambient soundweavers ThumpMonks. Somehow, they’ve incorporated all of the creepy sounds of horror (creaking doors, scratching, static hissing) and amplified the effects to make them otherworldly. I once coached a friend through Submachine 2 while he was stoned. The combination of marijuana paranoia and the otherworldly creepiness overtook him, and the ThumpMonks soundtrack is a big part of why.
The games are available for cheap on Mateusz Skutnik’s website. You can get the entirety of the main series for a little over twenty bucks, which is well worth the price for the hours you can sink into the official series, and this doesn’t include the ever-growing Submachine Network Exploration Experience or the side games. I suggest you buy them, just to experience this in HD. I also suggest you pledge to his Patreon. Not to sound like one of those cheesy commercials where you’re certain that crooks are profiting off of your empathy, but for the price of a tall decaf latte every month you can keep a sick piece of independent art and gaming in action, and keep a brilliant dude behind his ever-messy desk.
I’ve replayed all of these games in anticipation of Submachine 10, the last of the official series (but fortunately, not the last of the universe itself). I’ll give you a blurb about each one so you know what to expect, but you’re better off just playing them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: play it alone, and in the dark, when there’s nobody else in the world. Play it on a laptop in a ghost town. Play it in the middle of the woods in a cabin only you know about. Let yourself be enveloped in the knowledge that nobody will come and show you the way, and your brain may not be able to handle the weakening grip on the physical laws of the universe. It is just you, and the machine.
Submachine 1: The Basement
The basement has been through a lot of “renovations,” so to speak. It’s the one Submachine game that’s seen the most retouching because it needed to be retconned to allow for the rest of the series to happen. But Skutnik’s signature style of organic lines and piping/valves creates a sensation of a humid basement full of secrets. The music is unsettling, to say the least, and the sound effect from switching between rooms seems deafening. Among typical basement fare are strange symbols and odd little machines that seem logically out of place; again, typical for a room escape, but with the bonus of actually leading somewhere. Here is where we get our first blurb of text from Murtaugh, our mysterious protagonist, talking about his “karma arm”. It didn’t make sense then. On some level, that was part of the draw. We had no idea where that arm would bring us.
Submachine 2: The Lighthouse
Let’s not make believe Skutnik knew where everything was going at first. I like to imagine he, too, was an explorer. While the basement made work of his love of valves and pipes and dark locales, Submachine 2 is where the series started to ascend into something much larger. The opening music is the closest to traditional horror you’ll get, which is extra effective seeing as the earliest parts of the game are bathed in red. Parts of ThumpMonks sounds feel like Darth Vader breaths, and you start to realize that you’re beneath a lighthouse that was completely swallowed into the ground. Every window is darkened by a pile of cold earth. Things start to become stranger. A hand-shaped puzzle tries to avoid your interaction, while a projector shows you an image so real you can touch it. This was the first Submachine game that ever required me to draw a map, which I have drawn so many times on so many replays that the sewers have become imprinted in my memory. Submachine 2 is the beginning of the machine as I know it.
Submachine 3: The Loop
Submachine 3 is a departure from the norm and remains the one game outside of the format that was established in all of the other games. The game started with metal music, and each round had independent puzzles. Most of them were pretty easy, but a few required some amount of cleverness; additionally, the game had passwords for each level, which was one of the earliest save features. Submachine 3 catches a lot of flack for being outside of what people expected of Submachine games, but it introduced one critical thing: the idea of the Submachine being infinite. You could travel in any direction as long as you wanted, and with that came the understanding that others has tried too, and they are long departed. If Submachines are little universes, loops are black holes: inescapable event horizons shooting particles of mass into the ether that will eventually form even more confusion.
Submachine 4: The Lab
If you listened to the instructions on one of the many creepy notes on your journey, you found your way to the lab. The lab is the first time you semi/directly communicate with anyone, and it happens to be your trusted guide, Murtaugh. Now, you’re not exploring a single place. You’re using a transporter to travel between a wide expanse of varied locations that seem as mismatched and odd as ever. Sprawling and full of potential, Sub4 was the natural precursor the Submachine Network Exploration Experience, which allowed further exploration through the 999 potentially accessible zones. The puzzles started to become more complex, and the search for secrets became a fire under my ass; I once picked up 22 of 21 secrets, which came from a bug that I’m not sure exists anymore. No matter. In Submachine 4, the possibilities seem more than endless: they seem disorganized, sprawling, godless tendrils of randomness. You find more and more notes from people who were hired to explore this new universe and were chewed up and spat out. You start to see people questioning the only person you know in here, Murtaugh. Things are getting more and more strange.
Submachine 5: The Root
Now, your location is a little more difficult to discern. You know you’re in the lab at first, and the location where you finish the game appears to be underground (reminiscent of the lighthouse). The root itself is some odd mix of moon rock and Mars. The red is pervasive and threatening, and there’s a crawly sensation that goes along with the frequent tinges of rust on every metallic surface. You start to sense a history behind Submachine exploration. There’s a 1950’s looking observation deck, and odd rooms full of speakers that conjure up images of government-run torture projects where prisoners were forced to listen to heavy metal or the Barney theme song for hours on end. One thing is for sure: The Root is utterly decrepit, being a piece of cold-war era science that should have remained buried, but it nonetheless reminds you that the original machine was rife with possibilities that humans could not yet fathom. There was something they, and Murtaugh, wanted from it. But as you depart from The Root towards the next location, there’s an eerie sense that there is way more to the machine than anyone thought.
Submachine 6: The Edge
This game is a bit of a departure from the others in terms of gameplay. As opposed to the previous incarnations of the machine, this one is both more accessible and more seemingly infinite (if your imagination allows). For starters, The Edge is a combination of sewer exploration and computer-matrix mainframe. There is no conceivable space that is as infinitely large as it is infinitely small other than the internet. Amidst these two simple concepts is one far more concerning: time. Sub 6 introduces time changes using a curious machine and a reference to the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth makes reality bendable. It’s the first time the game really adopts a mythology, and a set of inexplicable practices that go with it. For once, you really need to take a guess as to how to reveal the connection pod that takes you through the second half of the game, because it escapes all previous understanding until you start to fathom the reality that the Submachine exists outside of both space and time. Worse yet, the combination of inner-computer sounds and the constant references to your unauthorized presence create the sensation that you’re doing something completely and utterly wrong, which is a fine taboo if it weren’t surrounded by the cold loneliness of metal piping and idly twirling fan blades. This game is tonally reminiscent of the movie Cube, and rightly so: if Skutnik really wanted to (and had several years to work on it), he could create a game of a thousand interlocking rooms with 500 interwoven traps, and it would haunt you. He has the tools to do it, and Sub 6 is the closest he gets before venturing out of reality as we know it. There aren’t enough boots in the world…
Submachine 7: The Core
Submachine 7 takes you to the center. You finally come face-to-text with the only other person who appears by name in the series: Liz. It turns out that Liz knew Murtaugh’s more sinister intentions, and laments her inability to help you avoid his tricks. Your surroundings aren’t uncomfortable or frightening here; the music is airy and hopeful, like an interstellar Buddhist temple. Finally you start to get some perspective on what happened to the machine. There was a society here, one that valued quiet thought and spiritual reflection, and it was torn asunder. Liz bore witness to Murtaugh’s growth and demise, and from here you can observe the machine via telescope in all its sick and warped ingloriousness. Of all of the Submachine games, The Core is the most lovely and pleasant. The Submachine wasn’t always a mess of virally multiplicative technology; it once had a memetically spiritual significance and was a protected and solemn sanctuary. One hopes they could see what the core was like when the blessed florae were in full bloom, and the shards of rock formed a a place that was whole and beautiful. But our adventure continues, following the rock-shattering footsteps of the man who shattered it into pebbles.
Submachine 8: The Plan
It starts with a sense of urgency about Murtaugh returning, but that’s lost quickly once you begin exploring the multilayered landscape. Instead of one large expanse of territory, Submachine 8 is seven smaller intertwined worlds that interact curiously with each other. They start to look like mirrors of different outcomes, each representing a distinct dimension with its own history and evident culture. To engage in the game, you need to travel between these worlds, carrying tools and clues with you. Fans might not need to be reminded that Murtaugh’s karma arm could create in seven different dimensions, and this might be evidence that we could see.
By this point in the series you have departed completely from physics as you know it, and it shows. Questions about what happens in the future are bandied about because Murtaugh knows all of the answers. Some of these layers carry the sensation that time is more than irrelevant; it is incomprehensible to someone observing the world outside of it. The only person capable of that level of awareness might be a god. There is reference to a community that worshiped Murtaugh as one…
Submachine 9: The Temple
Submachine 9 is the most sprawling and convoluted expanse yet, not including the SNEE. The map is enormous and the puzzles are unyielding. As you infiltrate and descend beneath an enormous temple, you discover truths thrown out of time; your villain and his guard are dead, and alive, and forever-living. You’re still traveling between seven dimensions, and you find out the purpose of the missing hole and the power it holds. You’re approaching a more complete understanding of what was once incomprehensible, and every informative podium has a deeply satisfying revelation. Submachine 9 is the closest to completion we’ve gotten, especially as we realize Murtaugh had dark spots in his vision where he could not see the damaged he himself caused. It’s inspiring, and perhaps even unsettling. But more than anything, it is the largest and most fun Submachine game to date, and a pure pleasure to play through yet again.
Submachine Ancient Adventure (Submachine 0)
This mini-game is a tiny and quick adventure through one of the more ancient sections of the subnet. It moves quickly once you realize the logic of the puzzles, but it packs a nice piece of lunchtime gameplay for newbies looking to explore the ancient section a bit more. It doesn’t carry any lore with it, but if you’ve played the other games, you’ll recognize some of the symbols and puzzles. There’s intentional familiarity here.
Submachine: 32 Chambers
This one is a slightly more claustrophobic stroll through 32 sand-filled chambers. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit thirsty every time the gasping sound of sand burst through my speakers. As in many previous Submachine games, this particular offshoot (likely connected to the Ancient Section) hosts a trove of talismans and idols that appear vaguely South-American and certainly somewhat alarming. It’s slightly longer and more puzzling than the Ancient Adventure, and more satisfying because of it. Bring a drink.
Submachine: Future Loop Foundation
Amidst a backdrop of ambience entirely different from the other games, Future Loop Foundation is an exploration of nostalgia via insanity. You begin in a padded room and wind up exploring history through a photograph, a concept relative to Submachine 2. FLF appears to be primarily an advertisement for Mark Barrott, a musician who records under the name “Future Loop Foundation;” nonetheless, in the early years, the idea of the foundation itself felt like a creator or creepy overlord in the Submachine universe, pulling the strings and creating the uncomfortably sprawling reality we all enjoy exploring. FLF has a few puzzles sure to amuse, but it’s mostly fascinating because of the oddly nostalgic ambient electronica and the voyeuristic examination of a stranger’s photo album. Mind the cool-ass owl.
Submachine Universe (AKA Submachine Network Exploration Experience)
This is an opportunity to explore the subnet without necessarily reaching any particular goal. Using the transporters we familiarized ourselves with in Sub4 and the karma portals we used in Sub7, we can travel to over 70 different locations (and more in 2016) to explore what’s buried within the machine’s chaos. There isn’t necessarily a driving goal to the game. There’s clues that lead to undiscovered rooms and one major overarching puzzle, but the game doesn’t necessarily end because it isn’t a game. It’s like a walk through the most unnerving and creepy park you’ve ever had the pleasure of being caught inside of for all eternity.
Submachine 10 should be out in September.
Don’t forget to support Mateusz Skutnik on his Patreon.
Try a game out and let me know what you think in the comments.