Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Metrolith'

By Nick Dinicola

Metrolith is a Twine text adventure by Porpentine, a popular and proficient Twine author.

In it, you’ll guide various characters through an ancient derelict city, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Metrolith and The Nameless City by H.P. Lovecraft. Both stories capture the eeriness and wonder of exploring a mystery so vast you can never understand it. Metrolith is never outright scary, but it is consistently unsettling, which is a more impressive feat in my opinion.

Before entering the city you have to choose your character. There are several to choose from, but only three are displayed at the start of any game.

Each character has his own story that will play out depending on how successful you are at navigating the branching paths of the narrative. Each character’s story has its own conclusion, sometimes multiple conclusions, and some end badly while some end well for the individual involved. The important thing is that these conclusions tell us nothing about the Metrolith. Staying true to its Lovecraftian roots, the city always remains a mysterious thing: You can enter it, and you just might find your way out of it, but you can never understand what this place is or was or what secrets it holds. It is utterly unknowable.

That includes your death. Some paths will end your journey in an instant. You’ll investigate something weird and then without warning “You become part of the city.” The abruptness is shocking, but the ambiguity is deeply unsettling. You don’t really know what happens to you, hell you don’t even know if you actually died. All you know is that your story is over. Time to start another.

And that’s where Metrolith really shines as a horror game—during these subsequent playthroughs. After it establishes that your end can come from any innocuous action, every little choice becomes a matter of life and death. However, you still won’t see death coming, you still won’t know when you’ve passed the point of no return because the prose imbues every page with a sense of eerie wonder. Things that seem dangerous are harmless, and things that seem harmless are dangerous, and all of it is so painfully intriguing you can’t help but push onwards. 

Some of the stories tease you with possible connections that form possible explanations: One character wanders through a forest of pillars that seep something from up top, and another character eventually climbs a tower that gives him a vantage over the stonework; one character sees an odd spider-millipede creature, and another character might turn into one of these creatures in the end (emphasis on the might). But even these are just connections at best, connections that only lead to more questions, more why’s and more when’s and more how’s.

As it should. It’s tempting to play Metrolith over and over and over and over again, trying out every possible combination of choices and characters in order to see what happens, in order to gain just a little bit more insight. Does that white statue ever move? What’s behind the waterfall? What’s in the warehouse?

In this way, Metrolith is a shining example of interactive fiction. Specifically, how the “interactive” part changes our relationship with the “fiction” part. In Lovecraft’s story it’s easier to accept the non-answers and lingering mysteries because we know that when the story ends that’s all the information we’re going to get. In Metrolith, it’s not clear where the mysteries begin and end. Answers could be waiting for me on another playthrough, another branched path. Maybe all I have to do is keep walking past the alley and I’ll discover something that will blow my mind. Or not.

Metrolith effectively evokes the damning curiosity that drives the narrator of The Nameless City. We believe that games are meant to be beaten, and I am determined to beat the Metrolith by understanding it. I will explore this city, I will discover it, I will learn its secrets because I know they’re just around the next corner. Of course this is impossible, and you’ll realize that over the course of multiple playthorughs with multiple characters. Your arrogance will guide you into the city, into that place of wonder and shock and fear, over and over again, until you’re finally forced to accept the humbling truth of your own inferiority.

You will never know the Metrolith.

Metrolith can be played here, or on Porpentine’s website (where you should also check out Howling Dogs, A Place of Infinite Beauty, and, well, all the other games mentioned in this post).

Note: The header image is not officially associated with the game. The art is from Zdzislaw Beksinski, who Porpentine has cited as an inspiration for Metrolith. I just Googled his works and picked an image that looked fitting. You can definitely see where the inspiration came from.