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Video Game: Penumbra

My name is Philip. If we are lucky, then by the time you receive this, I will be dead. If fate frowns, we all perish.

Spanning two games and an expansion packnote , Penumbra is a Survival Horror series that follows physics professor Philip LaFresque, who, after attending to his mother's funeral, receives a letter from his long dead father Howard instructing him to destroy a breadcrumb trail of mysterious documents without reading them. Phillip, suffering from severe Genre Blindness, instead follows the trail to a forgotten old mine somewhere in northern Greenland, where he promptly finds himself trapped and (seemingly) alone during a blizzard.

Created by Frictional Games (the company that went on to make the equally terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent) Penumbra is also notable for its unique engine that allows solving puzzles through clicking, dragging, and directly interacting when using items, giving an especially genuine, immersive atmosphere that even earned Black Plague a nomination for best script (from The Writers Guild of Great Britain, that it ultimately lost to Overlord).


This series provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Mine: Primary setting for the first game.
  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: A level in Requiem identifies itself as a sewer, and it has two side rooms with manholes at the top, a side room containing a generator and some transport system, and a large reservoir that you need to flood to progress to the next area. The water seems to be purified, unusual for a sewer. It follows the style meant for technical or experimental work.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: Requiem seems to be this. Logs from Eloff Carpenter and Dr. Eminess indicate they both showed up in the labyrinth right after you know they died and they have no idea how they got there.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Used at the beginning and towards the end of Black Plague.
  • All Just a Dream: The good ending in Requiem is an example of this.
  • All Myths Are True: There's a grain of truth in all the Inuit legends about the Tuurngait, mysterious spirits roaming the frozen wastes of northern Greenland...as you'll discover with alarming frequency from the occasionally found textbook or old newspaper article. Overlaps quite a bit with Foreshadowing.
  • An Aesop: Work together or alien hiveminds will kill you in Greenland? An anvilicious aesop, considering the Tuurgait come right out and make you jump through morality hoops and encourage your selflessness. Unless you consider the end of Black Plague to be positive. Then it's just a broken one.
  • Ancient Astronauts: One possible explanation on how the Tuurngait came to Earth millions of years ago - "before man was even upright".
  • Ancient Tradition / Ancient Conspiracy: The Archaic, a secret society attempting to research the Tuurngait and mainly getting itself slaughtered. They're extremely corrupt, and willing to sacrifice the lives of lower-ranking members to protect the upper echelons.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Over and over - this is a horror game, after all. First with Dr. Roberts' (the spider hater) insane diary, then with Eloff Carpenter (who recorded on cassette his horrifying final moments) and at last, with Philip himself.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: While in the infirmary, you stumble across a note detailing when using the Cryo-stasis chamber is deemed acceptable. The list of permissible ailments include "cardiomyopathy, glaucoma, polio, diabetes, or halitosis (bad breath)."
  • Badass Bookworm: Philip is definitely a Non-Action Guy, but even he has his occasional moments of badassery.
  • Backtracking: There is some, but fortunately, it doesn't take too long and tries to avoid becoming Filler.
  • Bag of Spilling: Justified both times.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology / Starfish Aliens: The Tuurngait are apparently some sort of sentient semi-parasitic virus from an unknown world. They also have the traditional Hive Mind element to them and are capable of altering the genetic structure and nervous system of other living beings.
  • Bait and Switch: At the start of Overture the player keeps finding journal entries about giant spiders and finding giant webs scattered around caves and tunnels and is then attacked by zombie dogs.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: A rather hard to find (and Door Stopping) note in the UV light room talks of a scientist from the Shelter who read research papers on the Rock Worms.
    • At the end, it says that he tied a noose. "Those monsters may feed on my corpse, but they won't take my life."
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending of Black Plague. Philip is doomed and everyone else in the complex is dead, but Philip manages to send a message to the outside world that will hopefully cause the Tuurngait to be destroyed.
  • Black Comedy: Clarence embodies this trope readily.
  • Body Horror: There's a reason why everyone in the Archaic has a Cyanide Pill - in case it would come in handy... The infected has their skin take on a nasty color, it looks like part of their intestines were ripped out and attached to their genitalia, and they go bald among other things.
  • Bookcase Passage: Drawing a specific book from a bookcase in Black Plague will reveal a hidden room.
  • Book Ends: The email at the beginning of Overture is also the Epilogue Letter in Black Plague.
  • Broken Record: In Requiem, a tape player gets stuck in a playback loop on a short phrase, despite it being empty. Later, the PA suffers from the same issue, and the announcer thanks you for fixing it before continuing with the intended message.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Armstrong's Mixture, to some extent in Overture. Shows up as a page in an explosives manual you find very early in the game but isn't actually used until very near the end where you use it to blow your way through to Red.
  • Cloudcuckoolander / Talkative Loon: Tom Redwood, a.k.a. "Red". He constantly insults, amuses and helps you in Overture. All at the same time. He's both an unusual guide and a very memorable character, to say the least. When you finally manage to reach him, you have to unwillingly partake in a rather gruesome Twist Ending. After that you finally discover the secrets of Red's past and explore the isolated and squalid living spaces he had to occupy for thirty extremely lonely years . Cue Tear Jerker. No wonder the poor sap went gradually insane.
  • Concealing Canvas: An Air-Vent Passageway is hidden behind an odd painting in Black Plague.
  • Contrived Coincidence: How Philip managed to get into an abandoned mine which was exactly where he would find the secret research station where his father worked.
  • Cowardly Lion: If Philip so much as looks at a monster for too long, there'll be a lens flare, and he'll freak out and give away his position. That said, he never gives up, and he thinks and fights his way out of situations that kill everyone around him.)
  • Cult: The Archaic Elevated Caste again, though they deny it. They don't seem to be explicitly religious in any way, lack any sort of unifying symbol and have few official rites, etc. They're more like a secular, Mad Scientist version of this.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Implied for Philip and his father, Howard, the latter requesting that several cryptic documents be destroyed. These letters contain the directions to the Greenland Mine in which the horrible events of Overture occur.
  • Darkness Equals Death: The Kennels in Black Plague, in which you are likely to be eaten by a grue. A major part of the puzzle there is manipulating the malfunctioning electrical lighting to allow Philip to pass otherwise dangerous zones safely.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Clarence is extremely Genre Savvy in Black Plague and leaves loads of condescending comments on the plot development.
  • Die, Chair! Die!: Generally averted. In the first two games, this is to your benefit, since often you'll need that chair to barricade the door against whatever is pounding it down. That said, there are plenty of breakables in the form of ketchup bottles, Scotch bottles, etc.
  • Diegetic Interface: Besides the inventory window (default key TAB) and an optional tiny crosshair, there is basically no HUD at all.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Early on in Overture, you'll find the logs of a man who made a habit of studying and devouring the local spiders. You'll find an equally cheerful log not much later about how he had to remove his own tongue after he realized it absorbed too many spider toxins.
  • Door To Before: The chemical labs have an emergency door, which you can open by sabotaging the flow of chemicals in the lab itself, but only after you get past cameras, enemies, and security puzzles. And then there's the matter of going through the hallway the door leads to...
  • Enemy Within: Clarence, the Tuurngait's personal representative within your skull. He spends half of Black Plague trying to kill you and the other half trying to keep you alive so he doesn't die too. It really doesn't help that he can give you hallucinations at will.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: After Clarence tricks Phillip into killing Dr. Swanson, he jokes about a piece of her skull being on his shoe.
  • The Faceless: Every normal human who isn't already dead when you encounter them.
  • Faux Death / Faking the Dead: Gets you into the Archaic's cryogenics facility so you can steal one of the heads and use it to pass a retinal scanner.
  • Fetch Quest: Done throughout (they are Adventure games, after all), and lampshaded in Black Plague.
    Clarence: "Christ! Go here, go there, fetch this, run me a bath... typical broad, atypical circumstances."
    Red: "Really, the hunger is becoming... rather uncomfortable here... How far away are you? You cannnot be far. I am held captive by a wall of stone in the northeast of the mine. As in any drama, there are many roles to be played. You must act the scientist in mixing potions, act the renegade in plots of destruction..."
    • In other words, you need to make an improvised explosive and blast through the cave-in separating you from the part of the mine inhabited by Red.
  • Fighting from the Inside: Each person who contracts The Virus goes through a Battle in the Center of the Mind, and almost everyone loses and becomes one of the Infected. Red, a Cloud Cuckoo Lander miner in Overture, managed to win and retain partial self-control. In the second game, you go through such a fight yourself, with a win meaning you just have to put up with Clarence. Howard apparently managed it as well, but he was Driven to Suicide. Dr. Eminess seemed to have won, but once you give him a saw, that's clearly not true.
  • Find the Cure: Justified for once - The Tuurngait doesn't just want you dead.
  • First-Person Ghost: That must be a pretty long glowstick for you to not see Phillip's hand.
  • For Science!: The Archaic, as already hinted at in the Cult trope entry.
  • Framing Device: The first two games are framed around an email from Philip to an unspecified individual, explaining why he failed to do something that needed to be done, and has to ask another to complete the task. What exactly he's talking about isn't fully explained until the end of Black Plague. The expansion pack takes place immediately after.
  • Freeware Game: The original tech demo that started it all (it was created for a Swedish game development contest). The whole series is practically a Continuity Reboot and Adaptation Expansion of the tech demo's basic plot.
  • From Bad to Worse: In the first game, your only enemies were rabid dogs, large spiders, and the occasional mutant worm. The enemies of the next game... are much worse.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: The Infected.
  • Giant Spider: In any other game, they'd be Goddamn Bats. In Overture, they're still weaker than everything else you encounter. Thankfully, they're not actually gigantic - just a bit overgrown.
  • Genre-Busting: It's an Adventure Survival Horror Stealth-Based Game, with all the in-game manipulation controls and motions being based on dynamic real time physics...
  • Grail in the Garbage: One of the artefacts in Black Plague is located in a trash bin.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: The final choice Philip is presented with in Black Plague. If he had done as the Tuurngait wanted and asked the reader to remove all evidence of the Shelter, the Tuurngait, who seem a little too eager to assimilate the "invaders", would stay alive, likely indefinitely, and the Shelter would become a second tomb for the Tuurngait. When he asks the reader to have the Tuurngait destroyed, he is killing off an ancient and wise being older than man that sowed pieces of its knowledge into our species.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: An Infected isolated from the rest of the Tuurngait is generally not very bright.
  • Heal Thyself: Painkillers. For that matter, just walking around in circles can bring you from "I can't feel my arms and legs" to "I'm as fit as can be expected" pretty quickly. File it under Acceptable Breaks from Reality, given how fast your HP can go back down.
  • Hellhound: The first enemy type in Overture. They're rather quick, and their HP is so high some walkthroughs mistake them for Invincible Minor Mooks, but they can't jump too high, and they're easily distracted with a piece of beef jerky.
  • Heroic Mime: Lampshaded by Clarence right as he comes into existence after Philip's out-of-body experience.
    • Clarence: "Well, thanks for the help. I'm having an existential nightmare, and you can't even say a word!"
  • He Who Fights Monsters: One of the interpretations of the ending in Black Plague.
  • His Name Is...: Eloff Carpenter records his final words on a cassette tape and says he knows the primary weaknesses of the Tuurngait, but before he can spit it out he's apparently dragged off and killed. "The species' primary weakness is—uugggh!"
  • Hive Mind: The Tuurngait.
  • How We Got Here: The intro cutscene of each installment.
  • Hope Spot: on the Surface Station level of Requiem, there's a helipad that Philip thinks is his ticket to escape. But when he gets the satellite dish running, the transmission he can send only calls in an air supply drop of items that can get him to the next level.
  • Humans Are Bastards: That's what the Tuurngait thinks, anyways. If you pass its moral tests, it declares you an example of My Species Doth Protest Too Much - then you write in the email that it was wrong and give the coordinates to the mine, with the instructions "kill them all."
  • 100% Completion: In Black Plague, statistics at the end tell you how many artifacts and documents you collected. Requiem just has artifacts, but they actually serve a purpose - collect them all, and you unlock the Golden Ending.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Red, because he's too heavily controlled by The Virus. Clarence because of a pretty logical reason: "How do you use a chainsaw when you don't have any hands?"
  • Improvised Weapon: You don't Drop the Hammer, you swing an actual hammer. Later on you find a small pickaxe (or ice-pick), but you're still pretty heavily outclassed. Then along comes the second game, which offers you no straightforward weapons at all. As in Overture, you can still stun enemies by throwing objects at them, but other than that, you can only rely on your own feet and the patient use of stealth this time.
    • Word of God stated that the weapons were removed because they were intended to be used for defense, but turned into a Cherry Tapping tool.
    • One of the puzzles in Black Plague requires you to create a makeshift Aerosol Flamethrower.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: Why the Tuurngait rejects and destroys Clarence once you manage to purge him from your mind. He's simply become too unique to reintegrate.
  • Indy Escape: Once with an actual boulder, once with a rockworm.
  • Interface Screw: The mere existence of Clarence is this trope.
  • Invincible Minor Minion: The Infected are generally this, but contrary to popular belief, enough physics object impacts can actually kill one.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The Tuurngait states that selfishness in human would be catastrophic and that all humans pull in different directions. Well, the Tuurngait is no saint, it does have a point. People were supposed to selfless and kill themselves or lock themselves up if they became infected. Many people didn't and turned into monsters that proceeded to kill or infect everyone else. The problem compounded itself until approximately 99.22% (100% minus the odds of survival given by the computer in Dr. Swanson's office) of the staff were dead.
  • Kill 'em All
  • MacGyvering / Mr. Fixit: A lot of the puzzles and threat-elimination are based on this. Some are a little more complicated, but it's pretty much justified, since Philip is a professional physicist.
  • Malevolent Architecture: Why did that electrified cord have to land in that puddle of water? That's just one of the many questions you'll be asking.
    • Why did those damn steam pipes had to be damaged, spraying dangerously hot steam everywhere ?
  • Mind Screw: Requiem in particular.
    • Not to mention Clarence from Black Plague - he can make you hallucinate, after all - not to mention his attempts to "make more space" in his new home.
      Clarence: Simply put... you see what I want you to see.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Phillip felt horrible when he unintentionally killed Dr. Swanson, courtesy of Clarence and his Mind Screw.
  • Mysterious Antarctica: Not set in Antarctica, but still a great Video Game example of the "arctic wastes horror" genre. The whole series takes place in an unspecified location somewhere in the far north of Greenland. The atmosphere is captured brilliantly - from the very arrival aboard a chartered fishing boat to the discovery of the secret base's well-hidden entrance.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: See Player Punch.
    Clarence: Oh, one thing, before you get too overwhelmed with glee - I know murder can be a lot of fun, but... didn't you quite like that broad? Hey, I think that's a piece of her skull on your shoe. Wait, don't tell me you really thought... I thought you knew I was pulling your leg! Oh my, best laid plans, and all that... this, this is just terrible. Oh, you silly billy... Come on monkey... take a joke.
  • Nintendo Hard: Combat in Overture. You're fighting mutated versions of local fauna with a plain pickaxe, weak hammer, or even a nearly useless broom - what could you expect?
  • Nothing Is Scarier / Paranoia Fuel: The Kennels in Black Plague. You never see the monster, presumably an insane, mutated version of Overseer Frisk, who has an aversion to light.
  • Notice This: As in BioShock, you can turn it off for greater immersion.
  • "Open!" Says Me: Most doors need a key, but there is one that opens by force. Requiem, in the Residential stage has a fuse box that can be bashed open by throwing a rock (or a book) at it.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The Infected. And not only human ones.
  • Powerful Pick: It takes a little practice to master, but the pickaxe (and the weaker hammer) can become a powerful and invaluable tool and melee weapon, once you get the hang of it.
  • Psychological Horror: The core premise of the games, as highlighted in the Nothing Is Scarier entry. It's all very well executed, often with many subversions of classic horror tropes. It also makes very effective use of various Primal Fears.
  • Puzzle Boss: Amabel. You need to turn a wheel to raise a crate, then drop it on her head. The real problem isn't figuring out what to do, but doing it while she keeps rushing you.
    • The rockworms, Dr. Eminiss and Clarence (in his materialised form) are other obvious examples.
  • Ragdoll Physics: Mostly averted, but not completely.
  • Sandworm: Or more precisely, a "giant gray rockworm". The real Invincible Minor Minion, and it can also kill you in one hit. Fortunately, there are only two or three of them.
  • Save Point: Voluntary savepoints are done in an interesting fasion: They're ancient cylindrical lantern-like artifacts apparently brought to Earth by the Tuurngait and later rediscovered when the mine and underground base were built in the 20th century. Unfortunately, these strange objects help the Tuurngait see into your mind and secretly infest it.
  • Screw Destiny: One possible way to view the ending of Black Plague is that Phillip refuses to be the Tuurngait's pawn.
  • Shout-Out / Homage: Lots. For instance, Howard's and Philip's names hint at HP Lovecraft himself, and the Archaic's library contains copies of The Necronomicon and De Vermiis Mysteries.
    • Several food cans are labelled Uncle Cthullhu's Squid Soup".
    • The crowbar from Overture, needed for solving a puzzle, was previously owned by some long-dead arctic explorer named Freeman.
      • In Black Plague the Infected have a blood goatee, Black Eyes of Evil (which resemble glasses from far away), and some wield crowbars.
    • The storytelling is heavily inspired by Poe and Lovecraft. Also, the plot and atmosphere is very similar to John W. Campbell's short story Who Goes There?, famously adapted to film by John Carpenter as The Thing (1982).
    • Clarence (Phillips's Dark Side) has a voice strikingly similar to his namesake from the classic holiday movie It's a Wonderful Life. He even references the movie in a cheerful fashion when he chooses himself a name while fully infecting and mentally torturing Philip.
    • The Donkey Kong like area in Requiem, where flaming barrels roll down several vertically adjacent slopes while music that sounds suspiciously familiar.
  • Silent Protagonist: Philip is an interesting subversion, since he narrates the intro cutscenes and you can read his thoughts and ideas about an object or situation in-game after clicking the right mouse button.
  • Spring Loaded Corpse: The second game's final enemy.
  • Stealth-Based Game: You can try to fight anything you come across, but considering that you only have a pickaxe, do you want to ? Not to mention that you're utterly weaponless in the two sequels (if you don't count object-throwing).
    • Philip even shows his Genre Savvy side and lampshades the need for stealth in one of the earliest levels of Overture (where things start looking really serious).
  • Subsystem Damage: The most basic sort: when you're injured, you limp.
  • Surreal Horror: The events in the games get gradually more and more bizarre, especially in Black Plague and Requiem.
  • Taking You with Me: Clarence word-for-word when he gives up begging for his life. And remember how he can cause hallucinations?
  • Tempting Fate: Traveling on your own and completely alone to the most isolated regions of Greenland in search for answers about your father's mysterious past requires either utter Genre Blindness or "I've got nothing to lose" sentiments.
  • Ten-Second Flashlight: In the first two games. Requiem uses an Infinite Flashlight (if you're hallucinating it all, no need to hallucinate battery charge drain). Averted though with the glowstick, which Philip begins the game with. It casts a shorter and dimmer (though more peripheral) range of light than the flashlight, and never runs out.
  • The Dev Team Thinksof Everything: If you try to hop the fence in Requiem on the surface, you magically teleport back to the center of the level.
  • The Other Darrin: Philip has a vastly different voice actor in the English version of Overture and Black Plague. All the more strange, since the rest of the voice cast remains the same throughout the series.
    • Overture had a tiny, yet effective voice cast of two people. The Overture incarnation of Philip (though uncredited) was voiced by Tom Jubert, the script writer of the series (since Frictional had little budget to create Overture and could afford a larger voice cast only after the game achieved success). Many fans consider Overture's Philip to be the canon version, since he at least sounds like an Englishman in his 20s or 30s, unlike the suddenly North American-accented 40s-sounding Philip from Black Plague.
  • Tron Lines: Twice in Requiem, a heavy metal ball engraved with exactly this trope - complete with the signature "T" on one side - has to be rolled around and used as a power source for a couple of puzzles.
  • Unobtainium: The Archaic has discovered seventy different kinds.
  • Video Game Cruelty Punishment: In Black Plague you can set a Tuurngait on fire at one point. Then it turns out there's a door right behind it that only a zombie would be strong enough to tear down.
    • Especially bad if you pulled the lever to find out What Does This Button Do?, as the Infected will walk right into it. Then the puzzle can't be solved without taking the same approach to a different lever.
  • The Virus: Called such in-game, it's how the Tuurngait replenishes itself. Interestingly, it apparently began as a mutually beneficial Mental Fusion, or so the Hive Mind claims.
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: Subverted in Overture - Red can only contact you via walkie talkie, has no idea where you are or whether you're still alive, but he's so lonely he keeps talking. Played straight with Amabel Swanson in Black Plague, and sort of bent in Requiem as Red, Dr. Eminiss, and the bland voice on the intercom all counsel and taunt you.
  • Violation of Common Sense: Well, it fits the theme, but one puzzle requires you to set yourself on fire so a trap will malfunction and someone else can get through it safely. Incidentally, stupidity is not the only option—it's just the only moral one (as well as the only one that allows you to go on with the game).
    • Not to mention another puzzle where you have to inject yourself with an unknown chemical in order to put yourself in a chemically-induced coma so that the door you need to go through will be unlocked. The function of the item is actually explained in a nearby note, but it is entirely possible to miss it and arrive at this result anyway through good old experimentation.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer


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alternative title(s): Penumbra
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