Verde Station is the first game I’ve played in recent memory that has made me dread the thought of ever moving.
I don’t make a habit of playing horror games, so obviously I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I asked for a Verde Station code. It’s not a horror game. But it has something that any horror game should make its priority: a tense as shit atmosphere.
I’m not even entirely clear on what exactly happened in Verde Station, but here’s the premise: you are the sole crew member aboard the titular space station, making some kind of test voyage. You’re basically the human who’s there because machines don’t maintain themselves – your daily ritual chiefly involves patrolling the station and running system checks. But of course, things are not as they seem.
Quickly you’ll begin to find rooms that you had previously visited during your routine to be slightly different the second time around. Furniture is moved, books are piled and arranged in oddly threatening ways but mainly, sticky notes everywhere. Sticky notes with names on them, sticky notes with commands on them, sticky notes with questions on them. Baffling, eery sticky notes. This is where I began to not want to move.
Verde Station masterfully builds tension through one brilliant design choice: each section of the station – the greenhouse, the lounge, the kitchen, and your quarters – is connected not simply by doors, but by long hallways. The commute between rooms is excruciating, and the anxiety the game is able to build during this five to six second walk is simply incredible. You never know what you’re going to be presented with on the other side, but let me tell you, it’s never going to be a jump scare. Verde Station is better than that. No, it’s going to get right under your skin and stay there. I played through this game in the same room as a seven-year-old playing Disney Infinity at 4:00 in the afternoon, and I’m still up at 6:36am trying to procrastinate having to go to sleep because of the skill this game was made with.
To me, Verde Station isn’t so much a firm narrative as it is sort of a, for lack of a better word, meditation on loneliness, madness, and of course, being alone on a spacecraft for a shitload of time. I mean, the game’s tagline is “Welcome To Solitude”. I don’t feel that Verde Station formed much of a story. There’s certainly something there, and it could just be my general inability to grasp narratives, but I’ve read all the logs I can find and what I’m told happened in the past, what’s happening to me now, and what happens at the end of the game aren’t really connecting in any way whatsoever. In a way, unless I’m just being dense, the game is surreal to an extent to further its purpose of exploring a set of feelings that are hard to capture through images and stories that we would consider normal.
The game’s runtime is not long at all – I finished my first playthrough in about 63 minutes. It’s what some would call a walking simulator; there’s no combat, there aren’t really any mechanics, and you walk at the traditional snail-like pace for a game like this. The only real mechanic aside from the physics engine is the station’s fully keyboard-controllable computers, which you use to run systems tests and read the contents of messages and disks. Disks with names typed on them can be found around the station and loaded into computers, but I missed this for most of my first playthrough and because of the way rooms shift, I permanently missed a lot of reading. The problem is that when choosing the ‘load disk’ option on a computer it says it’s trying to look for a disk in drive A, and of course it couldn’t find one because for the longest time, I couldn’t find drive A. It turned out that the drive was on the side of the keyboard, and all I had to do was hold the disk close to the drive and it would insert itself. If you’re going to make futuristic keyboard-drives that don’t actually exist yet, and make computers that swivel to face you and make the drives hard to see, at least tell me about them.
Also, there’s no getting around the fact that Verde Station is a cheaply made game. It’s the video game equivalent of a VHS home movie, as Unity games on Steam tend to be. The sound of your footsteps, one of the few sounds in the game, either loops awkwardly or simply doesn’t work.
This also may sound a bit whiney – and don’t get me wrong, I understand perfectly what a budget is – but the general feel of the game is the feeling that I’m playing someone’s Unity game. Until things started going awry and I was immediately soaked into the game’s suspense, I didn’t feel that I was seeing anything besides someone’s amateurish-looking attempt at a sci-fi space station. But this is all quickly thrown to the wind once the game gets going, so I wouldn’t give it too much thought.
Verde Station’s minor flaws do little to stop it from being a disturbing experience. I still think about it at least once everyday, and that’s more than I can say than any other Gone Home or Dear Esther. I still think about it because it’s a masterfully crafted, succinct hour of raw tension and perfect confusion. To anyone who has been seeking out a first-person short story like this one, but of real quality: this is the one.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.
Verde Station is available for purchase on Steam.