What do private investigators, pseudo-clients dressed as trees, eldritch tentacles, teleporters, shaman rituals, floating stones, 1950s-inspired spacecraft and robots, and psychic premonitions have in common? They each make an appearance in All Those Moments’ 2D point-and-click adventure Earthworms. This is a solid, stylish game overall, but as you might expect from such a mishmash of narrative elements, it’s a highly bizarre experience. While numerous games bill themselves as surreal, this is one title that is fully deserving of that description.
“Surreal” is defined as having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream. Earthworms definitely feels dreamlike, bordering on nightmarish in some places. The story begins with private investigator Daniel White searching for lost keys in his office. Sporting a trench coat and fedora, White has the stereotypical P.I. appearance, but you’ll soon discover that he’s also a Buddhist who likes practicing yoga while working. This latter trait exhibits itself in several places where White strikes a pose when interacting with certain hotspots.
After you find White’s keys by clicking around the office with the context-sensitive pointer, a client arrives to offer him a job. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that a man dressed as a tree shows up, mutters something about a missing girl named Lydia, demands that White accompany him, and then leaves. If that seems like thin motivation to accept, it is, and yet as the case proceeds it seems perfectly fitting with the offbeat atmosphere the game is going for, especially once you discover that the seaside village in which your investigation begins is slowly being encroached upon by strange pink tentacles coming out of a nearby forest.
About a third of the way through, you’ll catch up with Lydia after following her through a teleporter. A brief conversation later, she returns to the town and drops out of the rest of the story entirely. His case solved, White nevertheless continues to poke into the odd events surrounding the invading tentacles. As you proceed, you’ll navigate a series of underground temple tunnels that would be at home in an Indiana Jones movie, visit the village of an ancient civilization with some oddly gravity-defying rocks, and climb to the top of a volcano hiding some curiously anachronistic technology. Eventually, your investigation will lead you to an Area 51-esque research laboratory, where the truth of what’s been happening is revealed.
It’s every bit as strange as it sounds, as Earthworms is a very stream-of-consciousness type of experience. The various shifts in genre – noir mystery, horror, retro futuristic science fiction – aren’t so much plot twists as complete left turns. The types of left turns you might take in your own dreams. It’s handled very well, though, as the disparate elements never feel jarringly out of place. Even so, you will likely find it at least a bit off-putting if you prefer more grounded and logical storylines.
While the mystery itself is replete with the sudden shifts and jumps of a real dream, the solutions to puzzles are thankfully far more sensible. Many of them involve simple inventory usage, such as utilizing a shovel to dig up worms – real worms, not eldritch tentacles – to give to a fisherman to use as bait. A few challenges require combining multiple items within the inventory itself, but this too is fairly intuitive in terms of the sorts of objects required for tasks like fetching water from a well.
While none of these objectives are particularly obtuse, the interface is a little cumbersome. A backpack icon is displayed in the bottom right of the screen that opens the inventory at the top, where items are displayed from left to right. Most of the time, though not always, when you correctly use an item the inventory will remain open. However, attempting to use the wrong one causes the inventory to close. It doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t at first, but I found continually having to go to the bottom right, then the top left to select an item to try in the middle of the screen started to get a bit physically straining on the wrist after a while.
Apart from inventory obstacles, Earthworms also includes a number of interactions that take you into close-up views to solve. Some of these are mechanical in nature, such as arranging gears within a box to drive a connected mechanism. Others act more as combination locks, requiring specific sequences of button presses or abstract symbols to open. These combinations can usually be found through careful examination of the immediate environment.
None of the puzzles are extremely difficult, but the challenge does fluctuate up and down throughout the game’s three and a half hours of playtime, rather than steadily ramping up. A number of times the hardest thing to figure out is precisely what you should be doing next. To help with this you are provided with a To Do list, which is accessed by clicking a notepad icon that is always available on-screen. Unfortunately, I found this list wasn’t as useful as it could have been since it only highlights one task at a time and even then only actions that have been spelled out for you already. General pointers of where you should be looking are not stored in the list, and there are many long stretches where you will be advancing the story and solving puzzles without a single entry being added to the list.
Along with the notepad and backpack is one of the game’s unique distinguishing features: a secondary inventory of psychic premonitions. At various times when you walk to a particular area or interact with a specific object, you are treated to a ghostly premonition floating in a white haze over the scene. Clicking these premonitions adds them to your collection, which can be viewed again by clicking a star button next to the inventory icon. You don’t ever use any of these premonitions within the game itself. Instead, they essentially serve as a gallery of accumulated cinematics that you may or may not use to help guide you along. To review a psychic moment, you simply click on it to get White’s current interpretation of it. Once you’ve performed the required action related to a given vision, clicking on it will make White describe its meaning.Continued on the next page...