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.
In many cases, the same premonition will appear in different areas of the world to show that there is some connection between them, but most of the time such links are self-evident anyway. When you step into an ice cream stand with a bunch of severed tentacles lying on the floor and then find similar tentacles in a diner’s basement, the vision of a tentacle and meat cleaver seems a little redundant. However, the psychic images are also intended to provide hints to certain challenges. The caveat is, these visions follow in the dreamlike vein of the story, with some being much more symbolic and open to interpretation than others. In general, I found they usually only made sense after I’d solved whatever puzzle they were related to and got White’s comments on them. There were even a couple that White himself was unsure of, such as why an image of a human head with its eyes gouged out is a hint to retrieve water from a well that’s lost its bucket. These premonitions could have been a really cool part of the game had they been a bit less abstract – or maybe if my own thinking had been a bit more abstract – and a little more tied to the actual puzzles. As it is, they are interesting little side notes but didn’t really impact how I played one way or the other.
Of more use than the visions are the placards that appear whenever you enter a new scene for the first time. Before going into the environment itself, you are presented with the written equivalent of a detective voice-over describing what you’re going to find there. This text is accompanied by a series of item silhouettes representing some of the key hotspots you need to find within the location you’re entering. For instance, when you access an underground teleport chamber, the silhouette of said teleporter is one of the depictions you’ll see.
Most places in Earthworms are quite sizable, requiring you to click your way across them so that they scroll. Many of the exterior landscapes are dotted with various structures, such as houses or sheds. When you enter one of these buildings, instead of being taken to a completely new screen, the outer walls are removed so that you can see inside without losing the context of where you are in the countryside. It’s a neat presentation style for an adventure game.
The backgrounds also have something of a dreamlike quality to them. Drawn in desaturated, almost pastel shades, each scene is also overlaid with a faint haze that slowly thins and thickens like gentle clouds wafting by. This misty effect is very subtle and never obscures anything important, but it does add to the sense that everything is just a little bit off from normal. It also has the benefit of making each scene feel alive, as even if there isn’t anything else moving, the haze is constantly animated.
Your journey through this surreal world is accompanied by music that lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral, with a number of odd sound effects used as instruments for good measure. While the audio never grates, there is something vaguely unsettling about it that made me feel a bit anxious, but in a good way. The music fits well the dreamlike atmosphere that both the visuals and story establish. Beyond that, there is no spoken dialog and just a few ambient sounds consisting of simple effects like the rumble of a door or the crumple of paper when you retrieve a page of notes. Conversations are carried out in text, for which the English localization is serviceable but in need of some polishing to clean up awkward sentences and vocabulary use.
A nice quality of Earthworms is that it typically provides you with multiple goals to tackle simultaneously. Shortly after you reach the seaside, you can engage with the mayor to get information about Lydia’s disappearance. Or you can wander down another path and help a kindly grandmother retrieve a relic lost by her late archeologist husband. Or you can start poking into the affairs of the tentacles throughout the little village. There are never so many avenues available that it becomes muddy as to what to do, but there are enough choices in what to try first that it feels like you’re conducting an investigation and not being herded along one specific path. While ultimately you still have to solve everything, having the option of how to approach things is a welcome touch.
Towards the end, you get to make some more relevant decisions that lead to one of three different outcomes, which the game describes as positive, neutral, and negative. As a gameplay tip, if you want to get the positive ending, be absolutely sure you completely talk to everyone you meet even if you think they no longer have anything new to say. In several instances after you’ve solved a puzzle, new dialog options may open up for characters you’ve already spoken to. There is one particularly crucial dialog relatively early on that you must uncover or you will be missing an item critical to getting the positive ending.
All three endings are fairly abrupt, although they do feel as if they follow appropriately from events leading up to them – or as appropriately as they can in such a strange story. Each provides text descriptions interspersed with static shots from around the world showing the aftermath of your decisions. They’re all presented in a very matter-of-fact way, and Detective White himself never really weighs in with his own reaction to how circumstances have unfolded. Truth be told, White and all the other characters in the game are very thinly drawn, but as the game focuses on its dreamlike experience, that hardly seems a negative in this instance.
Earthworms is one of those rare games that deserves every bit of the overused “surreal” label. With its sudden unexpected shifts in story direction and locale, combined with its subtly disconcerting music and hazy hand-painted backdrops, it definitely possesses a dreamy feel. Players who prefer more down-to-earth, straightforward storytelling may find the whole experience too odd to be appealing, but for those who are open to a different sort of narrative experience with surprisingly (under the circumstances) intuitive challenges, then you may well want to check this game out. Just beware the tentacles: it isn’t just the purple ones that pose a threat anymore.