It's a fair bet that a lot of people downloaded Linger in Shadows from PSN, perhaps enticed by its grungy visuals and impulse price point (GBP 1.99), only to be left utterly bewildered by the experience. To be fair, it's not as if Sony or Plastic, the coding team responsible, did a particularly good job of explaining what Linger in Shadows was going to be or what it was doing on PSN alongside more traditional gaming fare.
The official line is that it's an interactive art experience, with the official Sony webpage for the game offering the not-exactly-illuminating advice to "watch, enjoy, experiment and let the experience wash over you". Not the sort of thing likely to entice most gamers, at least not without a more concrete idea of what they're getting for their money.
To understand Linger in Shadows, then, you first need to understand the demoscene. This subculture of computer enthusiasts has its roots way back in the heyday of the home computer, and has nothing to do with demos as they are commonly used in gaming.
Scoot back to the 1980s and piracy was as prevalent as it is today. Rather than uploading their warez to torrent servers, amateur coders busy cracking the copy-protection on the latest Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games got into the habit of marking their work with an animated intro - or "cracktro" - inserted before the game began. Organised groups began to form, mostly in mainland Europe, and competition between the rival groups was fierce but mostly friendly. Think of it as the gaming equivalent of underground hip hop freestyle battles. But, you know, not quite as cool.
Over time, many groups drifted away from the tawdry business of software piracy and began to concentrate on refining their intro sequences as creations in their own right. This was the era of the Amiga and Atari ST, and the accompanying boom in public domain software. For the price of a floppy disc, anyone could sample the delights of a swirling starfield, a bouncing rendered 3D cube and undulating text across the bottom the screen, all set to a pounding techno beat. Demoscene events were held where groups such as Farb Rausch, MFX and Conspiracy, who had all risen to prominence from the mid-'90s onwards, would compete to see who could come up with the most impressive productions, pushing the hardware to its limits.
As computers became more powerful, and capable of ever more impressive visuals, so the demoscene became more technically adept and more artistically inclined. The community spirit was still there, but the creative output was much more sophisticated. Still amateur, still grassroots, the demoscene began to attract the attention of the increasingly industrialised games development community. Gifted coders, animators, graphic artists and musicians were sharing their best work for the approval of their peers, but it was only a matter of time before this underground talent resource was tapped by one of the industry heavyweights.
Which brings us to Linger in Shadows. A six-minute interactive animation, it tells a very abstract tale, set in some unnamed, crumbling urban environment. A column of black smoke tries to stop a flying spaniel from reaching an iconic statue, while a cat watches the struggle impassively from a nearby rooftop. The dog is turned to stone, which attracts the attention of a flying robot squid. It's a bit odd. According to Plastic's website, it's about "evil" but it should also be pointed out that fur, smoke and tentacles are all notoriously tough to render and animate. As always with the demoscene, showcasing your skill trumps narrative coherence every time.
There's clearly no tangible way to rate such a product using the traditional numerical scoring system, but we can at least gauge how successful it is as both a work of computer art and a demoscene standard-bearer for the console generation.
The sequence is split into five short sections, each of which can be spooled backwards and forwards. Certain moments in time allow you to interact with the scenery, either by using the face buttons or shaking and twisting the controller. Finding the correct combination to unlock the next section is as close as it gets to goal-oriented gameplay, and there are Trophies available to make it feel more rewarding.
Control is slightly awkward, a fact not helped by the deliberate lack of guidance or instruction. The Sixaxis motion-sensing, used to pan the camera while the action is paused, is particularly sticky. "Roam through the timeline both forward and backward," said producer Rusty Buchert earlier this month, "Look beyond the frame of the picture as you see it. There are things hidden that you can play with, unlock, and even get Trophies for if you find them."
It's easy to understand why Sony wanted to reassure customers that they weren't just buying a fancy video, but it doesn't offer the sort of exploratory experience that the PR blurb suggests. Your camera movement is restricted to a small area just outside the default view, so anyone expecting to be able to pause the lovely images and move through them with complete freedom will be disappointed. The things you can "play" with are simply objects that rotate as you move the controller, while the hidden items are simply obscure shout-outs to fellow demogroups, visible only by manipulating the camera at key moments. It's unlikely that these unexplained logos lurking in the background will mean anything to anyone other than the demoscene faithful, and most users won't even realise they've discovered a secret.
It's obviously not interactive enough for most gamers, yet it may prove to be too interactive for the demoscene purists. Certainly, response to the release has been muted among the community, if the leading demoscene forums are anything to go by. Not in the sense that there have been masses of criticism, but that there just doesn't seem to be much excitement or discussion in general. Strange, considering this is arguably the most high-profile scene release in years.
While there's been plenty of praise for the visuals and presentation from the community, there's also confusion as to whether the "gameplay" elements, minor though they may be, discount it from being a true demo. Such puritan ethics are common in any niche scene, but there's an understandable wariness about the introduction of corporate entities like Sony into a subculture that thrives on its under-the-radar status. After all, it wouldn't be the first time the electronics giant has tried to co-opt an underground movement for its own ends. Back in 2005, the PSP began appearing in graffiti murals across the US, painted by artists commissioned by Sony. Response from real taggers was predictably truculent, with many pieces being defaced or painted over with derogatory comments.
Linger in Shadows certainly isn't as cynical as that misguided stab at hip-by-association but eyebrows still arched quizzically at its end credits, which briefly list the Plastic team members before launching into a long list of Sony employees. Such corporate intrusions can't help but chafe against the DIY demoscene ethos, particularly when the demo in question is the first to come with a commercial price tag attached, even if it is only pocket money.
Linger therefore exists in a strange new realm between the hardcore demoscene and the mainstream audience being asked to pay to play around with its peculiar concept. It's an interesting move if it opens up Sony's platform for more demos to reach a broader audience, but perhaps not if they have to pass through the gateway of establishment approval to get there. This experiment may at least tempt a few more people to Google "demoscene" and, payment aside, it's refreshing to see something so esoteric being championed in such a public way. You certainly won't see anything like this on Xbox Live or the Wii Store. That, at the very least, makes Linger in Shadows something rather special.