Review: Who’s Watching Who in /SPEK.TAKL/ – Banned Edition

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By Madison May on August 17th, 2021

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Where games start always feels like the first test of suspending your disbelief. You’re at a school that you’ve never been to, or a home that isn’t yours. You are at a place that will always be new for you as a player, but not for the character being played. After all, in games you’re merely a voyeur to someone else’s story.

In these first few moments there’s so much catching up to do narratively and logistically (do you move with WASD or arrow keys? Does the space bar make you jump or interact?), but Somewhat Software’s /SPEK.TAKL/ starts you afresh. You awake in a room that screams 1994, all red satin sheets and matching wallpaper, and find an apartment lit electric by the glow of late night cable. You’re new here, barely unpacked, and uncomfortable public access footage provides the low, buzzy soundtrack as you wipe the sleep from your eyes and acclimate to the darkness.

It’s dim, quiet. The television is moralizing on sexual deviants, communist psychedelics, and moral decay. Your own footsteps, eerie as they are, can spook you if you’re not paying attention. Then, the TV starts glitching. The suspense is pulled taut. Then, the intercom rings.

A VHS tape is pushed through the mail slot, and on it is a loop of your own apartment but degrading and fuzzy, with rooms that feel like gritty, poisonous fever dreams.

“So,” the intercom asks, barely a whisper, “Do you like to watch?”

And in /SPEK.TAKL/, the core of the mystery is whether these phantoms are speaking to the on-edge apartment dweller you’re piloting, nervous within their own decaying world, or if they’re cutting beyond the fourth wall to speak right to you.

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

/SPEK.TAKL/ originally released in 2019 and is described by developers Somewhat Software as “an intense, intimate and disturbing horror-themed psychosexual exploration on the lengths some of us go to in order to avoid facing the inevitable.” After an aborted attempt at launching a director’s cut on Steam earlier this year, Somewhat pivoted and re-launched the title under the moniker of “/SPEK.TAKL/ – Banned Edition“, which is available starting tomorrow on itch.io.

The Banned Edition adds quality of life improvements like subtitles and de-bugging, plus an additional ending that digs deeper into Somewhat’s hopper of aesthetic references. (They namedrop Cronenberg and Lynch, and the new ending adds French philosopher Roland Barthes to the fray.)

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

Its anxiety-riddled set up is oddly joyous. The tension is built so slow, so perfectly, that each jump and shriek and wary murmur from the player feels well earned. The game is often disturbing for reasons players may find difficult to put their finger on, with the devs sweetly describing the experience as “low risk gameplay”. There are no real jump scares, no angry monsters or dangerous wraiths. Just you, wandering around this degrading world, jumping at shadows and building fear that exists only in your own head. 

And that’s where /SPEK.TAKL/ really shines, with Somewhat Software neatly mirroring that approach to horror gameplay with narrative coherence. You are given two options: you can face the horrors inside of the haunted house, going into the dark room or opening the bloody drawer, or you can take the low road that no other protagonist is permitted in horror movies: to ignore.

Chugging the game towards an ending requires taking risks and putting yourself in peril, whether real or imagined, but the unending stream of television is a siren’s song. You can distract yourself by puttering about the house, straightening out picture frames and unpacking cardboard boxes, or you can sit down, tune in, and drop out.

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

For this purpose, the map is built with razor precision. The television is far from the rest of the house’s horrors but its numbing glow is visible from the threshold of darker, more insidious rooms. It practically calls to you, bright and cheery, “it’s safe over here”. And it’s a tactic that works – on my first run I found myself keeping my back to the light like a moth, soothed by the low dribble of light, color, and sound. The rest of the house is dark and full of terrors, but the low roar of a television is like a pacifier to my uneasy senses in rooms I otherwise couldn’t trust.

But part of what makes /SPEK.TAKL/ so compelling is that its endings, when you do finally slog towards them, demand you examine how you played. Did you face your fears and go deeper into the darkness to seek out the parts of the apartment, and yourself, that you built into monsters? Or did you watch the television instead as a coping mechanism, while it fear mongered at you about the dangers of sex, drugs, and “alternative lifestyles”?

In this way, there is no real “winning”. Two of the original three endings point their sails smartly towards this brand of moralizing. One ending asks you to act out violent fantasies, while the other puts you in the realm of the sexual, and avoiding them to achieve the third “Spectator” ending means tuning in to dangerous propagandizing about the very parts of yourself you’re wrestling with.

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

The Banned Edition’s new fourth ending has a name that calls to mind medicine and body horror, but also a photographic theory that asks critically what viewers – and by virtue of that, players – find so uniquely arresting about horrifying images. This new ending feels like a comedown from a bad trip; How it must feel to be left with your brain misfiring, jittery and alone. But it spins the experience of /SPEK.TAKL/ away from moral commentary and, surprisingly, into the realm of media commentary.

Puzzle pieces of this train of thought are muddled about the original game, but this new edition synthesizes it. In /SPEK.TAKL/, you are always being watched, or doing the watching, or sometimes both. Silhouetted neighbors peer at you from Lynchian red rooms. Video tapes chronicle grainy apartments of strangers peering through their windows to watch you like staticky Kitty Genovese. In certain endings, your field of vision is pulled back and you find yourself watching all of this action play out on the television, or through the window of another, making the protagonist a moving target. Sometimes it’s the dweller of Apartment 9, sometimes Apartment 8, and sometimes it’s the player themselves.

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

The game has a hearty dose of conceptual strength, and it’s rare that an indie also has the technical chops to match. The textures in the game are color shifted, like viewing a picture through 3D glasses, and corners are seeped in tea-dark shadows. It’s blocky and lofi in terms of aesthetic, but not in terms of the dev’s capabilities. While some games in the indie horror genre lean on PS1 nostalgia as an excuse for beginners to wobble on new legs, Somewhat Software imbues nuance and richness into the game’s textures, compelling us to think their dallying with low poly is a choice, not a crutch.

The biggest complaint I can muster is that achieving one of the game’s original endings requires navigating a deeply unintuitive mini-maze that’s less puzzle and more a testament to your own perseverance. It’s a missed opportunity to remove that experience from the Banned Edition and substitute it with something that doesn’t break the otherwise tightly wound horror immersion, as the rest of the game runs the player’s anxiety ragged.

/SPEK.TAKL/ - Banned Edition
Image Courtesy of Somewhat Software

The changes between the original version of /SPEK.TAKL/ and this edition are nuanced at best, making the re-release a bit of a head scratcher. While it’s easy to be cynical and think of it as a potential cash grab, it reads more as an attempt to pull two fingers towards Steam and the traditional gatekeepers that indie developers must shimmy around to get their work seen. The game ostensibly was banned for obscenity, but within the context of what the game is trying to say with that nudity it feels more like a blatant act of censorship. (Plus, does any platform that deals in bulk hentai games really have the right to call an indie horror title obscene?)

The irony of a game like this being banned from Steam – one that fixates on the honeytrap of claiming sexuality and obscenity are one and the same – is rich, and while a little tasteless the re-release is worthy even if only to draw attention to that. Pessimistic players take heed – yes, the devs are asking you to shell out $5 for a game that’s the essentially the same as the one you may already own, but consider this a moral litmus test exactly like the ones contained within the game itself. Do you donate to Somewhat Software’s cause and face this crisis alongside indie devs when they need you most, or do you tune out?

8
Impressive
The Banned Edition offers little by way of new content, but that doesn’t discount the narrative and technical richness of the title.

Madison reads everything, remembers nothing, and likes to argue everywhere except the internet.

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