Update 12/30/18 - Happy end of times... Er, just this year. This article has been updated to fix broken links and images. I've also bumped it forward for a rerelease in celebration of the end of the year and this being my only cblog of 2018. The game in question is currently 35% off during the Steam Winter Sale.
NO ENTRY. Ahead lays spoilers for a portion halfway through Distance's Adventure campaign.
Developer: Refract Studios
Release Date: September 18, 2018
Price: $24.99 USD
Distance has a hell of a sense of style. From the moment you start playing, a pounding, imposing, looming electronic soundtrack (composed by the brilliant torcht) kicks in, carrying you seamlessly from one mood to another. Short of an actual trance rave, there's little else like it that constructs such a pure, intense audiovisual experience. Everything is adorned in lights that pulsate to the music; saws, lasers, holograms, even the track itself. As the game opens itself up, you find yourself in a state of pure mindlessness, sinking into nothing but muscle memory and concentration. You and the game are one.
Until, suddenly, the lights are stripped away from you, the game's musical heart stops beating, and you find yourself lost in a broken, desolate nothingness, with only yourself and your headlights as company. You begin driving.
Welcome to the Abyss.
Okay, I fibbed a bit - this isn't exactly the first time this game gets scary. There's a short environmental shift at the end of the last level, and there's brief glitch moments where we see the main villain, a weird, pyramid-shaped Eldritch horror nicknamed the anomaly. Nothing so far, however, has been able to prepare for the intensity of this level.
The most impressive achievement of this level is certainly not the shock value, though; that honor would fall to the tunnel sequence. Not only does it impress on a technical level, it's also genuinely disorienting and unsettling. The mix of organic matter and technological cabling may not be a particularly new concept, but it is an especially foreign feeling when considering the context of the game. You're a space car keeping a bad virus from eating the world. In any other game, this would be played straight, but Distance is a horror racing game.
Seeing dead car corpses and hearing them screaming and crying out seems like an absurd concept, but somehow, the team at Refract has made it work on a raw, nauseating level. The twisting of the words spoken by the intercom earlier in the game, too, would seem absurd, but again, it just works. "DEVOUR HER." "SURPASS HER." The Distance project wants to put the Earth beyond them and learn from it, but this virus wants complete, unfettered domination. It's a strong, overpowering desire, one that overwhelms the player as they move forward.
The sequence all culminates in a trapped, devoured car corpse - a car exactly like you. It's unclear what this is. I choose to believe that it's merely another model of "you" that has travelled the same path before, eventually succumbing and turning into the virus itself. In any case, just as you're about to fall off the end of the track, the entire screen morphs and shifts, leaving you completely directionless as you seem to pass through five different realities. There's nothing you can do but go forward. Not even a nothingness remains; all is just random noise.
The virus devours and regurgitates you - but facing the wrong way. "Get out," it's telling you. "Leave, while you can." Still, there's nothing to be done. Like the valiant hero you are, you turn around and venture forward. When the next level opens, the game is still in shock. The worst may be behind, but nothing is quite ready to recover. Eventually, it finds its balance again, but not without scars; the infection is everywhere, and the soundtrack is harsher than ever before.
Distance, for all its splendor and bravado, seems to be a helpless, nihilistic story. It's one where the good guy wins but it doesn't, ultimately, mean anything. I think that's what makes the anomaly so entrancing; it encourages bad behavior, to turn around and give up, to stop fighting for what you believe in. This sequence exemplifies this. The future seems scary and uncertain, and the path of the chaotic or the familiar seems like the only choice for happiness.
But even if the future seems pointless and predetermined, it's always worth pushing forward for the one moment of bliss and beauty that may lay ahead.