Scanning Darkly With LIDAR.EXE

Living in a suburban area means it’s easy to forget what darkness really is. The streets are always illuminated, large shopping centers leave a ghoulish glow in the distance, and sporting stadiums make the horizon look like an airport runway. It took a blackout, a thankfully rare thing here, to reintroduce me to the sheer nothingness brought on by light’s absence. Not even being able to see across the road held an unnerving quality.

Outside of that anomaly, the closest I’ve actually come to a reminder of the obtrusiveness of the dark comes when trying to play a horror game on a sunny day. It’s not like I want to play such things in the stark light of day, it’s simply a case of making the most of the time I have when I have it, and in most cases, the kids are out during the day, so it’s the optimal occasion to get down and spooky without interruption or accidental corruption. The downside, of course, is that I can see bugger all.

 Honestly, if you want a realistic horror game experience when cautiously tiptoeing around some unlit locale whilst being stalked by some deranged thing with a pointy tool, this is hardcore. All I can see are vague outlines of what I’m doing and my lack of personal stereo sound means I’m not going to hear where to go next. When the clouds decide to come along and drape themselves across the fiery death ball in the sky, I can temporarily see better, and in my mind, I feel the need to hurry the fuck up before my vision is obscured once more. 

In a way, this feels like a silver lining to a less-than-ideal situation. It creates a distinct style of horror that in many cases is absent in the game I playing because true obscuring of vision isn’t a very pleasant gaming experience. It got me thinking about the inventive ways escaping darkness can be used in the medium, and I ended up going down a particular hole, and ended up in an underground cave system.

Browsing itch.io, an increasingly common daily occurrence for me now, KenForest’s LIDAR.EXE caught my eye. A horror game that deals with the idea of partial sight in a place starved of light. Stuck in this place, the player has one tool in hopes of getting out, a lidar scanner. No, this isn’t a radar for seeking out bullshit artists on social media, they’ll make themselves known easily enough. No, a lidar scanner bounces laser light off surfaces and measures the time it takes to be reflected back which then creates a dot-based representation of the scanned area. In the case of LIDAR.EXE, this means the dark can be pushed back to figure out where to go next. There’s a regular scan which is generally good enough to get a scuzzy-looking layout of what’s readily in front of you, and a detailed scan that adds sweeps the area in front of you to create a dotty screenshot of what you’re supposed to see.

Even without adding a horror element to it, LIDAR.EXE does a fantastic job of building atmosphere and uncertainty with its ritual tool. Both in the reverberating whine of the scanning action and the glimpses of shapes a scan can create. Slowly figuring out where you are in a piecemeal fashion also ends up being an experience unique to you, because you could miss entire areas just by heading down a particular path. The cool side-effect of your scans is that it paints a 3D map of where you’ve been, and a quick look behind you offers up a personal navigational artwork. 

It’s how LIDAR.EXE mixes this with a more traditional build and release horror template that makes it an effective and refreshing experience. Occasionally the scanner’s whine flares into loud distortion, and at first, I wasn’t sure why, but then I saw it. I could just about make out a humanoid shape in a scanned area, and when I tried to add detail with a second sweep, it had faded out. I’d see it again and again though, and there was that classic horror uncertainty of lighting up a dark area and seeing something you didn’t expect, with a dash of the paranormal in the discovery’s elusiveness.

The escalation of what the lidar scanner picks up makes for a brief and captivating journey to inevitable doom, and as the end hit, playing with the expectations of the lidar to great effect, I was hungry for more. Turns out, there was, because LIDAR.EXE’s greatest influence is Introversion Software’s 2017 title Scanner Sombre. KenForest doesn’t hide this fact, it’s right there on the itch.io page with a link, and that’s how I discovered that game.

Scanner Sombre and LIDAR.EXE are obviously very different-sized beasts, and there’s a clear and distinct personality and style to each to make LIDAR.EXE not come across as a knock-off homage. That just made playing Scanner Sombre a nice and surprising bonus treat.

Scanner Sombre

Scanner Sombre uses the same sort of lidar tech, but is a bit heavier on upfront narrative. Here, the player awakens in a tent that’s pitched inside a humongous pitch black cave system. Handily, there’s a lovely advanced lidar scanner and a visualizing helmet to carve a digital path, but it seems there are a few glitches, as it appears to be showing human shapes occasionally, but they’re just stuck in place.

The player heads deeper into this cave system and discovers the ruins of some sort of lost underground city. As the game heads further into the dark, the deeper the peril becomes, with minuscule walkways and rotting rope bridges becoming an increasingly common issue that reckless scanning will punish with a sickly crunch of their bones as they plummet to their death.

It’s a short experience that is VR-focused (I played it regular style), and did a fine job of selling its lidar gimmick with extra modes for it cropping up along the journey, usually just in time to make a narrative impact. It’s great to see two distinct interpretations of the same underutilized idea, five years apart and made by developers of differing sizes. Scanner Sombre takes its influences from the likes of Gone Home and Dear Esther, whereas LIDAR.EXE uses Scanner Sombre as a template to build something dread-inducing and atmospheric. Both understand one thing clearly though. Sometimes it’s best to be left in the dark.

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