Tulpa is a game that created a lot of internal emotions within me. This ranged from confusion to elation with a little bit of frustration thrown in for good measure. All while I navigated a stark set of environments attempting to understand the story presented to me. Moody, atmospheric and stylish the game has a lot going for it, which can make it all the more frustrating when small slips undermine the experience.
All that I can ascertain from the story is that it concerns two characters, a girl and a floating male entity. No names are provided, no text is employed and it plays very much in the vein of a silent movie. There is no doubt it centres on the relationship between the two of them and the open ended nature of the tale, alongside the ability to read into aspects of it what you wish, is impressively subtle while also being mysterious. While I never cared for the characters I was curious about what they represented. Were they relatives, partners possibly? What is it that brings them together? This is not a negative, in fact the ability to make me wonder is a huge positive.
Navigation is as simple as the story construct; the girl has the ability to jump and move while the floating being can manipulate some, but not all, of the environment. The constriction is that if the two are too far apart both shatter and return to the latest checkpoint. This does not mean both are controlled independently at all times, the developer wisely incorporating a follow mechanic when in charge of one of the characters.
The game takes place through four different areas, each taking a different tone aesthetically while keeping the same overall style. This is a striking look, and one that keeps impressing from the start to the end as I moved between the puzzles that were designed to effectively be the ‘game’ part of this escapade. I always marvelled at what was presented to me, even while not necessarily understanding why it was there.
The dichotomy comes in the balance of puzzles against the overall experience. Each area is effectively broken into a set of problems where either platforming, object manipulation or both is required to progress further. For this to work the game needs to create a consistent visual language, one subtle enough to trigger in the players mind what is required but in a subconscious way. In this aspect there are clear and irritating issues, ones that turn puzzle identification into a series of clicks around the screen in the hope of finding something that can be interacted with.
On more than one occasion playing Tulpa turned into trying to decipher a set of rules that were not always adhered to. At times interactive parts of the environment simply were impossible to identify leading to huge segments of trial and error. Other times puzzles were presented without any clues or indications as to what needed to be looked at, and at other points progression felt like simple, pure luck. These felt like a barrier the designers wanted me to have, an interruption to a carefully laid out journey because something had to be there to justify the tag of game.
That is not to say there are not moments of triumph. It should be pointed out that there are plenty of puzzles presented that create genuine moments of pride on completion. One totem puzzle in particular required logical thinking and problem solving which, when solved, made me do exactly what I suspect was intended; smile.
In a lot of ways I applaud the minimalist design, the desire to take this games and create something that furrows a path away from what is considered atypical. While this has been echoed by other titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther the realisation that those titles made was that it can simply be OK to have limited interactivity while still creating an immersive an interesting environment. Tulpa almost feels a little nervous to attempt this and relies on some older puzzle solving tropes to provide a reason to play.
This is definitely a title that wants to grant an experience, give me as the player something to reflect on. But that is hampered when design choices simply prove to be more obtuse than engaging and can sour the overall impression when the credits role. It leaves me with mixed emotions and a large amount of respect. If you feel at home searching for the solution to puzzles where the clues are incredibly minimalistic this will provide you with a good few hours of distraction. But if frustration comes easily, and hunting for small things leaves you cold I would stick to a let’s play.