One Upon Light is a tough game to crack. Full of puzzles requiring me to move with expert timing and lay down shadows in specific ways, it plays with the usual concepts of where we’re safest in dark and fearful environments. See, in this game, the light that guides the way through the dark rooms and corridors of a giant research facility gone amok is what kills you, while it’s the dark that keeps you alive.
Avoiding the light is the only true rule of survival in One Upon Light, but to do so you’ll have to contort your mind as well as your thumb. There are an awful lot of puzzle-survival games out there, but One Upon Light’s undeniable atmosphere and presentation make it a little more special than usual.
It comes from a surprisingly academic team-up: the game was developed by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Game Lab, which started in 2007 as a collaboration between MIT and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, to create a unique model of game experimentation, education and training. One Upon Light carries its scientifically-minded pedigree on its sleeve.
The goal of each level is to reach the exit marked by a new bit of evidence about what happened to the facility you’re trapped in. Clearly, something has shaken the place to bits, making it an unstable mess full of death-dealing lights. Assuming the role of a confused researcher with only a hazy, pockmarked memory, you’ll occasionally encounter other scientists, but such meetings are fleeting and end in more confusion for our hapless hero.
The entire structure of the levels plays in service to the puzzles, not architectural reasoning. There are vast gear-based machineries just waiting for switches to be hit, blinking floor panels that bring to mind a disco dance floor of doom, revolving doors, and doorways that only open when enveloped in shadow. Early on, you receive an intriguing device that lets you freeze a single shadow in place, enabling a whole new set of puzzle types.
From that point on, you’ll enter in a convoluted series of death puzzles requiring the moving of objects to block out one light, freezing that shadow in place, then using the same object to cover up another light. Frequently, you’ll be rushing to keep pace with moving light blockers to get through lit up passages. One Upon Light is tricky, clever, and occasionally frustrating, but managed to catch my attention better than most games of this sort.
Part of the appeal is the visual style. You view everything from above, guiding your strange little guy in an almost old-school arcade manner through the maps. The graphics are sharp and well animated, but have a distinctly low-key, almost primitively cartoonish look. The color scheme is almost entirely black and white as well, lending a truly ominous atmosphere to the interplay of light and dark. The soundtrack, full of cantankerous and eerie noises, drives the ambiance factor up enough to give One Upon Light the feel of a horror game. There’s a stunning sense of isolation created between the sparse visuals and very carefully constructed audio.
One Upon Light does a remarkably good job of taking its basic rules and creating a constantly varying set of challenges for the player. While some of the conundrums are downright frustrating, most of the game is just challenging enough to provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment when beating a level. It’s a distinctive and stylish effort worth checking out if you need to add some mental challenge to that gaming diet of shooting and hacking.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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