Caves have long been a difficult subject for video games. Getting caves right has been a labour of love for some and an exercise in futility for others. There are innumerable games with boring or repetitive cave environments, with either simple repeating geometry copied endlessly into tedium or they lack any notable and interesting features which might make them worthwhile. Many successful games set within cave systems, such as Spelunky or Cave Story, portray the caves in a more stylized and 2-D manner, and build their games around that concept. But what if a game tried to present what a cave system might look like if you couldn’t actually see it? The result is Scanner Sombre.
Introversion Software, hot off the release of their mammoth Prison Architect management game, has decided to release something unlike anything they have done before. Scanner Sombre takes more inspiration from the likes of Dear Esther or other wander games than anything, as it’s lacking in what might be considered traditional gameplay. Instead, the main hook here is in slowly uncovering the environment around you using a LIDAR laser scanner. The basic principle of LIDAR is that it shoots out beams of lasers that then leave a dot on the environment when they hit something. Wearing a headset, you can then map out a completely dark space using just the laser scanner, as the hundreds of dots combine to create 3D bitmaps of the world around you.
There is technically a plot in Scanner Sombre, but it is very minimally fleshed out. You start as an unnamed explorer at the bottom of a cave inside your tent, with your LIDAR scanner nearby. After putting it on and starting to explore the world, you will occasionally get snippets of text from the player character, normally explaining something about the history of the caves and the people who used them over the centuries. Towards the end of the game these text snippets hint more about what happened to the spelunker you’re playing, before ending very abruptly in an “emotional” finale which is entirely unearned and undeserved.
Without a plot then, Scanner Sombre is driven almost entirely by the desire to explore the world around you. Thankfully, this is easily the most fulfilling element of the game. Uncovering the world using the LIDAR scanner, as you will be doing at least 98% of the time while playing, never gets boring thanks to a combination of a great variety of different places you visit coupled with a variety of upgrades for the LIDAR that makes scanning faster or more efficient. LIDAR can only paint objects which are in direct line of site of it, which means that in order to create three dimensional objects you need to paint the LIDAR dots on multiple sides. This leads to a lot of moments when you’ll be slowly walking around the world, twisting and turning in order to fill in the environment from all angles.
There are some elements of horror here, but for the most part Scanner Sombre is merely spooky rather than actually frightening. In much the same way Dear Esther attempted (and mostly succeeded) in introducing M.R. James-inspired ghosts to their remote Scottish island, Scanner Sombre has some jump scares and freaky moments where you’ll see humanoid outlines who appear to follow you, strange monsters that rise out of the lake if you accidentally fall in, or shadows that cast on a wall when nobody is there. These moments look great, but as there’s no actual risk of death or dismemberment, they act merely like set dressing in a carnival haunted house.
One thing that is without question is this is an utterly entrancingly beautiful game. Your view on the world is always multi-coloured, as the LIDAR scanner colour codes the world in order to show depth. Red dots are closest to you, then moving through yellow, green and to blue as the environment stretches away from you. Later in the game you also get an alternative mode on the scanner than will show you material types, which paints the world differently. The result are spaces that can look as simplistic or as detailed as you desire, depending on how much you paint them with LIDAR dots. Although the whole game is set in a cave system, there is a good variety of different architecture including caverns, underground lakes and some ruins of human construction. The in-game map is also great, which shows your entire journey through the caves rendered in 3D. The framerate performance does dip a fair bit if you’ve used a lot of the burst ability or been particularly fastidious in filling out the world, but for the most part it’s acceptable.
The sound is a definitely another highlight; as you walk around the caves, the sound of your footsteps slipping on wet rocks, crunching on gravel or creaking on wooden bridges is nearly ever-present, as is some environmental sounds like dripping water or the whistling of the wind. The sound also shifts depending on the size of the cave you’re in, becoming more echoing in larger chambers and more deadened in smaller ones. Music is fairly sparse, but there are one or two highlight moments when the music and the visuals combine to create a great atmosphere.
Scanner Sombre has some interesting ideas and the main one of exploring the environment and slowly uncovering it using the LIDAR is executed proficiently. Unfortunately, the lack of an involving story or any meaningful reason to engage with the threadbare narrative means that you’ll be playing through the game almost purely for the enjoyment of seeing what’s next around the corner. This is alright for a little while, but it does mean that the game ends up feeling rather one note as a result. Scanner Sombre is a unique experiment, but it could have done with more meat on its bones in order to turn it into a more rounded experience.