Keeping Score: Teleglitch: Die More Edition

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I’ve been meaning to play Teleglitch for some time, ever since reading enthusiastic impressions from multiple writers over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It’s a creepy science fiction game about escaping a futuristic military research facility in which studies on long-range teleportation have gone horribly wrong, resulting in the titular teleglitch. Originally released in 2012, the Die More Edition followed in 2013, constituting a major overhaul of the whole game with a bunch of new stuff. Knowing me, getting to it five years late isn’t actually that bad.

The folks at Rock, Paper, Shotgun described Teleglitch as an action game mixed with roguelike elements, most notably randomized environments and permadeath, such that dying means starting again from scratch. Mostly, however, they lauded how these elements were used to create a sense of tension and dread. After the teleglitch incident, the research facility — located on an uninhabitable backwater planet far from Earth — is abandoned by its corporate overlords, so the lone scientist protagonist is on his own as he tries to escape. As players guide him through the rooms and corridors of the facility, they must constantly stay on edge, never knowing what horrors lurk around the next corner, as their ammunition slowly runs out and they succumb to the inevitable. Like a more traditional roguelike, every bit of progress feels like a momentous achievement, but glory is short-lived as new and far more dangerous enemies appear and show no mercy.

The presentation is a huge part of why this works so well. The top-down perspective sports an intentionally low-fi look, with big chunky pixels recalling early low-resolution texture maps in games from the ’90s. Enemies are displayed with just a few pixels, making them far more terrifying than a highly detailed model would be. They offer the slightest hint as to their true forms, expressed through animations and sound, leaving the rest to the player’s imagination. Even the lowliest of adversaries is an unknown and truly frightening entity. As I explored, I learned that the creatures I faced were not born of the teleglitch incident but were rather the products of military research at the facility, intended to be sold as combatants in war; the incident had merely freed them, and convinced them that I was the enemy. This revelation only made the situation even more horrifying.

The fantastic camerawork in Teleglitch plays a crucial role in nailing this atmosphere. Only things in the protagonist’s line of sight are shown (mercifully, in a full 360 degrees around his location), with the rest buried in a pitch black shadow, so every pillar might be hiding some horror. The camera pulls back somewhat in open spaces, but in narrow corridors or small rooms it zooms way in, adding to the sense of claustrophobia and leaving players fearful of an attack they won’t see coming. Holding the right mouse button makes the protagonist aim his weapon, slowing him to a walk and causing the camera to pan in the direction he’s aiming, providing just a little more warning of lurking dangers. I would creep through every new area, brandishing my lowly 9mm pistol, quickly flicking my aim around to check different angles and peek into corners. I realized I was behaving just like police or soldiers do in thriller films, sweeping through a potentially hostile building before declaring it clear of hostiles. I naturally adopted this strategy, just due to smart camerawork and controls. Brilliant.

And that camera feels like an actual camera, as if I’m viewing the proceedings through security footage, trying to make out what’s happening on a grainy, low quality feed. This feeling is reinforced by the visual artifacts that appear at key moments. Firing a weapon or setting off an explosive causes the red, green and blue channels to desync for a moment, a graphical glitch that seems to recoil from the power of the blast. It’s a trick Teleglitch uses often, but it’s incredibly effective, making firefights frantic affairs where it always feels like one is barely in control. Just when the tense stretches of careful exploration are interrupted with action, the screen becomes harder to parse, instilling very real panic in players who know that death means the end of their run. These glitches also make every shot feel powerful and dangerous. Which they are. Every bullet in Teleglitch is precious.

My initial impressions, then, were very much in line with what I’d read about the game. It was somewhat surprising to discover that, as I continued to play, it started to feel very different. This began with the realization that very little in Teleglitch is actually randomized. It’s pretty much just the level layouts that change; the enemies, items, and even particular rooms for a given level are always the same, so after several runs I began to learn the levels. The random layout meant I still had to be diligent and careful, but I knew what opposition I would face and often what threats were contained in specific rooms. So I started to get more and more confident, right until I reached a level I’d never been to before.

The danger level in Teleglitch rises rapidly. Each new level features significantly stiffer opposition, often from new, powerful foes. The first time I made it past level 3, I somehow made it all the way to level 7, cobbling together upgrades for my weapons or even making new ones from scratch, barely surviving each new onslaught until I ran out of ammo and was cut down. Better equipment available in later levels offers more options and better chances of survival, but I had used up my bullets faster than I found them, and was left helpless against enemies even more numerous and brutal than before. It was a crushing defeat, as it seemed impossible I would ever be able to get any farther. I wondered if I even cared enough to try to win, or if I should simply move on to other games, having already gotten a lot of enjoyment from Teleglitch.

But, just as in the best roguelikes, I soon found myself wanting to try again. When pondering the game I thought of ways to conserve ammunition, to be more efficient in dispatching enemies, to more effectively combat tougher foes. I started to play frugally, trying to kill early enemies with my knife (which is very difficult to do) and use weaker guns whenever possible, saving my big ones for the tougher threats I knew were coming. I also made the crucial realization that dropping weapons unloads their ammo, so when I found duplicates of guns I already had, I should pick them up to take the ammo out before moving on. Even so, I didn’t have much luck, never managing to get as far as that epic run that had nearly destroyed my will. I saw the death screen often, accompanied each time by one of many philosophical musings. “Life is a temporary phenomenon,” Teleglitch tells me. Or, “death is the one destination we all share.” Occasionally, these messages offer some advice, and one of them appeared just as I was truly becoming disillusioned with my chances. “At a certain point in our lives,” it told me, “we come to the understanding that health is more valuable than ammo.”

This is true. I had gone too far with my ammo-conserving strategy, getting myself into scrapes where I took a lot of damage because I wasn’t willing to use my best weapons, which would have dealt with the threat quickly and decisively. It was no accident that my first good run had gone so far. I had been willing to use force against my adversaries, and in Teleglitch the best defense is a good offense. What I needed was to get better at that offense, smarter at choosing the best weapon for each situation, and simply more accurate and efficient with my attacks. With this mindset I found myself starting to improve again.

It helped that I decided to check out some of the new weapons added in the Guns and Tunes DLC pack. These are not found as one explores the levels of the facility, but instead appear as optional randomized starting equipment sets, which can help break up the monotony of starting yet another new run (reaching later levels unlocks the option to start a few levels in rather than all the way back at level 1, but even with the generous array of starting gear and crafting components provided when taking this option, I found I was better equipped overall if I started from scratch). Most of these are unique guns that cannot be found elsewhere, and are used instead of the usual 9mm pistol, but sometimes I was offered explosives instead, or even a late game utility item but no weapons at all. At first I liked these random gear bundles simply for the variety, but soon I found they were actually helping me get better at the game. Without the 9mm pistol to rely on, I was often forced to engage the early creatures in other ways, both through melee and by luring them into traps. I soon found that I preferred this strategy in the first few levels, shifting my focus to the shotgun (which is found early on) rather than the 9mm pistol, and saving the pistol for eventual upgrades to more useful weaponry.

I also started to learn which equipment suited my style. There’s a lot of strategy discussion for Teleglitch to be found online, but opinions vary wildly about what is most effective. Some players love using explosives, which can take out huge groups of enemies when used properly, but I found that I did not care for them. It was too easy to catch myself in the blast, undoing a lot of careful play in an instant. Instead I opted for long-range guns, and even kept some that I didn’t particularly like just because they used a different type of ammo and let me keep my better weapons in reserve. I learned to compensate for unreliable weaponry, which might take a varying number of shots to kill enemies, but could be used in relative safety once I knew the risks. And most importantly, I developed a strategy for tackling each enemy, and tweaked my equipment to match. After enough runs, I knew the levels, the opposition, and my own arsenal well enough that victory, when it came, felt inevitable.

In retrospect, the evolving experience of playing Teleglitch was much like the experience of playing a classic roguelike, albeit accelerated. I found the same satisfaction of overcoming seemingly impossible odds that I felt when I won my first game of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, or when I learned to master its magic systems. But it wasn’t what I was expecting, because in the beginning Teleglitch feels so different. The terror and tension of creeping through its hallways are things that classic, turn-based roguelikes could never achieve. There, the challenge is strictly a mental one, of making the correct decisions based on the situation, knowing when to run and when to fight. But players have as much time as they need to think it over. Telegtlich takes that away, asking that players respond in real time to nasty surprises, of which it is chock full. And since players are not prepared for these when they first start, they panic.

That panic is Teleglitch’s best feature. Everything I discussed above — the camera, the line-of-sight view, the graphical glitches, the sounds — is all designed to induce panic. Even when there’s nothing happening, players will be on edge, because they know that something horrible could happen at any moment. Getting better at Teleglitch is all about overcoming one’s panic, learning to keep cool no matter how terrifying things get. When I managed this, however, I found I missed the panic. Sure, there was satisfaction in besting Teleglitch in the end, but by the time I won, it had been a long time since it had scared me. As in all things, learning how Teleglitch works and how to defeat it is to no longer be afraid of it. And so, while I was pleased with myself when I managed to win, it was also a little anticlimactic.

This is not exactly a criticism. Teleglitch manages to keep things tense for a long time, and for many players that will be enough. The long game is a nice bonus; not every player will find enjoyment in its more systematic challenge, but it’s there for those who (like me) enjoy both kinds of experience. And if you still want more, there are arena challenges as well, which I almost forgot to try. There are quite a few, with three types of objective: kill everything, survive for a set amount of time, or kill specific enemy types (usually within a much larger horde). Each challenge offers a few loadout options for weapons and equipment, and then lets players loose. After painfully parting with each individual bullet in the campaign, it was cathartic to unload full clips of high powered weapons into packs of enemies in these arenas, but when things started to get tough I didn’t feel compelled to finish them all. Those who enjoy arcade-style challenges may spend more time with these.

But the campaign is where Teleglitch shines, and I definitely recommend trying it out. As far as I can tell, it’s only available via Steam, so head there if you’re intrigued. Come for the dread, stay for the learning and mastery. Or don’t, as Teleglitch is perfectly enjoyable without going all the way. Just be sure to visit its derelict research facility at least a few times. You may find that you keep coming back.

The Score:

This one is a bit misleading. The “soundtrack” included in the Guns and Tunes DLC pack for Teleglitch does not feature music that appears in the game. In fact, there’s no music in the game at all, unless you count the short, looping ambient track that accompanies the introductory screen. The soundscape while exploring the facility consists only of ambient sounds; the droning of machinery, buzzing of computer terminals, and the all-important pitter-patter of enemy footsteps that provides vital warnings before attacks. After a few sojourns through the abandoned corridors, I was unable to imagine playing Teleglitch with music, because it would only distract me while I tried to keep my ears pricked for signs of danger.

Instead, the soundtrack includes “five haunting tracks that convey the constant tension of T3P’s chilling game world and complements [sic] the actual in-game ambient soundtrack”, according to the official description. These are untitled original compositions by Mihkel Tael, one of the developers, clocking in at 23 minutes in total. They all fall under the electronica umbrella, but while most evoke the kind of industrial/ambient feel that I expected given the tense sci-fi horror of Teleglitch, I was surprised to find that two of the tracks are full on techno/breakbeat that wouldn’t be too out of place at a ’90s rave. The compositions are nice enough, but I did not find them particularly memorable, and as they are separate from the game itself they lack the strong association with the game that happens with true soundtracks. A nice bonus, but the alternate starting loadouts are the real reason to get the DLC pack.

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