Analyse Pacific Drive

Pacific Drive and the new weird

“There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but … it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”

Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Twin Peaks)

Ironwood Studios has taken a bold approach to its first-ever game, Pacific Drive, fusing two distinct genres to create an innovative experience. At first glance, the game may appear to be a simple driving game, focused on exploring the Pacific Northwest coastline in a station wagon. However, players soon discover that appearances can be deceiving. Beneath its surface, the game embodies the very essence of survival. Set in 1998, players find themselves plunged into the heart of an apocalyptic landscape within the Olympic Exclusion Zone, where the environment grows more hostile by the minute.

A rogue-like game, mixing survival and horror, where your objective is to constantly upgrade your car as you venture into the Zone, which is a surrealist reinterpretation of the Pacific Northwest coast, in search of a way out. You need to maintain your vehicle, repair and refuel it along the way, carry tools to explore abandoned buildings in search of loot, and return to your relatively intact garage before the environment becomes too unstable. Conditions are difficult enough in the Zone, but when stability goes out the window, everything falls apart.

Pacific Drive‘s visual aesthetic, inspired by the illustrations of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, transports us to a world both familiar and strange, where technology meets nature in a surreal way. Stålenhag’s devastated landscapes and futuristic ruins blend harmoniously with the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest, creating a unique atmosphere. But Pacific Drive doesn’t just draw its inspiration from Stålenhag’s visual works; it also borrows narrative elements from a multitude of sources, including the games Subnautica, Outer Wilds and Death Stranding.

Pacific Drive New Weird

The game also seems to be part of the new weird movement, exploring deep, enigmatic themes found in Lovecraft, Jeff VanderMeer and Andrei Tarkovsky. Through its strange landscapes and encounters with mysterious beings, the game invites players to question their perception of reality and explore the boundaries of the imaginary.

Editor’s note: We’ve received a key to the game from Ironwood Studio and Kepler Interactive for PlayStation 5, and we’d like to thank them for their trust!

Country road, take me home…

Pacific Drive marks Ironwood Studios’ video game debut, presenting a blend of driving and survival mechanics that propel players into uncharted territories of the Pacific Northwest. Pacific Drive stands out as one of the most inventive and rewarding survival games of recent years. In this first-person odyssey, players navigate a station wagon through the breathtaking landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, where moments of tranquility are abruptly shattered by surreal encounters. Eccentric scientific experiments have rendered the land unstable, leaving players and their trusty vehicle to navigate the shifting sands of reality.

Upon arrival at the Pacific Drive Olympic Exclusion Zone, players find themselves immediately immersed in a universe teeming with electricity-laden mist, radiation, strange creatures and numerous other anomalies. Armed with a simple, dilapidated station wagon, they embark on a journey guided by the voices of scientists over the radio, tasked with unearthing resources and unraveling the mysteries that envelop the area in order to survive. What sets Pacific Drive apart from traditional survival games is its reliance on the player’s highly customizable car as the main line of defense against the perils lurking in the zone.

In the game, opponents are not conventional enemies armed with guns; rather, they manifest themselves in the form of anomalies capable of triggering a myriad of effects and wreaking havoc on the player, his vehicle and the environment. From testing reflexes and preparation to patience and imagination, these anomalies demand adaptability and ingenuity. Whether faced with the imminent threat of damage to the car or the sudden nudge in an unfavorable direction, each encounter presents a unique challenge that keeps players on their toes. While some anomalies may seem more daunting than others, it’s often gravity itself that poses the greatest threat. Throughout the game’s narrative progression and the constant instability of its environments, the diversity of obstacles ensures that no moment becomes monotonous.

The car’s aesthetics are reminiscent of the DeLorean DMC 12, straight out of Doc Brown’s workshop, juxtaposing futuristic gadgets and worn exteriors. Players become intimately familiar with their vehicle, identifying and addressing its quirks and vulnerabilities amid the chaos of the road as well as the various forests. Although the narrative serves as a backdrop rather than a focal point, optional conversations offer insights into the Zone’s enigmatic history, further enriching the player’s journey.

Pacific Drive New Weird

Pacific Drive takes us on short “journeys” through the Olympic Exclusion Zone, where supernatural phenomena abound. The world’s atmosphere is closely reminiscent of Control, with objects levitating around us and eerie geometric shapes lining the roads. The first missions introduce a simple objective that we must accomplish at each stage: collect energy-filled orbs to create an exit to the garage, our central hub of sorts. Sounds easy enough… if the world itself weren’t out to do us harm.

My first fright comes when I pick up an orb and take it back to my car. All is calm, all seems safe. Until a section of the road lifts up beneath my feet, throwing the orb and me into the air. I’d encountered disturbing images up to that point, from menacing drones to motionless mannequins on the road, but it was this moment that terrified me the most. I can’t trust anything in the Exclusion Zone. Other such moments would follow: my car would be swept away by a strange drone, the electric fog crossing would cause my car to break down, and so on.

The first-person perspective locked in while we drive helps with this. At first, we’re annoyed that we can’t zoom in to see the car in third-person view. We soon realize that Pacific Drive wouldn’t have the same impact from this perspective; the limited view makes the world all the more frightening, the car’s interior all the more suffocating. At one point, I drive over yellow gashes in the road, not knowing what they are. I’m completely caught off guard as I’m propelled through the air, helplessly watching the world go by outside my window. It’s a disorientating moment that leaves me wondering what’s happening to me (it turns out that those yellow gashes are geysers with enough force to send my car flying). There are plenty of scares like this in the early races as we try to understand this unpredictable world through my narrow point of view.

The art of preparing your journey

In terms of gameplay, Pacific Drive also shares some similarities with roguelikes – particularly roguelites – and even Soulslikes. You’ll be taken through a series of random races, using a map to choose your route. With a few exceptions, the junction areas that serve as links in the itinerary vary in layout and conditions with each visit. In addition to mission objectives, the aim is to get as far as you can, collecting as much loot as you can along the way, before triggering a door that will take you safely home. If you die or abandon your run, the loot is lost and your car is further damaged.

This is where the stakes are really set. Longer missions or self-directed races can last an hour or more, and there’s no way to save. As the stakes rise and your car takes damage and depletes its battery and fuel reserves, Pacific Drive can get scary and tense. All sorts of esoteric hazards can crop up along a run: wandering puddles of radiation; networks of glittering pylons jutting out of the ground; falling, scrap-metal-made, possessed creatures that attach themselves to your car, forcing you to get out, rip them off and throw them away. Then finally, hurtling across the map to a portal – a huge pillar of light piercing the ground – before being swallowed up by the unleashed storm. This cavalcade is always a heart-pounding moment to remember.

Les courses pour sortir d'une zone sont proprement dantesques
The races to get out of a zone are truly Dantesque.

Soon, the safe haven of the garage will be a welcoming sight. There, repairs can be made, blueprints unlocked, and dozens of items crafted in the main base, while the game’s music echoes from the jukebox. Ironwood Studios has made the creation, repair and upgrading of Pacific Drive‘s car a playful proposition that’s by no means off-putting. Like Death Stranding‘s evolving environments, there are several zones to traverse between objectives, which can punish players who fail to take care of their car and are unprepared for the unexpected. The areas explored in Pacific Drive are littered with abandoned buildings and decaying vehicles that should be explored for resources that will come in handy later for crafting. Supernatural events can be a marvel to behold or an explosive surprise, which will please players who have packed a spare tire in their trunk.

Death will bring the protagonist back to the garage, but the car will be in tatters, and any valuables collected will be lost. Still, it will be tempting to collect resources until the last possible moment, as waves of radiation begin to encircle the map after a portal has been invoked. A tricky situation a few steps from the portal included an anomaly pulling the almost completely destroyed car in the wrong direction as the tires were about to explode. Health was at a critical level due to the storm, so the last-minute passage through the portal became a satisfying victory; one that it’s easy to imagine for future drivers living and hanging on for another run across the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to useful resources that can upgrade the car to make it more resistant to radiation and electrocution, automotive cosmetics e and audio diaries can be found by exploring the areas. Exquisite writing and voice acting make the world of Pacific Drive feel bizarre, tragic, and sometimes beautiful. Dark humor also helps maintain the game’s atmosphere without collapsing in on itself. Over time, customization options and light cosmetic items can be found and added to the driving experience, so even in the game’s darkest and deadliest moments, an adorable dog with a wobbly noggin will encourage the driver with reassuring nods.

Pacific Drive possesses a uniqueness, a lovingly written feel that is often lacking in the open horizons and survival mentality of games. As much as its setting is influenced by the monumental dystopianism of sci-fi games and the eerie paintings of Simon Stålenhag, it’s also a faded postcard of childhood roadtrips in a heavily laden old jalopy. The car radio plays nostalgic indie rock, and the story is filled with a trio of bickering Zone residents who communicate with you over the radio; they’ve been stuck here for decades and play through your apocalyptic scenario like a comforting audio sitcom. What’s fascinating is to see the game follow in the same footsteps as three other great survival games of recent years, all representing a form of sublime in the face of horror.

The Sublime terror of survival

The Sublime, a concept imbued with awe, reverence and fear, arises when we are confronted with a force so immense and unfathomable that it transcends the limits of human understanding. Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher, conceives the sublime as an encounter between the ego and an overwhelming natural power, evoking both the spectre of annihilation and the resolute affirmation of the self in the midst of chaos.

The sublime can be discovered in a variety of manifestations, such as the limitless horizon observed from a mountaintop, as depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting The Traveler Contemplating a Sea of Clouds, or in the raw, unbridled power of natural phenomena such as storms and mountains. This brings us to a sobering question: can the world of video games, as illustrated by Outer Wilds, evoke this elusive feeling of sublimity in its players?

In the realm of video games, we find ourselves enveloped in virtual worlds meticulously designed by human hands for the consumption of others. At first glance, this digital realm seems diametrically opposed to the natural world where Kant situated the sublime. Here, within the limits of technology, players exercise a circumscribed degree of agency, using digital avatars as extensions of their own bodies and minds to navigate the game world. Curiously, the very structure of a video game aligns with one of Kant’s preconditions for the experience of the sublime: the presence of a distanced observer. In this context, the object itself is not intrinsically sublime, but rather it is the interaction between self and object, and the chasm that separates them, that gives rise to the sublime sensation.

The annals of video game history are replete with moments that elicit both dread and subtle rapture in the observer, as they remain at a safe distance from the virtual perils unfolding before them. Death Stranding‘s immense BT, Prince of Persia‘s relentless Dahaka and A Plague Tale: Innocence‘s harrowing mission, where players must traverse a field littered with corpses, are all examples of this phenomenon. It is in this immersive potential, at the heart of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow – a state in which “a person’s body or mind is pushed to its limits” in a confluence of pleasure and pain – that players can encounter the sublime, provided the game’s creators have shaped their digital world with the necessary precision and care.

The celestial tapestry from Outer Wilds

In Outer Wilds, the purest manifestation of the sublime is undoubtedly the completion of the time loop, heralded by the poignant melody of the end of time. For the uninitiated player, this event proves profoundly disorientating. He or she is faced with a world that offers little comfort, where the implacable forces of nature demand perfection and errors are severely punished.

As the 22-minute mark approaches, the glowing, ever-expanding sun contracts, metamorphosing into a blue hue before bursting into a cataclysmic supernova that annihilates everything in its path. The initial experience of this cosmic demise is sure to elicit an involuntary gasp from the player. Yet, before he can fully comprehend the situation, he wakes up by the campfire. With each repetition, the sense of dread diminishes. Although the time loop ensures that the player never really perishes in Outer Wilds, he is nevertheless forced to accelerate his progress, striving to avoid having to return to the same place in subsequent loops.

Les trous noirs de Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds black holes

This uncontrollable maelstrom of chaos, over which the player has no control, paradoxically evokes a nuanced sense of pleasure. The perpetual threat of failure, repetition and disappearance destabilizes the player, complicating his relationship with the game itself. Repetition is embodied both by the natural phenomenon of the supernova and by the player’s own actions and variations. According to J. Juul, failure and repetition enhance the gaming experience and encourage deeper engagement on the part of the player.

Players are punished when they succumb to various hazards, such as collisions, falls, ravenous anglerfish, broken visors or the inexorable passage of time. In this way, punishment is both a source of pain and pleasure, echoing the essence of the Burkean sublime. All these elements of survival in the face of conditions beyond our control are reminiscent of our experience in Pacific Drive, as well as the diving in Subnautica.

Confronting thalassophobia in Subnautica

Subnautica is an open-world survival game where the player explores a vast expanse of water on an alien planet. There, he’ll have to scour the waters in search of a way off the planet, encountering all manner of alien life forms as he accomplishes his mission. Although Subnautica titles are not explicitly horror games, many in the community consider them to be. In fact, Subnautica games are hailed as some of the most terrifying titles of recent years, and there are good reasons for this. Although the games are primarily marketed as an underwater exploration experience, this one is packed with horror elements that make for a terrifying time.

These are non-horrific games with plenty of scary aspects – the most instantly recognizable being the leviathans that prowl the most dangerous sections of the map. Although there are plenty of hostile animals swimming in the vast ocean, nothing comes close to the magnitude of Subnautica‘s leviathan-class creatures. As soon as a player leaves the shallow areas of the map to plunge into the abyss, there’s a sense of dread accompanied by the persistent thought of imminent leviathan attacks. Of course, this apprehension quickly disappears once the player becomes familiar with each location on the map. But there are many other elements that contribute to Subnautica‘s unsettling experience. In the original game, there was a predominant sense of solitude. The player is stranded alone on an alien planet, and soon discovers that all his companions are dead. It’s a slow, creeping dread, especially considering there’s no one else to help in the player’s quest.

Le Leviathan de Subnautica
The Leviathan of Subnautica

Another aspect that adds to the horror is the general feeling of being overwhelmed – literally and figuratively. While many of Subnautica‘s environments are vivid and beautiful, they don’t make the player feel welcome. The games’ deeper biomes are difficult to navigate, even when the player has the tools to do so, due to narrow cave systems or menacing leviathans.It’s even worse when the player arrives in a new biome for the first time, as this comes with the anxiety of having to figure out what to avoid. All this leads to feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by the tasks at hand. That said, perhaps the most terrifying horror element in these games is the omnipresent darkness. Darkness envelops the player as he descends into the depths of the ocean, and even his flashlights do little to illuminate what lies ahead. Bioluminescent flora and fauna offer a little help, but not enough to ward off discomfort. This enveloping darkness accentuates the fear factor, plunging the player into an environment he can’t fully comprehend. It also makes him all the more vulnerable to a leviathan attack.

Subnautica thus fits perfectly into the notion of sublimated terror. The immensity and grandeur of the alien ocean evoke a terrifying and awe-inspiring experience for the player, arousing emotions of awe, fear and admiration in the face of nature’s power and immensity. As in Outer Wilds, where the exploration of the unknown universe engenders humility and a sense of wonder in the face of cosmic mystery, Subnautica plunges the player into the depths of the unknown ocean, where beauty and horror mingle to create a captivating experience.

The influence of Subnautica on Pacific Drive is palpable, not least in the way both games explore themes of survival in hostile, unfamiliar environments. Like Subnautica, Pacific Drive emphasizes exploration and resource management to survive in an unpredictable and dangerous world. The elements of horror and oppression encountered in Subnautica are also found in Pacific Drive, where players must face mortal dangers and environments that test their courage and ingenuity.

Sublimate the hike

In Death Stranding, the sublime is omnipresent, manifesting itself through the devastated immensity of the landscape, the titanic challenges faced by Sam Bridges, and the feelings of terror and wonder aroused by the unknown. As Kant describes it, the sublime is an aesthetic experience that surpasses our ability to fully comprehend it, confronting us with forces and phenomena beyond our comprehension.

A striking example of the sublime in Death Stranding is the need to traverse desolate and dangerous territories to connect the various points of the country. The vast stretches of devastated landscape, where every step is a challenge and every moment is filled with tension, inspire both admiration and terror. The descriptions of protagonist Sam’s long, lonely journeys across this hostile terrain evoke feelings of grandeur and vertigo in the face of the immensity of this ravaged world.

The supernatural phenomena that populate the world of Death Stranding are the result of the devastating event at the heart of the game, “death stranding”, the origin of which remains irremediably beyond our grasp. As with the climate crisis, we can only really perceive its effects, notably the worldwide manifestation of “chiralium”, a substance that permeates both air and bedrock, and fuels the “chiral network” that Sam is establishing. Chiralium also causes acid rain, the proliferation of hostile BTs, and powers the marvelous technologies that allow humanity to survive. In the game, it is described in terms comparable to “antimatter”, but the substance also resembles another vital cosmic element: carbon.

Les BT de Death Stranding marquent l'esprit
Death Stranding‘s BTs leave a lasting impression

Chiralium appears in its most frightening and thrilling form during encounters with BTs. After failing to avoid the menacingly hanging ghosts, an oily substance invades my screen. Rough bodies drag me toward its tarry black center and I’m hurled hundreds of meters toward the “Catcher”, a Lovecraftian-inspired lion with tentacles flailing where its mane should be. More viscous black matter spills onto my TV, crushing trees, moss and anything else it touches. Dilapidated apartment buildings emerge from the dark substance like an eerie reminiscence of Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi thriller New York 2140, whose future Manhattan is flooded by violent rising waters. The supernatural animal is bombarded with a stream of grenades and bullets made from Sam’s own blood until it finally collapses into a shapeless heap and transforms into a mountain of crystallized chiralium, a precious golden resource. The dark matter drains away and a sudden calm pervades the world, except for the thousands of dead fish that lie upturned on the ground: shocking, motionless and strangely silent.

While not all of Kojima’s America is out to kill us, much of it is certainly mission-ending, which is the same thing in video games. The substance of the game comes from traversing its beautifully rendered environments, from towering mountains to soft grassy plains and trickling rivers, in a gameplay loop that is, like Tarkovsky’s “slow cinema”, pleasantly relaxing. Winding through the terrain, rearranging Sam’s weight and solving routes becomes an exercise in meditative mindfulness.

Pacific Drive also explores the theme of the sublime through its mysterious and dangerous world. As in Death Stranding, the vast expanses of wilderness and encounters with supernatural phenomena evoke feelings of terror and wonder. The unpredictable dangers and deadly obstacles encountered by players as they explore the world of Pacific Drive also reinforce the experience of the sublime, confronting them with forces beyond their comprehension and control. All this is magnified by the game’s geographical location. Where Hideo Kojima drew inspiration from Iceland for his vision of the United States, Ironwood Studio chose to base its adventure in the Pacific Northwest.

The weirdness of the Pacific Northwest

There’s something magical about the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Perhaps it’s the geography that inspires the region’s legends: towering trees, mountains and icy waters seem like the perfect place for a fantastical creature to hide.

Stories about this region have been told for centuries. Native American mythology links the land to powerful beings, such as the thunderbird. In recent years, people have been swapping tales of sasquatch, the gentle (or not so gentle) giant who wanders remote areas. Some of these Pacific Northwest mythologies were first told to explain the workings of the natural world; others seem to exist simply to entertain. But they all offer a thoughtful new perspective on a corner of the United States often perceived as remote and isolated, and one that served as the setting for a monument to modern culture that continues to influence writers: Twin Peaks.

For more than half the year in the Pacific Northwest, you live in darkness. Located farther north than Toronto, Montreal or Maine, Washington State sees the sun disappear below the horizon just after 4 p.m., before the longest night of the year. 62% of days are gray and overcast, with thick layers of clouds and fog. While Los Angeles and New York City can be the dark epicenters of crime dramas and American film noir, it makes sense to turn to the Pacific Northwest when you want to find monsters.

Pacific Drive New Weird

34 years ago, director David Lynch did just that. Although the town of Twin Peaks is described as being “five miles south of the Canadian border, twelve miles west of the state line” – placing it somewhere in Pend Oreille County, Washington – the TV series features a confusing mix of geographies, including the Puget Sound region and the forests surrounding Los Angeles.

But where it lacks cartographic precision, Twin Peaks makes up for it in its use of the general, pervasive darkness of the Pacific Northwest. This is not a version of small-town America that might exist in the South or Midwest. With its kitschy art, mossy trailer parks and towering waterfall, Lynch has created a town that doesn’t need to look deep into the darkness between Douglas firs to see something looking back. The Pacific Northwest fosters its own real-life nightmares, from its seemingly disproportionate number of serial killers to mysteriously dismembered human feet washing up on its shores, to myths about Bigfoot and UFOs on Mount Rainier. But Lynch’s adherence to surrealism makes this region more than just a picturesque backdrop; its surprising, unrelenting darkness is also a representation of his characters’ psyches. By returning to the Pacific Northwest, Lynch takes his fans back to a place beyond the reach of modern society, a place you could still visit yourself if you had to book a plane to Seattle and then drive 30 or 40 miles east. A place with lonely mountain roads, logging trucks and deep spruce forests, a place where everyone seems to know everyone and a stuffed fox still counts as chic decor. A place where you get that penetrating, gnawing feeling that there’s something out there that’s bigger than you, older than you, watching.

Pacific Drive New Weird

Pacific Drive is firmly rooted in the mysterious aesthetics of the Pacific Northwest, just like the iconic Twin Peaks. The vast forests, majestic mountains and impenetrable waters of this region provide the backdrop for the game’s immersive experience. Just as Twin Peaks takes advantage of the region’s persistent darkness, Pacific Drive skilfully exploits its atmosphere to immerse players in a suspenseful adventure. The mysterious elements of the Pacific Northwest, such as Native American legends and tales of Bigfoot, are echoed in the strange and surreal encounters players experience as they explore Pacific Drive‘s Olympic exclusion zone. Just as Twin Peaks creates an atmosphere of mystery by juxtaposing familiar elements with inexplicable events, Pacific Drive plunges players into a world where moments of tranquility are abruptly interrupted by supernatural encounters and strange phenomena.

Returning to the aesthetics of the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Drive captures the sense of solitude and grandeur inherent in this region. The vast wilderness and isolated roads reinforce players’ sense of solitude and vulnerability, while offering breathtaking landscapes to explore. Like Twin Peaks, which uses the natural setting to amplify the sense of disquiet and strangeness, Pacific Drive makes intelligent use of its environment to create an immersive and memorable experience. Ironwood Studio’s game even goes a step further graphically to make us feel a sense of nostalgia for this area, incorporating an aesthetic close to the work of Simon Stålenhag.

A dystopian world reminiscent of Simon Stålenhag

I’ve never been to Sweden; in fact, I grew up in the south of France, which in terms of climate is the exact opposite. And yet, this artist’s illustrations have always spoken to me. They resonate with something in me, a kind of nostalgia for an era I never lived through, yet know by heart.

Stålenhag’s entire body of work straddles the boundary between large-scale natural landscapes and science fiction, two subjects that are often at odds with each other. One feels a kind of nostalgia, sometimes even melancholy, when observing them. For here, we’re far from a world at war or a cyberpunk city like Blade Runner. No, here time almost seems to have stopped at a moment that never existed. But I know this moment, because it’s the sum total of my childhood. There are many things that speak to me when I look at this artist’s work: the silence that pervades the plains where old, out-of-use robots take pride of place, the sense of quietude when you look at some of these inert machines, the stupefaction I feel when faced with the use of technology.

Illustration issue de Labyrinth de Simon Stålenhag
Illustration from Labyrinth of Simon Stålenhag

These are illustrations that seem to have always belonged to our culture, to science fiction, giving the impression that they’ve always been there. But that’s not all Simon Stålenhag’s talent, for the stories he writes are even more exciting, even more striking. His paintings are a strange, compelling mix of mundane scenes from the Swedish countryside and haunting scenarios involving abandoned robots, mysterious machines and even dinosaurs. They are the fruit of his childhood memories – he grew up on the outskirts of Stockholm and painted landscapes and wild animals – and his taste for science fiction in adulthood. His art is currently spread over four narrative artbooks, each one crazier than the last.

Tales from the Loop, the first, begins with an explanation of the Loop, a fictitious experimental particle gas pedal built deep underground in Sweden, producing all manner of derivative technologies.

“Our parents worked there. Riksenergi service vehicles patrolled the roads and skies. Strange machines roamed the woods, clearings and meadows. Whatever forces reigned in the depths, they sent vibrations through bedrock, flint bricks and Eternit facades, and into our living rooms.”

The book is set in the 1950s, yet the technologies are from an entirely different era. Everyday images of a father and son, a group of friends or a man carrying his groceries home are counterbalanced by the looming vision of futuristic machines, creating a strange contrast. The initial appeal of Stålenhag’s works lies in his use of light. In each of his works, the landscape is bathed in a pastel pink, orange or blue, which blends into the environment. Usually, this is further exacerbated by mist and shadow. Whatever the time of day, his paintings always have an air of twilight.

Illustration issue de Labyrinth de Simon Stålenhag
Illustration from Labyrinth of Simon Stålenhag

There’s something unsettling about it. It’s the strange light of early morning, or the last sliver of sunlight in late afternoon, just before darkness sets in. It hints at something beyond our vision and beyond our realm of understanding. And that’s what Stålenhag aims to do: broaden the way we see the world around us. Looking at the Swedish painter’s works, we are confronted with the beauty of nature and, at the same time, the imposition, the interruption of nature by technology. Many retro-futuristic machines lie broken and ruined, dotting the landscape, interrupting the natural flow of hills and valleys as well as the flow of sunlight itself. There’s a constant reminder in his work that technology marks the landscape, brutalizes forests and trees, marks hills and valleys. It causes pain.

Stålenhag painted his works after the fall of the Soviet Union. The inspiration is revealing, drawing on the failed scientific experiments of the Cold War, and imagining how they might have changed our daily lives. His images show a hypothetical future that we might have experienced if things had gone a little differently. By showing us the future within the past, Stålenhag confronts us with our future.

It raises some big questions. What does it mean when technology interferes in our lives? Can technology die? And what can we build from the rubble? His work gives us some fundamental lessons. We don’t need to have everything at our fingertips to be happy. We can still exist and thrive in the ruins of our collective past. Indeed, it’s our connection with other people that can sustain us, even in an uncertain future where science fiction becomes reality.

Pacific Drive New Weird

Visually, the landscapes of Pacific Drive evoke the works of Stålenhag in their use of light and color to create an ethereal, almost unreal atmosphere. As in Stålenhag’s paintings, Pacific Drive‘s environments are often bathed in pastel tones, creating a mood that is both familiar and eerie. The landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, with their dense forests, majestic mountains and winding waterways, recall the natural settings of Sweden often found in Stålenhag’s work.

Philosophically, Pacific Drive also seems to draw on Stålenhag’s concerns about the impact of technology on society and the environment. Like the artist’s paintings, which often depict ruined retro-futuristic machines in natural landscapes, Pacific Drive explores themes of ruin and abandonment through its post-apocalyptic universe. The game highlights the dangers of over-exploitation of natural resources and the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled scientific engineering, themes that resonate with the environmental concerns present in Stålenhag’s work, as well as in the work of artists such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Jeff VanderMeer.

A game influenced by Jeff VanderMeer and Andrei Tarkovsky

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi classic Stalker, three individuals embark on an expedition into an enigmatic space called the Zone. Their journey begins in a small town dominated by a huge power plant, depicted in appropriately monochrome tones. “The world is governed by rigid laws, and it’s unbearably boring,” remarks one of the companions before their excursion. As they venture into the restricted territory, these rules begin to metamorphose before their eyes, accompanied by a transition to vibrant colors and lush, overgrown vegetation. Initially, these changes seem minor and nuanced. “The flowers bloom again, but strangely, they lack fragrance,” observes the Guide who leads the Writer and the Professor through this singular, dilapidated realm. Deeper into the Zone, time warps into unexpected shapes, while space folds illogically, leaving the explorers both bewildered and amazed.

Tarkovsky, adapting Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, has fashioned a Zone where possibilities literally stretch, allowing contemplation of slippery concepts such as faith, guilt and desire. His construction offers two potential origins for the elusive region: a meteorite or extraterrestrial beings from the “cosmic void”. However, the true genesis is unimportant; the Zone serves as a conduit for the fears, anxieties and aspirations of its visitors. Other similar constructions with similarly obscure beginnings have emerged, such as the immaculate Zone in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and Alex Garland’s later 2018 adaptation Annihilation. In these works, ecological beauty and horror coexist, while time and space take on psychedelic qualities, posing fundamental questions about the essence of existence itself for their own group of travelers. Darker still is HBO’s recent Chernobyl, where the entirely man-made Zone is the result of the 1986 nuclear disaster, but its tragic narrative pulsates with the vitality of equally shattered truths. In its cataclysmic moment, comprehensible physics, not to mention the flesh of its victims, disintegrates, tearing at the very fabric of reality.


Apart from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, no film has ever pushed the boundaries of the science-fiction genre as far as Stalker. And of these three films, Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophical labyrinth is by far the one that has given rise to the greatest number of interpretations and in-depth analyses, often subject to dubious conjecture, that have attempted to open the file in vain.

Throughout his illustrious career, the Russian director repeatedly wrestled with his metaphysical angst, leaving us with a series of contemplative masterpieces that favored silent introspection over conventional storytelling, and that still resonate today. Like the rest of his work, Stalker is a hypnotic dystopian tale that looks straight into the abyss and plunges into the depths of the human psyche; a film that evokes intellectual art and perhaps impenetrable understanding too. From a religious parable to an anti-Soviet manifesto, the film is still open to new interpretations more than four decades after its release, and is best understood if seen through the prism of Tarkovsky’s spiritual malaise.

It’s not the kind of film you can grasp in a single viewing, and it doesn’t even seem to be the kind you could conquer after five. The characters at the center of the film endlessly discuss a range of philosophical ideas. Faith, hope and ambition are just some of the ideas Tarkovsky addresses here, but the idea of purpose seems to be the most obvious. For much of the film, we wonder why the Stalker, the Writer and the Professor undertake this journey into the Zone. For a while, they’re not even sure of each other’s purposes for crossing the Zone until they start exploring it. These ideas are explored in long monologues and conversations that can easily overwhelm you if you’re not in the right frame of mind to understand them. That said, if you are, you’ll find a film that unravels endlessly.

Since its release, Stalker has become one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time, its impact felt in diverse art forms. Tarkovsky’s work resonates deeply in the filmographies of directors such as Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, while being undeniably inspiring for Alejandro González Iñárritu, and even Akira Kurosawa. The world of literature sees Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy echo Tarkovsky’s film in more ways than you can count.

Like Stalker, Pacific Drive offers an immersive exploration of a mysterious and inhospitable territory, where characters are confronted with strange phenomena and existential challenges. The heavy atmosphere and psychological tension present in Tarkovsky’s film are also present in the game, where players must navigate through dangerous and unpredictable environments, confronted by both physical and psychological threats. On the other hand, the influence of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is evident in the way Pacific Drive explores themes of nature, technology and otherness. As in VanderMeer’s novels, the game features a strange, ever-changing natural environment, where the boundary between the real and the supernatural is blurred. And, like the characters in VanderMeer’s books, Pacific Drive players are confronted with inexplicable phenomena and forces beyond their control, forcing them to question their understanding of reality.

Ironwood Studio’s game is clearly part of the new weird movement, a sub-genre of speculative fiction literature that blends elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror with a surreal aesthetic and an exploration of existential themes. Like the works of this current, the game offers an immersive experience that invites players to push back the boundaries of their understanding of the world and their place in it.

Child of the new weird

The New Weird is a sub-genre of speculative fiction that challenges the romantic ideas of place found in traditional fantasy, often choosing complex, realistic real-world models as a starting point for the creation of settings that may combine elements of science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for tone, style and effect, combined with the stimulating influence of New Wave writers. New Weird fiction is deeply aware of the modern world, even if it sometimes disguises itself, but it is not always explicitly political. Within this awareness of the modern world, the New Weird relies for its visionary power on a submission to the uncanny that is not, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica.

In the 19th century, literary critics began to use the word “weird” widely to sum up unusual works of genre fiction. The libraries of Edgar Allan Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as classics such as Dracula and Tales of Wonder, rightly earned the term. In the early 20th century, authors began to consider “weird” an appropriate term of art. The iconic pulp magazine Weird Tales, under the editorial direction of Farnsworth Wright, began using “weird fiction” as its unique genre category. Weird Tales is best known for publishing many early works by H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. Lovecraft in particular popularized weird fiction and went on to become one of the most influential writers of the last century. It took some 70 years for authors to give the concept a second chance. The term New Weird was coined by John Harrison in 2002, in the preface he wrote to China Miéville’s The Tain.


Jeff VanderMeer is one of the central figures of the New Weird movement. His 2014 novel Annihilation imagines a mysterious area of swamp and coastline that continually produces incredible phenomena. Its sequels, Authority and Acceptance, introduce the Southern Reach, a government organization tackling the extradimensional threat. The Southern Reach trilogy is an excellent example of New Weird, mixing the profoundly absurd with the intensely bureaucratic. The loose film adaptation captures many aspects of the novel’s unique genre flow. The Southern Reach trilogy stands out among New Weird stories, sacrificing some of Miéville’s biological variety for Lovecraftian architecture and existential angst. VanderMeer has been a great spokesman for the New Weird, editing several anthologies that demonstrate the depth of the sub-genre.

Through his figures of strange and captivating non-human characters, Jeff VanderMeer points out what most of us have forgotten: our links with other-than-human things and beings. His fiction shows that they are not only around us, but also within us. Non-humans are everywhere – in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, those words you read and any device you use to do so. Not to mention that 90% of the cells in a human body are bacteria and contain non-human DNA, making us… more non-human than human. VanderMeer’s novels open our eyes to a planet decimated by humanity. At the same time, they insist that all is not lost – there is so much to save. To convince readers of the urgency and importance of conserving what remains, the texts highlight our inevitable links with non-humans. They decentralize the human by alerting us to the wonders and miracles of our planet, whose surface we are only just scratching. More importantly, our planet has the power to annihilate us if it so chooses.

The humanities in general, and VanderMeer’s New Weird fiction in particular, can ask questions that the sciences cannot. They can offer a different perspective, an alternative future – they can appeal to emotions, change attitudes and mobilize individuals and collectives to act in response to climate change.

Pacific Drive New Weird
Some passages are reminiscent of Control

The concept of a government organization charged with monitoring things that have no place in this reality is common in the New Weird. Many stories from the famous SCP Wiki fit the New Weird label. Remedy’s outstanding 2019 video game, Control, was inspired by the SCP Foundation to create an in-depth exploration of the New Weird concept. Control takes place in The Oldest House, a seemingly endless skyscraper that houses the Federal Bureau of Control. The FBC governs incursions from another reality, often involving dangerous objects and mysterious phenomena. The structure of a video game limits the textual strangeness of the work, but Control perfectly captures its atmosphere. Its brutalist architecture, bizarre Objects of Power, offbeat narrative style and constant shifts in tone make it too unique to be anything other than New Weird.

Pacific Drive is a product of this trend, drawing its inspiration from a rich array of literary and cinematic influences, traces of which can be discerned in stories ranging from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to the transgressive work of Jeff VanderMeer and the aesthetics of Simon Stålenhag. The game succeeds marvelously in digesting its influences in its survival gameplay, and in many respects sits comfortably alongside games such as Subnautica, Outer Wilds and Death Stranding.

The game is part of the new weird, exploring themes of human connection with the natural and supernatural world. As in the works of Jeff VanderMeer, the game invites players to reflect on their place in a changing world, where the boundaries between the human and the non-human blur to reveal a reality larger and more complex than the one we perceive. The oddities encountered in the devastated landscapes of Pacific Drive, invaded by strange creatures and inexplicable phenomena, evoke the themes of ecology and the anthropocene explored in the novels of the Southern Reach trilogy.


The Romantic Sublime in Subnautica and The Long Dark

The World According to Simon Stålenhag

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