I’m nine layers beneath the island and close to starving to death. I can’t see anything but pitch black beyond the ring of light from my torch. I can always backtrack, find a campfire where I can rest and get my resources back, but I don’t want to – the teasing mystery of what the next level down holds is too strong.
I’m in a bit of a pickle. If I’m not going to turn back, I need to find food, but most plantlife and wildlife don’t dare go past layer four. I know of one way to get a meal, but it’s risky. I can see small frog-like creatures faintly glowing like ghosts in the dark, keeping their distance, scared by the light of my torch.
If I snuff out my light I can easily chase and kill one, but then I might just as easily step on a deviously hidden trap, or fall prey to the many other creatures further up the food chain than me. With the threat of permadeath in mind, and my desperation to explore further – the depths almost calling to me – I quench my torch and let the darkness swallow me.
Below is a textless roguelike that has you explore the layers beneath a mysterious island. The labyrinth of subterranean caves under the surface are shrouded in darkness and covered in a dense fog. Your adventurer is tiny, too, which makes the gloom seem all the more engulfing. But with your lamp and crafted torches you can slowly navigate the interconnected caverns, and continue down into the treacherous depths.
The ecosystem in the top layers includes creatures that have blood red crystals glowing in their bodies. Beyond that light, nasty cave dwelling creatures lurk, and there are deadly traps and killing devices that can be easily set off unless you’re looking out for them. Below teaches you to manage your patience and watch your step in the weak glow of its introductory layers. You learn to be constantly looking ahead into the darkness for any clues or indications of danger – the blades from traps glistening from your torch light. Without a light source, though, you’ll struggle.
You have a lamp to light your way but it’s fuelled by crystals that get rarer the further down you go. The lamp is integral to the vitality of your adventure and ability to unlock areas but it stays with your body when you die. So if you’re devoured at any point, you have to make your way back through the dark labyrinths in order to retrieve it.
This becomes increasingly difficult as, further down, there are no more trickles of light, and food resources become scarce. You’ll even reach a point where you can’t see anything at all; just darkness waiting to swallow you up. If your lantern runs out of fuel or your torches have all burnt out then you’re in that darkness completely. This is the point that I find myself in layer nine, embracing the dark without much hope, only a faint hint of the structures around me as guidance. The deeper I go, the more Below’s mysteries seem to multiply, and the creatures only get weirder.
What I find in the darkness makes my hair bristle. Pink fleshy creatures run at me on all fours, howling from the black, and then further down they seem to evolve, standing on two feet. Later they even wield weapons. These humanoid creatures pose many unsettling questions about the island. Are they actually humans who were driven crazy by the darkness? You develop a curiosity about what other bizarre creatures have made the darkness their home, and how they come to exist there in the first place.
Below is very playful with its use of darkness. At first it beckons you, the tension and mystery pulling you into it, helped along by Jim Guthrie’s mesmerising soundtrack. The music makes it feel like something is pulsating beneath the earth – creating less a sense of dread and more a feeling of wonder and awe.
I’ve not reached the bottom of the island yet. I’ve let my curiosity get the better of me, dying so many times and often not knowing what killed me, but death never feels unfair. It does reinforce that I’m an outsider of this underworld, though – an explorer wanting to know the mysteries of this desolate island. My discoveries are sometimes unexplainable but always alluring so that, even in death, I’m keen to keep going downwards. I need to know what lies at the bottom. The island’s mysteries loom in the shadows until the very end, waiting to be illuminated.